The Human View

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Cultural Wellness

September 12, 20214 min read

Way back in 1997, a Fast Company  article described emotion as the business world's last taboo. It introduces us to Lauren who, every day, "enters a world of fear and anger. Her workplace feels like a weird juxtaposition of paranoia and family closeness - half the time it's an episode of 'The X-Files,' and half the time it's 'Ozzie & Harriett."

"'Every day I feel like a miserable failure. I work 60-hour weeks. I get no praise.' Nothing in her daily life offers relief from the pain of work. Vacations aren't relaxing. While she's gone, the wolves begin to move out of the shadows. Corporate rivals sniff out any irregularities in her department. At her health club, she imagines pushing the weights into her boss's face. The emotions are so powerful, they scare."

Lauren's experience has been mirrored by millions of workers, across all industries, across all states, and across the multi-national world of American companies.

Getting real

Can a business whose employees are regularly stressed out hope to sustain itself while it eats away at the hearts and minds of its primary resources - humans?

For years, mental health has been little more than a footnote in corporate America. And if there has ever been meaningful acknowledgement of the value of emotional health, the press missed the story.

Yet the mental and emotional aspects of our humanness are directly and intimately tied to our physical health, our personal happiness, and our occupational contributions. Companies that understand cultural wellness openly supports and encourages the integration of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of their people.

Who really wants to face the daily grind with yet another daily groan? Who really wants to put in an extra 20 hours each week in pursuit of some stressed out boss's incoherent praise? Who really wants to be a workaholic?

Engaging hearts and minds

In an era where the latest, greatest ethical and financial scandals hit the business press like the latest, greatest celebrity affairs hit the tabloids, companies face tremendous pressure to differentiate themselves in the eyes of current and prospective workers. It is a task that executive leadership should take to heart.

Humans are the heart of the living company body. People are the culture of an organization. Leadership has the opportunity - and the responsibility - to shape the intra-body communication. With clarity and compassion come coherence and loyalty. With vision and dedication come ingenuity and co-creative collegiality. We are, all of us, humans first - and we want to belong to and be a part of something big, something important, something worthy.

Someone once said, "People tend to forget how magnificent they are; I help them remember." It's difficult to feel that we're part of something worthy when what we really feel is stressed out, unappreciated, and inconsequential. When leadership doesn't consciously foster a culture of compassion and human magnificence, the culture will default to one of stress and human depreciation. The impact to the health plan - and to the bottom line - is significant.

Weak links and maximum leverage

Fortune Magazine cited stress as "the last taboo" in a penetrating article from October of '02. They reported that "stress is directly linked to cardiovascular disease, depression, impaired immune disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction, plus the everyday headaches, back spasms, overeating, and other annoying ailments your body has developed in response." According to Fortune, stress costs U.S. businesses over $300 billion annually in absenteeism, burnout, mental health, etc.

An early 2000's poll by ComPsych found that 63% of employees have high levels of stress, 43% lose one or more hours per day due to stress, 44% lose one or two days per year due to stress, and almost a quarter of those surveyed lose six or more days per year due to stress. We doubt that much has changed since then...

The HERO Project released their finding in 1996 that depression increases average medical costs by over 70%. Not surprisingly, antidepressants are always among the top 2 or 3 most frequently prescribed and costly drugs for health plans, rounding out a global market worth $16.9 Billion.

As many of us know, however, the worst problem can also be the best opportunity, because weak links are maximum leverage points. Cultural wellness is the foundational view from which personal health and company profitability grow and, eventually, thrive.

Respected health researcher Stephen Aldana of Brigham Young University found that while wellness programs generated $3.72 in health care cost savings for each $1.00 spent, the savings attributable to reduced absenteeism were $5.06 per $1.00 spent on wellness - 36% more!

The last word

Many of us remember the old commercial where a car mechanic said, "Pay me now, or pay me later." The implication for vehicle maintenance was that the preventative cost was pennies compared to the repair cost. The message of cultural wellness is that it's cheaper to prevent stress and sickness than it is to cure them.

Mark Head

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Mark Head


With 4 decades of combined experience in employee benefits consulting, wellness and health management, Head brings a unique combination of dynamic perspectives into a clear vision of where the future of health care is moving - and it's moving towards deeper human connection, awareness, and engagement...

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