As the incidents of chronic illness continue to skyrocket, and as the public becomes increasingly frustrated with the limitations of conventional medicine in response, companies across America are taking matters into their own hands. From on-site yoga classes and farmers’ markets, to group meditation sessions and bike-to-work days, corporate giants are creating wellness programs that embody a whole-being, whole-life stance on “health.”
Rodale Inc. is among the companies that provide community gardens in their roundup of wellness services – a far cry from the more traditional programs, like free health exams and discounted gym memberships. Company executives behind these gardens report not only a litany of personal health benefits for those participating – including reduced stress and increased energy, physical activity, and consumption of fresh produce – but also an overall benefit to the corporation, in terms of employee relations, company productivity and brand integrity.
In particular, Rodale senior executives report that employees garden with colleagues form other departments, whom they otherwise would not meet, and even those who don’t pick up a shovel benefit from the garden’s beauty – stepping outside to decompress before diving back into the fray.
Considering that, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), chronic illness and related lifestyle risk factors are the leading drivers of health care costs for employers, lifestyle management initiatives – gardening and otherwise – are sound business investments: About 86% of full-time workers are overweight or have at least one chronic illness, and those who fall into both categories miss hundreds of millions of days of work each year – resulting in over $153 billion in lost productivity annually.
The lynchpin of chronic illness, meanwhile, is often elusive, embedded in a complex bio-psycho-social web. It therefore makes sense that conventional medicine – which seeks to chemically alter or surgically remove an isolated body part – typically fails in treating chronic illness, in the proverbial failure to see the forest through the trees.
As noted by senior executives behind the more cutting-edge wellness initiatives, a plethora of scientific studies indicate that, by way of contrast to conventional approaches, lifestyle management strategies are effective in preventing or controlling chronic illness and otherwise reducing stress and improving overall health. Not only do I concur from first-hand experience treating patients with chronic illness, but – as I have discovered through decades of case studies in my own medical practice – the simultaneous integration of lifestyle management strategies amplifies the impact of each, in a synergistic and compound effect.
In other words, the most effective treatment for chronic illness is “healthy multitasking,” in which we synchronously optimize wellness on any or all of multiple levels – physical body; mental-emotional state; relationship to loved ones, community, nature, and the divine; and life’s purpose. Because all these aspects of our lives are inter-connected, and because they all impact some aspect of our well-being, healthy multitasking sets off a positive domino effect throughout our entire system, elevating our wellness in ways that supersede when we focus on one single lifestyle aspect at a time.
Gardening excels in this capacity, and for this reason, is an especially compelling choice for a wellness program: When we garden, we step outdoors and expose ourselves to sunshine and fresh air; we dig our hands into the dirt and connect with nature; and we develop a relationship with the food we consume, and therefore, with the earth in which that food grows – among other things, giving us more incentive to increase our daily intake of fresh vegetables and fruits.
In addition, when we garden with others, and when we further enhance this activity through developing a community garden or donating some of our bounty to a food bank, we feel a sense of belonging; we bond with our peers – which in turn can lead to supportive, collaborative, and nourishing relationships, both personal and professional; and we tap into a sense of meaning and purpose in life, by helping out those in need. In other words, because gardening takes us to our “happy place” on so many levels and all at once, it is an exceptionally powerful and efficient way to activate our parasympathetic nervous system – the rest/digest mode, which stimulates the body’s healing response mechanisms and sets off a bio-chemical cascade of wellness.
For all these reasons, and as both a corporate wellness executive and a doctor whose wellness center is deliberately located on a working farm – given its profound healing impact, I find employee gardens to be the most exciting of the new generation of corporate wellness programs.
At Aveda, employees not only garden while at work during the week, but even return to campus on weekends – bringing their children and spouses along, to participate in tending to the plot, such is their interest in growing their own food and sharing the experience with their families. Some at Aveda have been so inspired by the gardening program that they now volunteer in their hometown community gardens, as well.
Similarly at Timberland, working in the garden has motivated employees to start, join, or promote local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives, as well as to donate produce to the New Hampshire Food Bank – which reaps the proceeds of the garden during summertime, when children are not receiving free meals at school. Over the years, Timberland employees have contributed over $15,000 worth of their garden’s produce to the food bank.
Not only has gardening positively, even profoundly, impacted the lives of employees who have participated in it, but it has encouraged employees to walk the talk at companies whose brand encompasses some aspect of wellness – thereby bolstering company morale and integrity. Aveda has a mission of environmental responsibility, and having an organic community garden on campus brings that mission to life. Rodale not only likes to practice what it preaches but also likes to preach what it practices, with activities in the community garden feeding content of magazines like Organic Life.
Employee gardens need not be limited, however, to corporations with a wellness brand, given the plethora of benefits gardens provide. As noted by senior executives at Rodale, just having an organic landscape can improve the health of the whole employee population, through reduced use of chemicals from lawn maintenance, while creating a space that is more engaging, educational, and productive.
As consumers increasingly demand an integrative approach to medical care, one that merges the best of conventional and holistic remedies, and as medical institutions drag their heels in response, I am delighted to see corporations take the lead in understanding and creating the optimal environments for true “health” to emerge. Given the power and influence of corporate giants that that offer cutting-edge wellness programs, and given the positive transformations they are reporting among their employees, my hope is that the rest of corporate America is just one garden hoe behind.
Michael Finkelstein, M.D., is the Chief Executive for Continuity and Corporate Wellness at Max Finkelstein Inc, a Goodyear distributor. He is also the author of Slow Medicine: Hope and Healing for Chronic Illness.