Biggest Health Concern in the Workplace: What’s Eating You


I am a health food person.  I believe that a substantial part of our overall health stems from what we eat.  I am also a Christian.  I believe that a substantial part of our overall health stems from what eats us.  So, I have developed the following proverb.  (Please excuse the lack of political correctness; that is just the way it is with proverbs.)

There are two things that shall take a man before his time: that which he eats and that which eats him.  And it is that which eats him that will take him soonest.

I try to live my life by this proverb by eating well and forgiving anyone who might harm me or my family.  Right before I turned 50, I created a mental program for myself known as “Second 50”.  My goal from this program was to live another 50 years (at least) and to do that in the best physical, mental and spiritual health I could.  Pulling a Star Trek reference, my desire to “live long and prosper” required that I get the eating and the eaten aspects of my life in harmony.  It is a journey and a daily decision (more so with food than forgiveness), but it works for me.

Since this blog is about HR and employment issues, please allow me to develop this point from that perspective.  As a business owner and chief architect of a very broad software program, I find that productivity is critical.  I need my employees and myself to be operating at peak efficiency.  I do not need my company to be ravaged by the latest flu virus (sound familiar?) with lost days all over the place and employees who have burned precious time off, not to recreate, but to get well or to assist sick children.

That which he eats

One thing we have done (and it is easier in a small company) is to provide healthy snacks.  We created a co-op wherein the employees bring in and prepare fruits and vegetable snacks and we share the cost.  At 20 to 30 dollars per day, just preventing one or two sick days a month was a break-even proposition.  Now when you also compare the productivity gains from less soda, less coffee, and fewer trips to the fast food joints in our complex, it gets even better.

Another thing we have done is to provide exercise equipment.  We acquired some basic equipment from donations and yard-sales that came together for a pretty nice exercise room.  Employees can now get in a little physical exercise during lunch or at the end of the day which can do wonders for their mental and physical state.

Perhaps the best thing we ever did, some years ago, was to bring in a yoga instructor.  We found a wonderful instructor who focused on yoga exercise and simple breathing techniques that did amazing things for those who attended.  Employees still talk about that.

That which eats him

Now these programs take care of what people eat in the workplace, but what about what eats them?  This is the tricky part, but I am going to make some bold assertions.  First, mental health is dramatically more expensive and a greater detriment to productivity than any flu bug.  People who have stuff eating at them not only trash their own productivity, they usually trash the productivity of others to whom they go for informal counseling (you know who I mean, Doctor).  When a person is having a difficult time mentally or struggling with a life issue, productivity can drop to zero.  Factor in the lost time from “sharing” and the unofficial counseling… productivity is actually negative!  From my experience, at any given point in time, 20 to 30 percent of the workforce has life issues that are degrading performance and productivity.

Now, here is what I recommend.  If I had 100 employees or more, I would hire a full-time marriage and family counselor and set them up in practice in my building.  Trust me, they will have a full-time job (if not more) and will assist with productivity above and beyond anything else you can imagine.  If 20 to 30 percent of the staff, at any given time, needs a 1 hour appointment each week, there is full-time employment for your counselor.  If you have 200 or 300 employees, you might as well hire two.  If you do not have 100 employees, I would put a counselor on retainer to work two or three days per week and set them up with an office.

My point is that the need is there-let’s recognize it and deal with it instead of having an ostrich competition.  About one-third to one-half of that 20 to 30 percent is already seeing a counselor (the others should be and would be if it was easier).  Thus, you are going to dramatically reduce lost time for appointments and the lost revenue on your benefits program just by putting the counselor in ready reach of your staff.  And the  knowledge that a counselor is within ready reach would be a consolation of immense magnitude to all your employees.

Even the normally stable members of your workforce will benefit dramatically from the employment of a mental/emotional professional.  Sometimes a short appointment or a quick answer to a question can do wonders.  And imagine the benefit of your counselor if he or she is capable running seminars or group functions for the staff.

Oh the stigma…

I know this is an outrageous idea and is fraught with potential HIPPA concerns.  But as business owners and HR professionals, we do indeed spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with productivity issues related to mental health.  Can we stop lying to ourselves (even as we play counselor) and consider a proactive method of helping with the biggest (and growing) health concern in the workplace?

In the end, who cares about stigma or HIPPA?  If you want a productive workforce, you must be as honest about the mental health epidemic as you are about the current flu epidemic.  If you play ostrich and put your head in the sand, you may be spreading the “bird flu” by your inaction.

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