What is good mental health? We are all more or less mentally healthy, and this usually varies through our lives especially as we deal with difficult life events, change and so on. Whether we call this psychological wellbeing, happiness, contentment, positive mindset, all these terms relate to good mental health.
With our physical health, it’s part of our everyday discourse to be aspirational. We want to feel physically fit, energetic, strong, balanced in our weight, eating a healthy diet, supple, resilient and not prone to minor ailments emaemj.org. Sure we complain about our problems, and talk about how we can’t do all the things we know we ought to do. We know it’s not easy to stay physically healthy without working at it, especially if we’ve experienced health problems. We know that even if we reach the peak of physical fitness, we can’t maintain this for the rest of our lives without paying attention to it.
Research tells us that good mental health is even more beneficial than good physical health. A positive mental outlook increases the rate and speed of recovery from serious, even life threatening, illness. Psychological resilience and wellbeing gives people the strength to turn problems into challenges into triumphs.
Yet whenever I ask a group of people to tell me what words come into mind in relation to ‘mental health’, their responses are about mental ill-health! It’s as if the term has been hi-jacked to become totally problem-focused.
In the meantime, we’re experiencing an epidemic of mental ill-health. About 1 in 4 people are experiencing some form of common mental health problem such as depression, anxiety and various stress related symptoms. GP surgeries are overwhelmed with such problems, mental health services are only able to provide support for the 1% of the population with much more severe mental health difficulties, and there’s a plethora of largely unregulated services, treatments and remedies out on the private market. A recent research study showed that the majority of long term sickness absence from work resulted from stress related conditions.
The trouble with focusing on the problems and the pain, is that that’s what we become experts in. We’re looking for cures and treatments to fix the problem, instead of focusing on what makes for good mental health. We know that physical health is multi-dimensional – no-one imagines that pumping iron to build your muscles is a recipe for overall physical health, although it will certainly make you stronger for certain activities.
Over the last 20 years, we have seen the emergence of a major trend in North America: employee health and wellness are suffering. In Canada and the United States, there have been alarming increases of hypertension, diabetes and obesity. Between 1994 and 2005, the rates of arterial hypertension among Canadians increased by 77%, diabetes by 45% and obesity by 18%, affecting people of every age. Even more concerning is that hypertension rates among Canadians aged 35 to 49 rose 127% during the same period, and almost doubled among young people over the last 15 years (CBC News). The long-term effects of these issues will be dire; for the first time in decades, life expectancy has decreased in the United States, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in December 2010.
Health care costs increasing
For employers, these factors should be worrisome, since research shows that employee health directly impacts work behaviour, attendance, on-the-job performance and, of course, health care costs. According to the 2010 Health Care Cost Survey by Towers Watson, employers are now paying 28% more for healthcare than they did just five years ago, and employees are paying 40% more.
A serious challenge faced by businesses today is a high turnover of qualified, motivated and loyal workers. Many employers are failing to support and sustain their best people and create trusting relationships with their employees. The evidence: according to a report by TLNT, 74% of workers are passive job seekers ready to consider a move. In today’s competitive markets, employers must find new ways to attract and retain the best and brightest talent. One way to do this is to offer employees an environment that promotes healthy and active lifestyles.
Root of the problem
“Seventy-five percent of health care costs result from unhealthy lifestyles,” writes Barbara Schaefer, senior vice-president, human resources for Union Pacific Corporation, in her article, “Long Train Running”. In health matters, factors such as smoking, physical inactivity and poor eating habits are responsible for the vast majority of health risks and their associated costs.
There is good news for employers, however. These leading causes of illness are largely preventable. A 2007 study of more than 200,000 employees, conducted by the University of Michigan, determined that 61% of employees have two or less health risks, 28% have a moderate risk (three to four risk factors) and only 11% have an elevated risk (five or more health risk factors). The study determined that reducing health risk factors could save an employer US$354 per employee, per year, for an organization of 1,973 employees. These are savings that can add up quickly.
High performance companies: health and wellness leaders
Businesses today are left with no choice but to create a healthy workplace culture if they want employees to perform to their best potential. High performance companies such as SAS, Wegmans Food Markets and Google have understood the profound connection between employee health, productivity and insurance costs. According to a report by the SHRM Foundation, “more than 75% of high-performing companies regularly measure health and wellness as a viable component of their overall risk management strategy.” A survey conducted by Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health “found that 83% of companies have already revamped or expect to revamp their health care strategy within the next two years, up from 59% in 2009. This year, more employers (66%) plan to offer incentives for employees to complete a health risk appraisal, up from 61% in 2009. Also, 56% of employers now offer health coaches and 26% now offer on-site health centres.”