By Jack Groppel, Ph.D., Vice President, Applied Science and Performance Training, Wellness & Prevention, Inc., and Co-Founder, Human Performance Institute
From an intellectual perspective, few people challenge the notion that the healthier one is, the better that person will perform. Putting this belief into practice, however, remains a challenge in today’s corporate world, where the business case to improve human performance hasn’t quite developed yet.
The current story about employee health in business primarily is concerned with lowering costs and achieving a return on investment. With today’s astronomical health-care costs, it’s understandable that saving money has been our focus. But the real story—the full story—defines who we are as biological beings and illustrates the far-reaching impact that employee health and well-being can have on business performance—from the individual to the enterprise.
Movement: Biological Necessity and Business Strategy
Let’s just look at one particular area that is problematic within business organizations today: a lack of movement. According to Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of Psychiatry at Harvard, and the author of “Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” when the body starts moving, the brain “lights up” in almost all areas, and the result is improved cognition, creativity, and problem-solving (Ratey, 2008). Conversely, extended sitting can be, quite simply, hazardous to one’s health and well-being.
One study has noted that even if one engages in regular daily exercise, it may not be enough to counteract the effects of too much sitting during the rest of the day. Because the body’s large muscle groups aren’t moving when one is sitting for more than half an hour, the body’s metabolism slows down. “We just aren’t really structured to be sitting for such long periods of time, and when we do that, our body just kind of goes into shutdown,” says Dr. Toni Yancey, aprofessor of health services at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 Minutes at a Time”(Yancey, 2010).
A lack of motion also contributes to “fight or flight” mechanisms constantly being on alert, according to Ratey (2008), which can lead to overstressed employees. Without movement, which is a form of recovery for the body, “streaming torrents of demands … keep the amygdala (responsible for the brain’s primary fight or flight mechanism) flying (p. 69)… and if mild stress becomes chronic, the unrelenting cascade of (the stress hormone) cortisol triggers genetic action that begins to sever synaptic connections and cause dendrites to atrophy and cells to die,” Ratey notes. “Eventually, the hippocampus, a critically important part of the brain where information is transferred into memory, can end up physically shriveled like a raisin (p. 74). All this means that the brain of the person who sits too long will start dimming, even to the point that “brain waves fall into a slumbering state.” Ratey counters this explanation with the statement that “when a nerve cell is called into action, its metabolic machinery switches on like a pilot light in a furnace.”
Research led by Jeff W. Lichtman, currently the Jeremy R. Knowles professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University, indicates that a loss of nerve signals due to inactivity causes a loss of acetylcholine receptors in the central nervous system. In other words, if an employee stops moving, he or she loses the receptors and the synaptic connection. In addition, and according to Levine (2009), the mere act of getting up out of one’s chair is all it takes to break out of “hibernation mode.” Here, Levine is referring to the seriousness of our sedentary state, discussing how, even at the cellular state, our cognitive and biological processes begin slowing down when we are not moving. Just standing up can improve one’s ability to think. People who choose to stand instead of sit note that their minds feel clearer and that they are better able to problem solve. Standing often leads to other movement, such as pacing while on the phone or walking to the copier, which ultimately may lead to improved performance. In fact, Levine states that we are hard-wired to do our best exploring, inventing, and developing through the motion and energy expenditure of our human machine. Thus, the fact that we are sedentary in how we “do business” may negatively affect business performance (Akaaboune, et al, 1999). And this may all be amplified if an organization does not support and encourage what is commonly known as a “culture of health,” or a workplace that places the health and well-being of employees, teams, and leaders first.
The Effect of Culture of Health on Employee Engagement
The simple perception of having a culture of health can affect employees in a positive manner. Wellness & Prevention, Inc., a health and performance solutions provider that offers an integrated portfolio of solutions covering the broad spectrum of population health, found that the effects of a strongly perceived culture of health promote significantly higher participation rates across wellness program elements. Greater participation rates were seen in eating healthy foods in the cafeteria, on-site flu shot clinics, physical fitness assessments, and the use of walking/jogging trails, on-site exercise classes, weight loss programs, and smoking cessation programs (Wellness & Prevention, Inc., 2009). In 2010, Towers Watson amplified this point by noting that companies that are committed to health as a business imperative achieve significantly better financial outcomes and lower employee turnover (Towers Watson, 2009/2010). Gallup took this to another level and found that unhealthy employees are not engaged in their jobs, and that numerous chronic conditions existed (e.g., obesity, diabetes, etc.) in this population, along with a lack of engagement (Gallup 2010).
When the majority of a workforce is disengaged, business productivity and profits often suffer. Employees under stress exhibit survival-based behaviors such as impatience, uncooperativeness, defensiveness, frustration, hyper-criticality, and pessimism, which can decrease their ability to perform effectively with their work teams. In the end, the cost of underutilized human assets can run from the tens into the hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the size of the firm (Robison, 2010).
