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Working Well

Barber Shop Banter: The Work-Health Connection

While getting a haircut from an old friend, we stumbled into a conversation about access to health care and roadblocks people face when trying to get better.

A recent long discussion with an old friend left a lot on my mind. This friend is now a hair stylist, and she built a salon in her basement to cut clients’ hair in her home.

In one comment that I found particularly intriguing, she mentioned she was going back to school to study psychiatry since that’s “basically what she does already.” A stereotypical old-school beauty parlor image came in my head, something like a woman sitting in a salon chair and venting all her problems to the stylist cutting her hair or a man complaining in a low voice about the stock market while his barber trims his beard.

Not to say this is at all accurate. It’s realistically based in some piece of outdated pop culture I consumed as a kid, something I can’t even remember anymore.

Still, our discussion fascinated me. My friend mentioned the research she did that spurred this change of career. She looked into institutions like correctional facilities and mental health institutions that often have an influx of patients or inmates with mental health problems, and she found that in many cases these aren’t a long-term fix even after someone does get out. For example, someone with a mental health problem could go in for some bad breakdown or bad behavior, get released with only a few days’ worth of medication, and then develop the same problem or revert to the same problematic behavior as before because they don’t have health insurance or because they can’t afford the medication.

This brought me back to a previous topic I’ve explored, that your company’s health plan says much more about your attitude toward mental health than any wellness program or initiative. We weren’t criticizing the facilities themselves or the efforts they made but criticizing the fact that so many outside factors like access and cost of care could make even the most valiant efforts null and void.

I find this an important point to bring up to the employer population when the opportunity arises: employees’ access to care is critical!

This conversation also got me thinking about the flipside of this equation. So many people are dependent on work for health care, but similarly, your health issues and therefore health care costs may be dependent on the your job or work environment. I’m mostly familiar to this on a personal level by trivial whining I do like, “Looking at a computer all day is giving me a headache!” or “Sitting at a desk all day is killing my back!” But there might be more to the story.

A Washington Post writer recently did a fascinating Q&A with Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer on this topic. Pfeffer is the author of a book called Dying for a Paycheck, and his main argument is that companies should focus on poor management practices that cause health problems and increased health care costs rather instead of focusing their energy on adding wellness programs.

Workforce intern Aysha Ashley Househ also spoke with Pfeffer to gauge the main takeaways of his book for HR practitioners. More on that later. But for now, readers, I’d like to know: How does your company address the underlying management issues and culture issues that contribute to an unhealthy environment for employees?

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.