The workplace is a very important social determinant of health. And with health, I am not just referring to the medical aspects. This is where we normally get stuck when thinking of health and wellbeing. We need to view health as a complex adaptive system that integrates physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. The key is to understand the relationships between the elements in the system and use that knowledge to find leverage points to influence outcomes.
What often gets neglected in companies’ wellness initiatives is emotional or spiritual health. With this I’m referring to one’s larger life purpose.
Why is having a purpose in life so important?
Neuroscience illustrates that if you have purposeful energy in your life, you’ll have a better functioning immune system that will protect you against inflammation, disease and death. If you have a sense of purpose in what you do, you will therefore be healthier, happier and more productive.
If you experience states or feelings of gratification, empathy, trust, achievement and self-efficacy on a regular basis, your immune system will be primed to be more resilient against disease. In a rather complicated way your endocrine (hormonal) system protects you if you experience a purposeful and meaningful life. By being positive, purposeful and optimistic, your brain and nervous system produces a ‘good’ hormonal chemistry in your body. This good chemistry promotes neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Neurogenesis is the growth and development of neurons (brain cells) while neuroplasticity is the process during which the brain undergoes constant rearranging and remodeling in response to the changing internal and external environment. In other words these processes are the mechanism for learning, change and intellectual and personal growth. If you were to experience neuroplasticity, you will be more thoughtful, creative and open to new ideas. You will have the ability to organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster when needed. You also become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving and see and invent new ways of doing things. This leads to structural changes in your brain that will enhance your success and survival as well as provide you with the ability to change through new insights and beliefs.
This causes a positive feedback loop within your body. In other words the more positive and optimistic mind states you experience, the more optimal the “good” hormonal chemistry will be in your body. And the more optimal your chemistry is, the more positive emotions and mind states you will experience. Improving your immune function, motivation and productivity.
Unfortunately the opposite is also true. If you regularly experience negative, purposelessness and pessimistic mind states, this will give rise to a ‘bad’ hormonal chemistry, having a negative effect on brain chemistry, immune function and metabolism. This will lead to impaired wellness and performance, decreased neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Ultimately leading to disease and death. When our stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol and pro-inflammatory cytokines) are persistently high, this leads to chronic inflammation in the body, which is the precursor of cardiovascular disease (heart attacks, strokes etc), neurodegenerative disease (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Motorneuron disease etc) and cancer. There is also a negative feedback loop at play within your body, in that the more negative emotions you experience, the higher the ratio of ‘bad’ hormones will be, leading to more negative emotions and ultimately disease and death. Talk about a vicious circle.
Meaning and purpose impacts positively on wellness and performance.
PNE or psychoneuro-endocrinology is a new field of medical scientific research that studies how our immunity is influenced by mental activity. In other words the influence of mind-states, positive or negative, upon wellness and performance.
South African neurosurgeon-neuroscientist Dr. Ian Weinberg who pioneered applied clinical psychoneuro-immunology, uncovered that many of his cancer patients had experienced life situations which may have resulted in a negative mindset and the subsequent illness (cancer). He also found that addressing the negative mindsets, through coaching, alongside the normal medical interventions was much more effective in treating his patients than the medical interventions alone.
The antidote or starting point for his intervention is to enhance purposeful energy amongst his patients. In other words maximize meaning and purpose in the patients life. He has taken this a step further. Instead of treating already sick people, it is possible to prevent disease by establishing meaning and purpose in an individual’s life before it happens. We have now learned from this and it is possible to diagnose and treat a negative mind state and possibly prevent illness and disease by early intervention.
Ian Weinberg proved that meaning and purpose impact positively on wellness and performance in individuals and today we have these tools at our disposal. We don’t have to wait for health to deteriorate before we intervene.
- Jim Stengel (Stengel 50)
In 2011 Jim Stengel (former global marketing officer of P&G) together with Millward Brown, conducted a study based on empirical research involving 50 000 brands. They wanted to uncover which brands grew the most over the previous decade, both in terms of customer bonding and shareholder value-brand equity.
They developed a list of the world’s 50 fastest growing brands, which built the deepest relationships with customers and achieved the greatest financial growth from 2001- 2011.
Investment in these companies – the Stengel 50 – during that time period would have been 400% more profitable than an investment in the S&P 500. (The S&P 500 index is a basket of 500 of the largest U.S. stocks, weighted by market capitalization. It seeks to represent the entire stock market by reflecting the risk and return of all large cap companies.)
