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Tokyo 2020: what can eastern medicine teach us about improving employee wellbeing?

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As we all become swept up in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games this week and all things Japanese, there’s a great deal to be learned from eastern medicine when it comes to improving your employee wellbeing programme.

29th Jul 2021
Wellness Consultant & Coach InsideOut Wellness
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This week saw the start of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and, with that, a renewed sense of focus on the issue of health and wellbeing. What’s interesting about the eastern approach to medicine is that it takes a ‘whole person’ centred approach.

Uniformity is not a word we should aspire to in the people who make up the workforce, and yet it is so often adopted as a solution to human-based issues.

In contrast to the reductionist approach of allopathy, eastern philosophies to health espouse the principle of ‘wholism’ or ‘whole person’ diagnosis and treatment. In other words, the unequivocal acceptance of the interconnection between mind (psyche) and the body (soma) is the bedrock of eastern medicine.  

Historically ignored by practitioners of modern medicine, in the past 30 years, western science is increasingly starting to recognise the legitimacy of this approach, helped largely by the work completed by Dr Candace Pert in the 1980s. Dr Pert (1946-2013) was an internationally recognised neuroscientist and pharmacologist who published over 250 research articles. She was a significant contributor to the emergence of mind-body medicine as an area of legitimate scientific research in the 1980s.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach in eastern medicine to diagnosing and treating people; a person is regarded as a unique presentation of their social history, genetics, lifestyle, behaviour as well as their physical and mental symptoms.  

Everybody is different

In eastern medicine, a ‘sheep dip’ approach to wellbeing is an uncomfortable juxtaposition. Therein lies a challenge for the mass-market approach to wellness. The foundation stone of individual wellness is somewhat contradictory to the generic approaches to wellbeing we see in many corporate wellness programmes, gyms, online courses and apps.

Organisations should and do reflect a wide-ranging demographic, with gender, age, health, female health life-stages, religious and cultural beliefs all being part of the rich tapestry of the workforce demographic. Uniformity is not a word we should aspire to in the people who make up the workforce, and yet it is so often adopted as a solution to human-based issues.

Cost is naturally a major factor in the production of any organisational training or support programme, based on the supposition it is cheaper to produce generic wellness programmes. The question I ask my corporate clients to reflect upon, however, is – is it effective?  

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Root and branch approach

A reductionist and generic approach to wellbeing carries benefit. It enables you to hone-in on a specific issue, which in allopathic terms tends to be the perceived presenting health issue. For example, if someone presents with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common health complaint, the allopathic approach tends towards providing medication for digestive support.  For eastern medicine, however, this is a flaw in the allopathic philosophy. It risks missing a myriad of other issues that may be either the root cause, or a significant symptom that also needs addressing.

In eastern medicine, IBS is a symptom of something more than digestive ill health, warranting a much wider exploration of mental-emotional health, lifestyle and dietary habits as far as the patient will allow. Treatment approaches may include digestive support, but may also include support to aid stress management or diet and lifestyle changes. This not only addresses the symptom, but also seeks to address the cause.

The benefits of taking an individual root and branch approach to wellness should not be underestimated. Evidence suggests that there is therapeutic benefit simply from being seen and heard as an individual.

Prevention rather than cure

Aside from the moral obligation to support the people who work within an organisation, a well workforce is a significant asset, because there is strong evidence that workplaces with high levels of mental and physical wellbeing are more productive.  

An employee assistance programme, return to work sessions, and absenteeism policies are essential components of any wellness programme, but if that is the only touchpoint an employee has with the wellness programme, then I would posit that the wellness strategy of the organisation has intentionally or unintentionally focused on ‘curing’ someone who has become ‘unwell’.

Prevention is always cheaper than cure over the long-term, both in money, but also in time and effort. Sleep hygiene, body therapy (such as acupuncture), food and diet, spending time in nature, seasonal health, lifestyle, movement, meditation are identified as preventative and curative therapy modalities in eastern medicine. These ‘pillars’ of eastern medicine form the basis of a preventative approach to wellbeing, as well as a curative one. They can be widely taught and easily communicated and can be individually tailored and adopted to deliver the most benefit individually and collectively.  

Investing in people

As we continue to recover from the pandemic, workplace wellbeing is becoming increasingly relevant as businesses begin to understand the links between employee wellness, morale, engagement, productivity, attraction, and retention. Creating a wellbeing programme based on ‘wholism’ promotes a community agenda whilst maintaining a sense of personalised support.

Advocates of eastern medicine understand that wellness is not simply a refurbished building, an ergonomic assessment, or free herbal teas – wellness is a way of being, a.k.a. ‘wellbeing’. A great workplace puts people first – and putting people first means empowering them to make choices through education, which resonates on an individual level.  

The seismic changes to the working lives of so many people during the pandemic has given us all an opportunity to review and change the traditional approach to employee wellbeing support to ensure business can grow, prosper and contribute in the post-Covid economy.

My Wellness at Work support brochure is now available to download for free here.

Interested in this topic? Read Mindfulness: motivating a workforce under pressure with employee-led wellbeing.

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