The 2012 NBGH/Towers Watson Staying @ Work Survey Report stated: “This year’s survey results show a strong link between highly effective health and productivity strategies and strong human capital and financial results (Pathway to Health and Productivity, NBGH/Towers Watson 2011-2012 Staying @ Work Survey Report, 2012, p. 2).” Furthermore, research showed that nearly two-thirds of companies with highly effective health and productivity programs (66 percent) report that they perform better than their top competitors.
Understanding the Biology of an Enterprise: Why Health in the Entire Spectrum Is Important
There is research to note that the overall performance (or productivity) of an enterprise is more than just the sum of the individual employee’s output (Mayson & Barrett, 2006; Langdon, 2000; Backes-Gellner & Veen, 2009). The same can be said for an integrated human being. The overall human being is more than just a conglomeration of individual cells, even though the individual cells actually make up the biological being. Likewise, an enterprise is more than just a conglomeration of individual employees, even though the individual employees make up the enterprise. Each is vastly affected by its environment.
It is clear that the health of the individual can affect the entire business enterprise. For that reason, businesses must pay deeper attention to the health of each employee, as a biological person, in all dimensions: physical (e.g., frequent movement, nutrition), emotional (e.g., resiliency, optimism, etc.), mental (e.g., mental recovery breaks, etc.), and spiritual (e.g., alignment with a purpose, etc.). An employee with any of the following traits—physically fatigued, emotionally disconnected, mentally unfocused, and/or spiritually misaligned—can wreak havoc on an organization. So, it’s clear that the good health of an individual contributes to the positive health of the team he or she is on, the leadership working with that person, and, thus, to the entire enterprise.
But the converse is true, as well. If a business pushes poor biological skills down on its leadership, teams, and employees (e.g., long meetings, a sedentary environment, no vacations, no breaks, poor nutrition, discouragement of connecting with loved ones, etc.), three things might be possible:
Using Biology to Build Business Success
It seems that if an individual is healthy, endless possibilities could arise for the enterprise. But the environment that individuals and teams perform in plays a huge role, biologically speaking. Today’s leaders must change the organizational story about how their business approaches health. If the enterprise allows or even enables unhealthy behaviors, employees and teams may not live up to their full potential, thus, limiting the company’s capacity for future success.
Rath and Harter, authors of “Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements,” stated that well-being affects the whole person. The whole person comes to work, not just the worker. So how you manage that person affects key outcomes such as new disease burden, sick days, and obesity, which have direct implications on annual health-related costs. If companies take care of the whole person, they build more loyalty over time, and that affects their brand in many different ways (Gallup Business Journal, 2012). As simple as it seems, if a person performs at higher levels, he or she increases the chances for his or her teams to perform better, and thus, the enterprise could improve, as well.
So, while sitting through Bio 101 may feel like a long way away for many executives, it’s important to remember the simple notion that organizations and teams are made up of human beings with biological requirements. Employees are people first, and they need nourishment, exercise, and care—on a daily basis. When we pay attention to the biology of individuals, the biology of our teams, and the biology of our leadership, we invest in helping organizations thrive and flourish. In this way, we can help our businesses continue to grow, while helping improve the health and happiness of our people. This use of health to ignite performance is truly a business strategy for success—on all levels.
Akaaboune M, Culican SM, Turney SG, Lichtman JW, “Rapid and reversible effects of activity on acetylcholine receptor density at the neuromuscular junction in vivo,” Science,1999 286:503-7
Backes-Gellner, U., and Veen, S., “The Impact of Aging and Age Diversity on Company Performance” (January 2, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1346895 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1346895
Gallup Business Journal. Unhealthy, stressed employees are hurting your business. An interview by Jennifer Robison, found at http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/154643/Unhealthy-Stressed-Employees-Hurting-Your-Business, May 22, 2012.
Gallup Organization. Daily Tracking Poll, November 16-December 15, 2010.
Levine, J., “Move a little, Lose a Lot: New NEAT science reveals how to be thinner, happier, and smarter,” NY: Crown Publishers, 2009.
Mayson, S. & Barrett, R., “The science and practice of HRM in small firms,” Human Resource Management Review, 16: 4, 447-455, 2006.
NBGH/Towers Watson Staying @ Work Survey Report, 2012.
Ratey, J. Spark, “The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” NY: Little Brown and Company, 2008.
Robison, J., 2010, Business Case for Well-Being, Gallup Management Journal.
Towers Watson, Staying@Work Report, 2009-2010.
Wellness & Prevention, Inc. Landmark Study, 2009.
Yancey, T. Instant Recess. LA: University of California Press, 2010.
Jack Groppel, Ph.D., is vice president of Applied Science and Performance Training, Wellness & Prevention, Inc., and co-founder of the Human Performance Institute.