Workplace Mental Health Promotion – A Series – Definitions (Words Matter A Lot!)

The words we use in describing the field of worksite wellness field matter. And you do want to understand the words you are using, right?

Since words matter, it is important to be clear about how key words used in the field are defined. For example, do the terms mental health and mental illness mean the same thing? Can they be used interchangeably? The issue of what words mean plays itself out within several areas in the field of worksite wellness, not just in the arena of mental health.

Wellness refers to the degree to which one feels positive and enthusiastic about life. It includes the capacity to manage one’s feelings and related behaviors, including the realistic assessment of one’s autonomy, limitations, and ability to cope effectively with stress. The published models all show that wellness is a multi-dimensional concept.

Illness refers to the presence or absence of disease. Mental illness refers to conditions that affect cognition, emotion, and behavior. These conditions would include: schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders and PTSD. Research shows that mental illness, especially depression, is strongly associated with other diseases.

Mental health is positive psychological functioning that emphasizes growth, meaning, and personal capacity. Mental health also covers compassion, control, creativity, love, optimism, resilience, spirituality. Research into mental health has found that it influences physical health and biological functioning. Research shows that high positive affect as measured in terms of happiness, joy, contentment, and enthusiasm is linked with lower morbidity, increased longevity, reduced health symptoms, better endocrine system function, better immune system response, lower inflammatory response and lower blood pressure.

Wellbeing refers to a state of happiness, being pleased and content, low degrees of anguish, with generally positive physical and cognitive health, a positive attitude and experiencing a good quality of life. Like wellness, wellbeing is also a multi-dimensional concept. The dimensions of wellbeing include: self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth

Recovery from mental illness and substance abuse should be seen as a bridge between health and illness. Researchers have clearly documented that the absence of mental illness does not necessarily indicate the presence of mental health. Mental illness and mental health are independent dimensions.

It is important for employers to understand that:

• Mental health is frequently intertwined with physical health and social conditions

• Mental health and mental illness are rooted in a dynamic and complex biopsychosocial model of disease and health.

• Recent studies show that higher levels of wellness and wellbeing are linked with better regulation of biological systems which serves as a protective influence on good physical health.

• Just as different levels of health risk stratification require different wellness related programming, different approaches are required for different mental illness sub-populations.

• Recovery is an important process that bridges illness and wellness

As our understanding and research results have progressed over time, our definitions for health, wellness and mental health have changed. It is also important to recognize that in addition to knowing what these terms mean, how these terms are operationalized in the workplace is also critically important, if not more so. The classic example of this being wellness. Worksite wellness today is not wellness at all, but really employee health status management.

I suspect that as we continue to learn more from research, worksite wellness related definitions will continue to evolve.

Creating An Integrated Program

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