Most heart health promotion happening today is likely to be around eat well, stay moving, don’t smoke etc, all good things shown to reducing one’s risk factor for heart disease (CVD). For example, at time of writing the World Heart Day website message reads:
“The good news is that much CVD can be prevented by making just a few simple daily changes, like eating and drinking more healthily, getting more exercise and stopping smoking.”
Yet there’s a growing body of research that links other things, such as emotional wellbeing, as a predictor of heart health. For example how connected we feel to others and our sense of belonging can have a huge effect on both our physical and emotional health, with a recent meta-analysis showing that loneliness and social isolation are strong risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke. In fact, the risk of having poor quality social relationships, with measurements including feeling lonely and isolated, was found to be similar to the risk from light smoking - and of higher risk of premature death than high blood pressure and obesity.
These studies suggest that having more and better quality social relationships is linked to decreased health risks, and having fewer; poorer quality relationships increases risk. Perhaps quite intuitive, when we consider phrases that have been around for ages, such as "My heart is broken"!
The fact that heart disease is the World Health Organisation’s biggest health challenge, and that a lack of social connection and feeling lonely is on the rise, is there an opportunity to look at things in a new way?
Can World Heart Day’s message be extended to include small daily changes in how we interact with ourselves and others, to emphasise how happiness arising from feeling good, and having good relationships, is actually rather good for our hearts too?
The science shows that skills such as gratitude, optimism and positive emotions have a protective effect related to better cardiovascular health. And only do these skills impact our physical health, the sense of ease when we experience positive emotions for example, enables us to take in more of what’s going on around us, broadening our perspective, and making us more approachable and likely to help others. All good things to combat the disturbing trend of a lack of feeling connected to others, and all skills we can learn.
What can this mean in the workplace?
Given how good feeling good is for individuals and their teams, and the growing awareness high wellbeing is linked to productivity and success, more leaders are keen to explore and implement emotional wellbeing programs in addition to wellness initiatives that just focus on physical health. At HoW this fills us with hope, especially given the strong link between leadership behaviour and heart disease in employees.
Studies show that bosses who stress us out, literally is über bad for our hearts. According to the research by Anna Nyberg at the Karolinska Institutet: “The longer a person has had a 'poorer' manager, the higher his or her risk of for example suffering a heart attack within a ten-year period”. Combine that with the potential workplace stress arising from a competitive environment; the pressure to perform more ... better ... faster, along with factors like role ambiguity/conflict, the risks of burnout and heart disease rise further.
On the other hand, positive workplace environments, with positive social interactions at work are linked with employees having lower heart rates, lower blood pressure and stronger immune systems.
So how can we further bridge the disconnect between leaders on the one hand, and the situation on the ground on the other? And during these time of complexity and change, can World Heart Day also be a catalyst for defining leadership, to put wellbeing first at work?
A particularly inspiring example is Lisa Paul, Board member of Social Ventures Australia, previously secretary in Federal Government departments in this recent interview, making an intentional choice and aligning her leadership actions to this choice:
I defined my leadership based on some Australian research from the 1990s. A researcher had asked Australian workers, ‘What do you want from your leaders?’ They’d said, ‘Two things. We want someone who can describe the strategic direction – where are we heading? Secondly, we want our leaders to care for us in a genuine way.
Lisa worked on those definitions for her entire career, informing all her decisions:
My approach to leadership worked, in terms of caring for people in a genuine way, accepting what people bring to the workplace from home life, supporting them when something goes wrong, and not allowing bullying and bad behaviour in the workplace. It worked. So twice, the department that I led was given the National Award from the Australian Human Resource Institute, for large organisation excellence in people management. I was chuffed about that; that was a sign of success.
At HoW we see an opportunity for organisations involved in World Heart Day to look at the whole picture; building wellbeing as a preventative strategy to heart disease, both inside and outside of work. Leaders can continue to look beyond wellness initiatives, and define leadership as putting wellbeing first in the workplace. By placing value on skills that enable high quality relationships; and enabling an environment where taking care of each other is the norm, leaders can literally save lives.
What if World Heart Day 2018 focused on driving wellbeing, as a force for positive change?
Co-Founder HoW | Co-Creator The Wellbeing Dojo | Wellbeing Digital Design