According to the Centers for Disease Control, Americans are in the midst of a “lifestyle disease epidemic,” in which inactivity, poor nutrition, and substance abuse are causing an increasing prevalence of chronic diseases. These are becoming a major financial burden to society and a leading cause of death.
People do not make what traditional economists call “rational” choices for health and wellbeing; their dietary, activity, relationship and social engagement choices are highly context and path dependent. Habits are resistant to change. Behavioral frameworks, developed by academicians, scholars, and industry researchers, attempt to characterize how those choices are made and how they can be influenced.
An overload of stress is one of the elements disturbing our physical and mental vitality. Important instruments to increase vitality are exercise and nutritional but also relaxation to keep a good balance. According to the American Psychological Association, 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by too much stress and 73% regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress. This translates into a significant economic burden. Anxiety does steal resources from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for effective problem solving.
Lifestyle illnesses exact significant productivity costs at work. For Europe, the costs of psychological problems are estimated at 3-4% of GDP according to the International Labor Organization. A number of leading scientists like Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky are pioneering the way to understand how stress works and how to mitigate negative impacts on our health. A US study has shown that laughter patterns of teams are linked to team performance. In Germany a different study has shown that teams that laughed together were rated as better performing by supervisors. How can we translate this thinking to the work environment and rethink how we work together?
Of course the financial burden of stress is not limited to healthcare cost, it spills into reductions in workforce, sick leave and productivity loss. According to TNO these costs amount to around € 4 billion per year and are carried by entrepreneurs, corporates and government. You can imagine what you could do with this increase in budget.
Beyond profitability, there are societal advantages to reducing stress in the workplace. For those who value flexibility, the on-demand work environment may open possibilities for what some call the “care economy,” in which people have time to both make a living and do what they care most about – passions, hobbies, family, causes.
In the US 92 % of employers with 200 or more employees reported offering employee wellness programs in 2009. However, a 2010 survey indicates that fewer than 20% of the eligible employees participate in wellness interventions. An innovative wellness industry is emerging; and early evidence suggests that these technologies depend on the effectiveness of the intervention in order to work.