Look beyond numbers: Employees are people, too

To gain clearer insight into the wellness of employees, you must learn to look at the whole individual, says Karen M. Carrier, MEd, president of Houston-based Human Solutions, a firm that provides counseling to hospitals, corporations, and academic groups interested in holistic mind-body approaches to wellness program design. In fact, says Carrier, who helped pioneer the concept of "pleasure-based" wellness, even the clinical results of preventive screenings must be viewed as more than just numbers on a page. Pleasure-based wellness asserts that when employees lead meaningful lives they have a greater opportunity to be well.

Symptoms aren’t always what they seem

"We tend to forget that some of the most common clinical problems, such as hypertension or chronic weight problems, are actually symptoms of more profound issues," she asserts. "Quite often we’re not addressing things that really make people sick — social isolation, a job they hate, bad relationships, chronic financial problems, or not having any sense of spirituality. I don’t care how much low-fat food you eat, if you have these problems you’re going to be sick a lot."

Carrier suggests that a more accepting attitude toward employee body size can enhance health. "With behavior control, or deprivation, people always feel stressed out and miserable — and that’s a risk factor for illness," she explains. "If you walk around hating your body every day because it doesn’t meet some ideal you’ve seen, it starts physical changes in you that can damage your health."

Recent studies, says Carrier, support her contention that the most profound variables affecting health are our belief systems, attitudes, and emotions. "Take anger, for example. Over 50% of the people who have heart attacks have none of the [heart attack] risk factors. And people who repress anger have a higher rate of cancer," she notes.

Carrier is convinced that an employee’s belief system is the biggest predictor of his or her perception of health. "Our perception of health predicts mortality better than an HRA [health risk assessment] or a physical exam," she says. "If you believe you are healthy, you will live longer; the power of that intent will override reality."

Carrier feels so strongly about this that she has created a "holistic" HRA that asks employees if they feel optimistic, if they feel lucky in life, if they perceive themselves as emotionally healthy with strong social connectedness.

"Folks who really score well are never sick," she says. "Those with several difficulties always present with clinical problems symptomatic of underlying conditions."

Wellness professionals, she suggests, must learn to ask their employees an entirely new set of questions. "Do they have a life that is growing and developing along a broad spectrum? Are they truly happy?" Such questions, she insists, hold the key to true wellness.