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With stress, anxiety and depression on the rise in today’s fast-paced culture, there is a growing awareness of the importance of wellness. And many people and organizations are promoting efforts to integrate wellness into everything we do.
Jeff Patterson hears about a lot at his barbershop. After clients sit down in his chairs, casual chatter covers sports scores, kids, news and the weather. “I hear a lot of ideas and pitches,” says Patterson, who owns JP Hair Design on Grand Canyon Drive in Madison.
But in recent years, health concerns have become a growing topic of conversation. “We talked about weight loss [and] different things that had to do with health or wellness,” says Patterson. “But we didn’t go the next step to try to lose the weight or go to the doctor.”
So when Aaron Perry, founder of the Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association, or RLWA (and who was recently named to Time magazine’s top 50 most influential people in health care), approached Patterson about creating a men’s health center, it made sense for it to be at a place men went to on a regular basis.
“The conversations were already there,” Patterson says. Distrust in the health care system keeps many people, black men in particular, from seeking care, he says. Now, men who come into JP Hair Design — one of Dane County’s largest black-owned barbershops (employing 10 barbers) — are able to get more information about health and wellness at the RLWA Men’s Health & Education Center. Nurses come into the shop regularly to offer blood pressure checks, and men can walk into the center’s office for more information about anything they might be interested in knowing. This first-of-its-kind center is now nationally recognized for its innovative efforts to reduce health disparities for black men.
Many of the men in Patterson’s barbershop aren’t alone in their tendency to avoid addressing health and wellness, and women are equally vulnerable — whether it's related to physical health or emotional well-being. Anxiety disorders — the most common types of mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults — are highly treatable, yet only 36.9 percent of those suffering from them receive treatment. About 322 million people worldwide live with depression. Others deal with chronic pain, stress, eating disorders, headaches, sleep disorders — the list goes on. If untreated, in some cases the consequences can be dire. The U.S. is experiencing a public health crisis as suicide rates have increased more than 30 percent in half of the states from 1999 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans (roughly 129 Americans a day) died by suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
Statistics such as these underscore a need to address these societal ills, many of which are preventable, through a broad spectrum of wellness practices. On the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, Valerie Donovan, the university’s suicide prevention coordinator, says she’s seen an increase in requests for training and conferences about mental health and wellness. “That people are looking for [resources] and asking for it, for mental health in particular, is exciting because I think that points to a reduced stigma — that we’re having these conversations that we haven’t really been always having,” says Donovan, who is also interim co-chair of UWell, a campus-wide strategy that looks at the wellness-related needs of students and employees.
In a time when these types of societal pressures and chronic conditions are on the rise, people are also living longer and many are seeking ways to find balance in their daily lives. The Global Wellness Institute, a Miami-based nonprofit that researches the topics of preventative health and wellness, released a report in October 2018 that says the global wellness industry grew 128 percent in two years, from $3.7 trillion in 2015 to $4.2 trillion in 2017. Katherine Johnson, senior research fellow at the Institute, said in a news release about the report that “a wellness mindset” is starting to take hold and is affecting people’s decision making. “Wellness, for more people, is evolving from rarely to daily, from episodic to essential, from a luxury to a dominant lifestyle value,” said Johnson. “And their profound shift is driving powerful growth.”
What is wellness?
The U.S. spends more of its gross domestic product on health care than any other country, yet Americans as a whole are still among the unhealthiest people in the developed world. “Our numbers still aren’t changing,” says Nicole Youngberg, chief employee wellness leader at UW–Madison.
Even wellness industry experts aren’t certain what wellness means exactly, she says. Supporting wellness started out as the equivalent of health and fitness programs. Then it moved to biometric screenings and health risk assessments. Then financial wellness programs, yoga classes, nutrition classes and health coaching. “Now we’re moving into this phase where it’s like, that stuff wasn’t working,” says Youngberg, who has worked in the wellness-related field throughout her career. “We still have the same [or increasing] rates of chronic disease. We still have people who are feeling super lonely. Mental health issues are skyrocketing. What we’ve been doing isn’t working.”
So the industry is constantly reinventing itself and changing what it means to be well. One widely accepted definition has been overhauled recently. The Wellness Council of America, or WELCOA, is a nationally recognized group that uses seven dimensions to outline wellness. WELCOA’s old outline included the following categories: career and academic wellness, emotional wellness, environmental wellness, financial wellness, physical wellness, social wellness and spiritual wellness.
Those categories were narrow in scope, says Donovan, and they didn’t necessarily feel universal for everyone. WELCOA’s new seven areas are: health, meaning, safety, connection, achievement, growth and resiliency.
“When you talk about what wellness and well-being mean, these are the words,” says Youngberg.