Once they identified these brands, the burning question was what were the common principles that sparked and sustained their growth? And they found the answer. There was a cause and effect relationship between a brand’s ability to serve a higher purpose and it’s financial performance.
The central principle of their finding was the importance of having a brand ideal, a shared goal of improving people’s lives, from employees to customers. The company had meaning and purpose. And that was to contribute value.
A brand’s ideal or purpose is it’s essential reason for being, the higher-order benefit it brings to the world.
Jim Stengel proved that meaning and purpose powers growth for companies.
So what Ian Weinberg discovered for individuals, Jim Stengel discovered for organizations.
- Is my work a job, career or a calling?
Lastly I want to site the work done by Yale psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski, who has been studying how people’s mental conceptions of their jobs affect performance. She found that employees have one of three orientations or mindsets about work. They either view work as a job, career or calling.
People with a job see work as a chore and their paycheck as a reward. They work because they have to and constantly look forward to the time they can spend away from their job.
Then, people who view work as a career work not only out of necessity, but also to advance and succeed. They are invested in their work and want to do well.
People with a calling view work as an end in itself, their work is fulfilling not because of external rewards but because they feel it contributes to the greater good, draws on personal strengths and gives them meaning and purpose. Unsurprisingly, they don’t only find their work more rewarding, but work harder and longer because of it.
What is most interesting is that it doesn’t matter what type of job one has. There were doctors that saw their work as a job and janitors who saw their work as a calling.
This means a calling orientation can have just as much to do with the mindset as with the actual work being done. And this means that most employees in most positions can find meaning and purpose in their work by changing (re-framing) their mindsets towards work.
Even the smallest tasks can be imbued with meaning when they are connected to personal higher goals and values. The more we align our daily tasks with our personal purpose/vision, the more likely we are to see work as a calling.
When organizations have a higher purpose and contribute value, it shows in their financial performance. When individuals experience more positive emotions, contribute value and understand their role in serving a higher purpose in their organization, they will be healthier, happier and more productive.
So what are the 4 things you can do to improve the health and performance of your organization?
Start by improving wellness and performance of the individual. Healthy organizations are made up of healthy individuals.
Understand that health is made up of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual components.
- Educate employees to take care of factors that influence the health of their states. This includes the physical, emotional and mental factors like:
- Nutrition and exercise
- Sleep and relaxation
- Understanding and managing the stress-response
- Meaningful relationships -having rich social relationships
- Mindfulness – having present non-judgmental awareness, being patient, sensitive, empathetic, devoid of fear and trust in yourself
- Encourage employees to increase purposeful motivation in their lives. This can be achieved by the pursuit of meaningful life goals and purposeful activities in the three main areas of life namely:
- Interpersonal relationships and
- Create a supportive work environment where the following mind states are experienced more often:
- Achievement associated with reward-gratification. This comes form task engagement and task mastery. We experience this when we have goals and challenges in our environment that is matched by our skills. This means we have to experience success, big or small on a regular basis.
- Value contribution. With this I mean leaving something in a better condition than what you found it. Contribute value to yourself, your personal environment and your extended environment.
- Help employees see their work as a calling. What is the meaning and purpose (higher ideals) of the organization and how is the organization contributing value to its direct environment (employees) and the extended environment (clients and outside world). As Stengel put it: “Having a shared goal of improving people’s lives. Have clear goals around this and help employees see how their personal goals are connected to the organization’s goals and larger purpose. This needs to be articulated and acted on.
In summary employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical through opportunities to improve health/wellness so that they can regularly renew and recharge energy; emotional by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental when they have the opportunity to focus, in an absorbed way, on their most important tasks and; spiritual by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.
The more effectively leaders and organizations support employees in meeting these core needs, the more likely the employees are to experience health, engagement, productivity, loyalty, job satisfaction and positive energy at work. This will also reduce levels of stress, sickness, absenteeism etc. When employees have one need met, compared with none, all of their performance variables improve. The more needs met, the more positive the impact.
Healthy organizations are made up of healthy individuals. Just like high performing organizations are made up of high performing individuals. Wellness and performance are two sides of the same coin. These functions are interdependent in that enhanced wellness predisposes to enhanced performance, while the gratification of enhanced performance impacts positively on wellness.
About the author: Reinhard Korb is a thought leader in the combined application of nutrition, exercise, neuroscience and mindfulness. He helps optimize health, wellness and performance in his clients. As the founder of Thrive, he has facilitated and helped various organisations and individuals actualize their potential and achieve peak performance states. He is a certified Fitness & Nutrition Coach, Meta Coach, Neuro Coach, Stress Management Coach and Wellness Coach