Why wellness in the workplace is more essential than ever

MIND THE WORK | Catherine Roscoe Barr teaching her wellness education group The Life Delicious

To a new breed of CEOs, mental and emotional health is as important as physical fitness

Have you put aside pressing work to scribble in your gratitude journal? Or omm-ed your way through a meditation-and-yoga class to channel your inner Deepak Chopra before a marathon board meeting?

Thanks perhaps to the proliferation of TED talks on happiness, B.C. is seeing a surge in mental well-being percolate through the workplace alongside the longer-touted benefits of physical fitness. These range from employee-wide programs such as Pacific Blue Cross’s workplace meditation classes (a program the Burnaby-headquartered insurance giant ran this year at the City of Vancouver) to today’s new wave of C-suite executives who feel mental and emotional health is critical to effective leadership.

Wellness and the Bottom Line

In 2010, 3.7 million adults—one in four Canadian workers—described most days as “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful

Lost productivity accounts for about a third of the $51-billion yearly cost of mental illness in Canada

Canadian companies lose 14% of their net annual profits and up to $16 billion every year through mental health disorders

After all, business may be rammed with long commutes and demanding decision-making—amplified by a culture that sleeps with its smartphones—but no one wants to become a “sick fat CEO,” says Natalie Michael, managing partner at the Karmichael Group, an executive coaching and succession management consulting firm based in West Vancouver. Looking after yourself first, she explains, is as essential as mastering any leadership skills.

“There’s a growing consciousness around well-being at the top levels, so that stereotype of the overweight, stressed-out executive of a decade ago is no longer the norm in B.C.,” says Michael, who works with a roster of more than 50 CEOs
and has included mindfulness as part of her executive retreats.

In her opinion, the increasing connection to well-being beyond exercise and diet is helping to epitomize a new style of leader. “It’s now a key pillar of success,” she says. “CEOs are seeing the link between physical and mental education and being more present and effective as a leader.”

Catherine Roscoe Barr, who runs the wellness education group The Life Delicious (and contributes to BCBusiness), agrees. She calls on her background in neuroscience to teach why a healthy mind and body boost work productivity. Her urban wellness retreats in Chinatown cite academic studies showing how “happy employees” have on average 31 per cent higher productivity, 37 per cent higher sales and triple the creativity.

“Executives often veer away from wellness information that’s too ‘woo-woo’ or hippie-ish but appreciate the benefits of evidence-based science,” says Roscoe Barr, who has lectured at Hootsuite. “They want to understand how their thoughts and actions affect brain chemistry, like the release of neurotransmitters serotonin, which boosts mood, and dopamine, which helps motivation—and how that translates to reduced stress and improved productivity.”

She advocates walking meetings or doing a few squats during a phone call. And being time-crunched is no excuse. Taking a deep breath will “elicit the relaxation response” by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, she says. “The body whispers to us about what it needs. We just have to listen before the screaming stage.”