Health goes beyond the absence of mental and physical illness and also includes feeling strength and energy from your body and mind. Meaning is about having purpose in your life. Safety is knowing you’re safe from physical and psychological harm and free of concern about meeting basic life needs.
Connection covers the experience of positive, trusting relationships and feeling a sense of belonging. Achievement encompasses having support and resources that help you achieve your goals. Growth means you are learning and being challenged to use and expand on your strengths. Resiliency is viewing life with optimism and feeling grateful, appreciative, validated and encouraged.
This framework influences Youngberg and Donovan in their work on campus, but they’re constantly gathering information on what wellness means for students and employees at UW–Madison because it looks different for every person. “Everyone has unique and fluid wellness aspirations,” Donovan says. “They look really different person to person, and they change over time.”
A younger generation of millennials and Generation Xers is taking a more proactive and preventive approach to wellness. Ideas about health, wellness and sustainability are converging and transforming entire industries. The evidence is everywhere in today’s culture — fast-food restaurants are being replaced by healthy fast-casual eateries; yoga studios are abundant and well-attended; meal services and community-supported agriculture programs are replacing trips to big-box grocery stores for processed foods.
Wellness is no longer defined by the absence of illness or disease — it’s about achieving a more holistic state of being. The point of losing weight isn’t just about fitting into a certain body mass index range. It’s also about being and feeling your best self. “Wellness is about having the health and the energy to do what you love — to do what feels meaningful to you,” says Andrea Russell, a local ayurvedic health counselor, yoga therapist, meditation teacher and neurovascular therapist.
A lot of Russell’s work is in helping others become more aware of their self-care routines and what makes them happy. “Our culture is a culture of productivity,” she says. “And I think self care is something that is so essential at this time, because there are so many things that pull us away from ourselves.”
Yet everyone’s journey to wellness is unique — a man in Patterson’s barbershop likely defines health and wellness much differently than Russell, for instance.
“I always ask people, ‘What do you want your health for? Do you want to run marathons or do you want to have energy playing with your grandchildren? What’s your intention with your health?’ ” says Russell. “The key to wellness is learning how to take care of yourself and learning how to tend to your energy.”
Wellness on Campus
Stress and weight-related issues are the top two health risk factors in the nation. “Both of which are preventable,” says Youngberg. The university environment provides an interesting case study. At UW–Madison, the UWell Council is the central nerve for wellness promotion.
It isn’t an office or department. It’s not a committee, and no one is paid to be part of it, says Youngberg. “That is intentional,” she says. “If we start paying for wellness, that creates more ownership over wellness.” Youngberg wants wellness to be part of everyday life at UW–Madison. When teachers write syllabi, when departments host events, when students adjust to life on campus — wellness should be embedded in all of those actions, and Youngberg helps make systematic changes to promote healthier environments. “I don’t necessarily create new programs or new activities for people, but I leverage the things that are already going on at the university and work to integrate wellness at the policy, environmental and system levels,” says Youngberg.
Multiple departments are partners in the UWell program, and having support across campus is crucial to Youngberg’s work. “One person can’t own wellness. That’s not how we’re going to be effective,” she says. “We aren’t going to have a collective impact.”
This spring, UW–Madison will conduct a study that will ask students about their mental health. “That will give us some data so we can see what the snapshot of campus looks like, which will guide our strategic initiatives moving forward,” says Donovan.
UWell has hosted a yearly wellness symposium (the university will act as host next year for the symposium, which is a cross-campus collaboration between various departments) and a group workout for students and staff that draws more than 300 participants each, but most of Donovan and Youngberg’s work is less direct than offering specific wellness programs. “I think wellness is more about the human experience and the feeling than it is about some prescriptive activity,” Youngberg says.
Creating lasting behavioral change is incredibly difficult, she says, especially in a culture that normalizes unhealthy behavior. “The UWell initiative tries to address normalizing healthy behaviors by working with partners who [work with] both students and employees every day,” Youngberg says. “If the environment we live and interact in supports us in being our best, that will have more of an impact than just a lunchtime yoga class.”
Patterson’s barbershop is a prime example of a change in environment that supports wellness. Patterson recalls one client who came in for a haircut when a nurse was walking around the shop offering blood pressure checks. His client discovered that his numbers were really high, and he went to the doctor the next day. He’s now on blood pressure medication he wouldn’t have been on if not for the wellness check worked into his regular haircut appointment.
In the workplace
We need to change the way we work, Youngberg says. “With technology moving faster and workloads getting higher and higher, that takes us away from what it means to be a human,” she says. If we try to work the same way our technology does, she says, we burn out, get sick and try to fix it with more programs.
Many workplaces constantly revisit how to address workplace wellness. According to a survey by the Business of Healthy Employees, 74 percent of employees whose companies offer wellness programs feel like their employer truly cares about them.
