Wellness in the Workplace—a playbook as told by a Y employee

5 August 2020
Man and woman smiling after going for a run

It is wellness month! Take a look at how one of our employees makes sure that she keeps a total balance, at work!

Hi everyone—my name is Alex. I work for the Y. Most people automatically assume that, because of where I work (surrounded by wellness and some of the best experts and equipment at my immediate disposal) that I MUST have this wellness thing down. Well, I don’t. In fact, I almost have this aversion to it simply because I am surrounded by it and because it is part of my job. I could literally walk out of my office right now as I write to you, take 50 steps, and get a full workout in without having to get stuck in traffic or battle for a parking spot. Yet it is the last thing on my mind, and to be honest, it won't happen at any point today. 

Before this gets away from me, let me clarify—I love the rush from a good run. And I run a lot. BUT I also go weeks without exercising. I get stuck in ruts, I get tired, I get preoccupied. But why do I let that happen? I get to the point where my runs are the period at the end of my sentences that I never forget (I am pretty good grammatically too, so trust me, I do NOT forget them). Then, all of a sudden, it has been two weeks since the last time I exercised. For me, the answer lies in the secret of overall wellness; a balance of life. Physically I might be taking care of myself, but what about all of the other ways we stay healthy and strong—mentally, emotionally, environmentally. And how does our wellness affect us at work (and, vice versa)? 

As we dive in, let me set the expectation of what you are going to get out of me—I am no expert on wellness. But, I am, like most of you reading this, motivated to get going but struggling to stay on track. What factors play into our success? One of the number one responses to that, and one that I can personally speak to, is time. Time is our most precious resource. So let’s examine overall wellness from the lens of where we spend most of our adult life—work. 

Work can make us, and work can break us. When we enter the doors of our workplace, we are encouraged to plug in, focus and commit to the day. We agree to a (many times) unwritten contractual agreement to give our time and talents (our output) in exchange for our salary and benefits (not our input, but our exchanged good). So, if we spend our time at work and create output, but the input is missing, how do we stay full? Take care of yourself AT work. Create your input! That is the first rule. Remember it, and do not break it. Taking care of yourself at work can look like this:

  • Whatever you do, do NOT sit all day. Forbes previously referred to the low energy we feel at work because of sedentary habits “sleepwalking through your work day”. With that visual, it is easy to connect with how you have most definitely felt mid-day after your bottomless coffees, Twizzlers and chewing gum are just not cutting it anymore. You need to break free, or just put your head down on your desk. But what you should NOT do is reach for another cup of coffee (and also probably not put your head down on your desk…). The best solution? Get up. Move. Instead of sending that email, visit your coworker and have a conversation. Or, if you are working from home, go pull some weeds or take your dog for a spin around the neighborhood (I really do go pull weeds during breaks throughout the day and it makes me feel even more accomplished!). Experts say (not me, because remember I am not an expert, as previously stated) that employees who routinely get up out of their seats and move about every thirty minutes or so showed a self reported increase in concentration and engagement when they returned to their work station. When you move, you hyperoxygenate the brain (who doesn’t love when that happens). The conclusion these experts drew? Movement is directly tied to intellectual performance.
  • Create your perfect work ambiance. Feeling relaxed while you work not only makes you more productive, but it can make you feel like you’re getting a warm hug all day from your favorite person (or something not so personal for those of us that appreciate personal space). While pretty staplers, desk planners and office decor from HomeGoods help your workspace look the part, how can we make sure that the ENVIRONMENT we set helps us feel good, and more importantly reduces stress? The answer lies with our ears- music. (I will try not to be biased on this matter as I am a lifelong music fan and a classically trained violinist who swears the power of music opened my brain just enough to  get me through the hardest days of my mathematical education struggles….). A study cited by Harvard Health that was originally performed in New York examined how music affected surgical patients and their stress levels while undergoing care. Half of the patients were scheduled for ordinary care, while the other half got the same care but got to listen to their music of choice before, during and after their operations. The results? Patients in both groups had similar blood pressure before their procedures. The patients surrounded by silence remained hypertensive throughout their procedure while those with music saw rapid pressure decreases during their procedure and through their time in recovery. There are similar studies done in medical settings to show the use of music on patients during procedures and the need for much lower levels of supplementary intravenous sedation for those that have music, and even studies that show music reducing the stress response in critically ill postoperative patients, even as they remain unconscious in recovery. These studies show very large correlations—music helps the heart AND mind by slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and reducing levels of stress hormones. When you are releasing less stress hormones, you are saving yourself from toxic junk riddling your body. Stress affects every system in our bodies and has been categorized in the past as one of the most destructive factors in our longevity. I, for one, can get on board with living longer and prospering and having music as an agent to lower those toxins from floating around my body (and I am sure everyone around me would appreciate my happy disposition as my favorite tunes play in my headphones).
  • Breathe. We’ll keep this one short, because I know you want to get started right away on your workplace wellness enhancements. Oxygen fuels our cells. When you breathe, you are absorbing oxygen (good) and expelling carbon dioxide through the movement of your lungs (good). Movement in your diaphragm and the muscles between your lungs is important in this process. So think about when we are stressed how we typically breathe—we take more short breaths, we could breathe more shallow and more frequently, or forget to breathe all together in moments of distress. So if we need to complete the motion of breathing to ensure oxygen is absorbed and carbon dioxide is expelled properly, imagine what happens when we are stressed and that cycle is disrupted. When we are stressed, we just feel icky. If we start with focusing on our breathwork, and being intentional about breathing in and out (I like to imagine the oxygen filling my lungs on horseback like Knights in shining armor here to save my body from gross stuff), we can take the first EASIEST step in lowering our stress levels, thus (as we learned above) lowering the levels of those gross stress hormones in our bodies and feeding our cells with the building block to be successful for our body. One of our favorite resources at work are Calm.com’s breathing resources. And there is always yoga. Or, give your breath a persona like I do (remember, knights in shining armor?). Whatever you do, keep breathing.