In its constitution, The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as: a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
There are strong direct and indirect links between the quality of a person’s mental and physical health. These determine that poor mental health is a risk factor for the occurrence of chronic physical conditions, and vice versa. In other words, people with serious mental health conditions are at high risk of experiencing chronic physical conditions – and people with chronic physical conditions are at risk of developing poor mental health. These cross-effects can constitute a vicious cycle.
For example, the most well established example of mind-body interaction is the link between psychological stress and psychological ill-health. While certain levels of everyday stress are normal and healthy, when it comes to enduring more profound or prolonged stress, the mental and physical affects can be both mentally and physically detrimental.
How do the mind and body affect each other?
- Physical Factors
Well researched and understood mechanisms include the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which are designed to have a short-term effect, giving us enough physical energy and strength to get out of a dangerous situation. This surge of ‘Fight-Flight’ hormones can have temporary physical effects that include a raised heart rate, sweating, shaking and shortness of breath. However, when these hormones are frequently released they are thought to have a longer-term, negative effect on the body, affecting how it works as a whole:
- The immune system may be less effective when stress hormones are released regularly. This could be because the body is designed to focus on the task it sees as most important in the moment – avoiding an imminent threat, rather than using energy to detect infections and keep them under control.
- Healing may be slowed down. Like the immune system, when the body believes it is under attack it puts tasks that are not immediately essential – like repairing damaged cells – on the back-burner. While this is not critical in the short-term, in the long-term it can cause physical problems by slowing down recovery.
- Digestion could be impaired. Like healing, digestion is also put on the back burner during times of stress, which may lead to digestive discomfort such as abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, diarrhoea and bloating.
- Psychological factors
- Thoughts have a physical impact. Neurotransmitters control virtually all of the body’sfunctions, from feeling happy to modulating hormones to dealing with stress. Therefore, our thoughts influence our bodies directly because the body interprets the messages coming from the brain to prepare us for whatever is expected. Thinking styles can affect how a person feels emotionally and physically. Some common ways of thinking make it seem likely that the outcome will be negative. This can lead to feeling worried, sad or upset regardless of whether these thoughts are true or not.
- The importance of resilience Resilient people are known to resist illnesses, cope with adversity, and recover more quickly because they are able to maintain a positive attitude and manage their stress effectively. By managing our attitudes and stress levels, we actually control neurochemical transmissions in the body. The power of a healthy attitude, therefore, cannot be underestimated in the body-mind connection.
Holistic employee wellbeing programmes recognise employees’ diverse needs
By implementing holistic employee wellbeing programmes that embrace employees’ all-round “wellbeing”, rather than their just their “wellness” (or health), employers can benefit greatly from enhanced employee productivity. Traditional wellness programmes have typically focused on things like physical activity and healthy eating, while holistic wellness programmes combine many more aspects of employees’ lives to improve total health and wellbeing. Here are seven dimensions of health and wellbeing identified:4
Social wellness is the ability to relate and connect with other people, at work, at home and in our communities. Social wellness is about building and maintaining positive relationships that add value to our own and other people’s lives. Social wellness can be addressed in the workplace by encouraging people to engage with team members and other co-workers. It creates a sense of belonging and can make people happier and physically healthier. At work, this can translate into increased motivation, productivity, and collaboration.
Mental wellness (emotional wellness) is a product of our ability to understand and accept ourselves; and to successfully cope and deal with the challenges and obstacles that life and work bring. It entails being able to identify how we are feeling and why; it’s about acknowledging and being able to effectively channel anger, fear, sadness, stress, hope, love, happiness and frustration. Though there is still significant stigma around conversations of mental wellness at work, it’s important to create a workplace environment where employees have appropriate channels, and feel safe and comfortable to seek help if need be.
Spiritual wellbeing is about having in place a set of guiding beliefs, principles, and values that give meaning, purpose, and direction to our lives. Spiritual wellbeing goes hand-in-hand with emotional wellness – they directly influence one another. Spiritual wellbeing affects our ability to establish peace and harmony in our lives and to be fulfilled by what we do through aligning our values with our actions.
Environmental wellness is being aware of nature, our environment, and our immediate surroundings. It is about protecting the environment and protecting ourselves from environmental hazards. This requires that people think of air, water, and land quality and take the necessary steps to protect it.
Occupational Health and Wellness
Occupational health is a leading factor in the promotion of employees good health, especially considering that most employees spend over 40 hours of their week in the workplace. Occupational health is about providing a work environment that is conducive to good health, productivity, presenteeism, and preventing work-related diseases.
Occupational wellbeing refers to our ability to feel fulfilled within our jobs and chosen career paths without sacrificing work-life balance. It is about being involved in work activities that allow us to use and demonstrate our talents and skill set. Occupational wellness is about maximizing workplace happiness.
Intellectual wellness encompasses creativity and stimulating mental activities. It’s about our ability to open our minds to new ideas and experiences that can benefit our personal and professional lives. Intellectually well individuals have a desire to learn and apply new concepts, improve their existing skill sets, and seek new challenges. Intellectual wellness requires that a person uses and takes advantage of the different resources available to expand his or her knowledge. This dimension of wellness can be developed through academics, professional career, cultural involvement, and hobbies.
Physical wellness is one of the most-addressed dimensions of wellness in the workplace. Physical wellness is about taking proper care of our physical bodies so that they can function properly and optimally. Physical wellbeing encompasses various elements, including activity and nutrition; it leads to being able to complete daily activities without extreme fatigue or physical stress and avoiding destructive habits such as sedentary behaviour, use of tobacco, or the abuse of drugs or alcohol.