At CUNA Mutual Group, one of the largest companies in Dane County, wellness is embedded in the company’s culture, says Brad Pricer, director of benefits at CUNA Mutual. “Our plans have been designed with wellness in mind,” he says.
CUNA Mutual, which employs about 1,700 at the Madison office and 3,300 combined at the Madison and Waverly, Iowa, offices, has more than 80 percent participation in its wellness initiatives out of the 2,500 employees enrolled in the health plan. Among CUNA Mutual’s wellness-related offerings are screenings, incentive plans, a fitness center, fitness classes, an employee-assistance program, employee resource groups and quiet rooms on-site. Nurses and counselors are available for mental health and well-being checks. Employees’ families can use many of these services, too. CUNA Mutual created its own seven dimensions of wellness, which aligns with WELCOA’s seven dimensions. “We truly value our employees’ happiness and their well-being, not just here, but in family life as well,” Pricer says. “So our focus is not just, ‘How many steps does a person take in a day?’ It’s ‘How healthy is an individual in all of those seven aspects?’ ”
Another Madison company, Nordic Consulting, has a workplace wellness program that supports well-being through being active, giving, learning and the power of human connections, says Vicki Ryan, vice president of human resources. “Our culture is results-oriented,” she says. “We want our teammates to drive outcomes and find balance with the things in life that are important to them.” Nordic Consulting sponsors company teams in local running races, offers a community-supported agriculture program, hosts a Community Giveback Week that nearly 1,000 employees participate in by serving charitable organizations across the U.S. and emphasizes building relationships. “We can innovate, collaborate and act with urgency because we put relationships first,” Ryan says.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, employers have seen a 52 percent increase in productivity due to health and wellness programs. Beyond participating in programs, achieving wellness at work can be as simple as allowing yourself an afternoon walk or having a plant on your desk.
Josh Steger, director of horticulture at Allen Centennial Garden, has conducted several popular workshops on how to start a desktop garden. Steger lists the many benefits of having plants at your desk: It purifies the air. It’s relaxing. It increases humidity levels. It can reduce stress. “I feel like we always have some attachment to nature, but we’re in these concrete buildings all day long,” Steger says. “To have a plant is to have a piece of nature with you.”
Changes in workplace wellness habits don’t have to be big to be impactful. “You hear stories of how people’s lives change because they’re impacted by a certain thing,” says Youngberg. “Even small little things.”
The Power of Positivity
Speaking of small things — what are three good things that happened to you today? Wellness experts everywhere preach the power of keeping a gratitude journal. Writing down three good things that happened to you every day for a certain period of time has the potential to change your long-term outlook, says Dr. Pelin Kesebir, an assistant scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at UW–Madison. “We are training your brain to constantly scan the environment for good things that are happening to us,” she says. For many people, this is the opposite of their natural tendency, she says.
The mission at the Center for Healthy Minds is to cultivate well-being and relieve suffering through a scientific understanding of the mind. The center is on the cutting-edge of exploring how to leverage technology to promote well-being. Kesebir says our well-being is dictated above all else by our state of mind. We often believe that our happiness is determined by things that happen to us, but research reveals that, barring extreme situations like war or famine, external circumstances account for only a small difference in happiness between people, she says. “What plays a more important role in our happiness is how we relate to the world on a day-to-day basis, and how we respond to the things that happen to us,” Kesebir says.
When you write down three good things about your day, you’re rewiring your brain to find the positive, charitable and constructive perspectives, she says. “This positivity is closely related to mental and physical health, and fortunately for those to whom this doesn’t come naturally, it can be trained,” Kesebir says.
Find your own wellness
The Rev. David Hart has many titles, including pastor at Sherman Avenue United Methodist Church, assistant district attorney in the Dane County DA’s office, author, columnist, mentor, tutor, husband and father. But much of what Hart does can be summed up in one title: wellness shepherd.
In his first job as an assistant public defender, Hart found that he was winning trials, but he would see his clients come back again and again. He felt a higher calling to do more than just win cases, so he began putting together holistic resources, particularly for women of color, in an effort to keep them out of the criminal justice system.
Then, Hart found himself called to the church, and he became a pastor in the neighborhood he grew up in. “It’s really what I’m called to do,” he says. “This calling to ministry also informs what I do in my day job. It helps me temper justice with mercy.”
Hart is his best self when he’s helping others achieve wellness. His path is different from anyone else’s path. “How you’re going to approach wellness and how you feel your best is going to be completely different from how I’m going to feel at my best,” says Youngberg.
Many people know what they need to do to be healthy and well, she says. “I think there can be a guilt factor in taking care of yourself. You have to care for yourself and take breaks and realize that you are not a computer,” she says. “Give yourself permission to be human.”
Andrea Behling is managing editor of Madison Magazine.
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