An overview of Irish demographics tells us that the average age of Ireland’s population will increase significantly over the next 20 years (by as much as 85%). It is projected to be the fastest increase in Europe. Add to this the projected upturn of 40% in the incidence of chronic disease between 2007 and 2020 (cancer is now categorised as a chronic disease). This will result in increasing healthcare costs and significant impacts not just on the healthcare systems but also for our health in general.
Before we venture in to why wellness is so important, we should at least reflect on the meaning of wellness. As you can imagine, it isn’t an easy concept to define. The word is used in our everyday language with the assumption that everyone knows what it means. The WHO (World Health Organisation) defines wellness as: “an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life. Wellness is more than being free from illness, it is a dynamic process of change and growth...a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
The concept of wellness isn’t just hard to define, there are also many pillars associated with it which makes it difficult when it comes to initiating a programme to promote it. If you search for wellness on the internet, results will show you certain institutions highlight that wellness encompasses at least four pillars and some even extend this to eight pillars. When you dive deeper into the subject you will find an overlap between physical, nutritional, emotional, environmental, social, spiritual and financial pillars. I am not going to touch on every area of wellness but will explain the pillars which will impact us the most.
When we talk about physical wellness, I’m quite sure the first thing that pops into your mind is exercise. Regular physical activity is a very important area that we cannot ignore, however our body needs more than movement alone. Sleep, hygiene and of course nutrition are all part of physical wellness.
While nutrition is tied to physical wellness, it is such an important area that it is also a pillar in its own right. Nutritional requirements are based on age, gender, activity level and body chemistry; strengthening this pillar requires careful attention to one’s diet. Based on research we know that nutritional improvements will help strengthen the other pillars of holistic health and wellness.
The final wellness pillar that impacts us the most is emotional wellness. This encompasses the ability to navigate feelings, by identifying, assessing and effectively sharing those feelings with others. We all have ups and downs in life which most of the time whisk us through an emotional journey. The better you understand and manage your feelings, the smoother the journey will be. By opening up and navigating your feelings, you actually improve your social wellness. Sharing true feelings helps us connect with others and form positive relationships.
Social relationships create support systems that can carry us through life’s struggles. Harvard’s Study of Adult Development ran for 80 years, collecting data on hundreds of participants. A recent study on a subset of this population—surviving octogenarians—investigated the connections between marital satisfaction, social lives, and happiness. Researchers found that participants who spent more time with others reported greater levels of happiness. When the demands of life increase and stress mounts, the ability to turn to someone for support and understanding is powerful.
So now back to the question of “Why Is Wellness So Important?” Understanding the explanations of the pillars of wellness above is one thing; practicing them is a completely different story. Considering how much time we spend at work, it’s not surprising that workplace environments and culture can negatively impact our physical and mental well-being however it’s also worth bearing in mind that work is actually good for our health. It provides employees with self-esteem, social inclusion and financial reward.
Research consistently shows that when employees feel their work is meaningful and they are valued and supported, they tend to have higher wellbeing levels, be more committed to an organisation’s goals and, crucially, they perform better also. It is therefore imperative that employers implement pro-active measures to promote physical and psychological well-being amongst their employees.
Wellness programmes or initiatives are created or organised to embrace the above pillars and to promote physical and psychological well-being at the workplace. In the past, wellness programmes may have been seen as something that was nice to offer employees. Now many companies understand that health and wellness is a strategic imperative for their business that helps them take a dent out of rising health care costs. These programmes assist employers in resolving health-related productivity and performance issues, and ultimately save the organisation money.
Direct healthcare costs are relatively easy for employers to identify; however, many organisations don’t realise the impact that indirect costs have on their workplace. Things such as sick days and the effect of presenteeism—the cost of employees who are on the job, but not fully working due to illness and medical conditions—can be sizeable and harder for small businesses to absorb. In fact, one study of 50,000 workers from 10 different employers showed that lost productivity costs related to absenteeism and presenteeism were 2.3 times higher than medical and pharmacy costs. A Rand study published in 2014, Do Workplace Wellness Programs Save Employers Money examined 10 years of data from a Fortune 100 employer’s wellness programme. When compared against the lifestyle-management component, disease management delivered 86% of the hard health care cost savings, generating US$136 in savings per member, per month and a 30% reduction in hospital admissions.
At-risk employees suffer from factors like obesity, blood pressure, diabetes, and depression, which can lead to costly (and avoidable) health claims. At-risk people should be identified through personal health assessments and biometric testing, and encouraged —not coerced — to participate in personalised care-management programmes to minimise their chances of becoming chronically ill.
So, despite the fact there are many wellness programmes organised in workplaces, engagement rates are often poor. Do employees simply not care about their health and wellbeing? That’s unlikely, but perhaps they are hoping for a ‘quick fix’ and don’t see the long term benefits of investing in their wellness over time?
To address this, the basic goal of a workplace wellness programme should always be to promote the lifelong benefits of long term thinking and investment in wellness by both employees AND employers.
Author Bio: Dr. Ui May Tan (MICGP MB BCh BAO LRCPI APA) is the Health and Wellbeing Clinical Lead at VHI where she provides integrated wellness programmes to corporate companies to ensure employee health and welfare. She is also the Medical Director for the Dublin Marathon and provides medical support for the Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon. She is an executive board member of the International Institute of Race Medicine (IIRM), a clinical governance body providing medical guidelines for treatment protocols in race medicine.
Yours in health,
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