Beyond Stress: How Leadership Style and Decision Making Authority Influence Health


When we talk about employment and health, the conversation usually focuses on how your health impacts your ability to find and maintain meaningful employment, or how being healthy impacts your performance at work. However, while the above is absolutely true, the opposite is true as well – employment is in fact one of the most influential determinants of health.

Some of the ways employment can impact your physical, mental, and social health include:

  • Positively influencing self-esteem
  • Providing a vital link between the individual and society
  • Enabling personal fulfilment
  • Social contact and satisfaction arising from involvement in a collective effort (Institute of Public Health in Ireland, 2005).

Not only does employment influence health directly, it also shapes many other aspects of life important for health and wellbeing, including the ability to pay rent, bills, and afford healthy food. For more info on how all of the various determinants of health influence each other, check out this great short video from the Wellesley Institute.

While employment in and of itself has been linked to health, specific aspects of your work also influence health – in addition to such obvious factors as physical hazards in the workplace or stress, the social organization of your workplace, management styles, degree of control you have, and social relationships have also all been found to influence health. Some examples of this include:

  • Little opportunity to use your skills and low decision-making authority can negatively impact health (WHO, 2003)
  • Little control over one’s work is strongly related to an increased risk of low back pain, sickness absence and cardiovascular disease (WHO, 2003). For example, a study of civil servants in the U.K. showed that individuals with low job control were nearly twice as likely to report coronary heart disease than other workers (Institute of Public Health in Ireland, 2005)
  • Receiving inadequate rewards (e.g. money, status, or self-esteem) for the effort put into work has been linked with increased cardiovascular risk (WHO, 2003).

In addition to impacting health, these factors also play a role in job satisfaction, performance, and success in your chosen field. Whatever your role at work may be, having control, being rewarded, and using your skills could positively impact all aspects of your life.

World Health Organization (2003). Social Determinants of Health: The Solid Facts.

Institute of Public Health in Ireland (2005). Health Impacts of Employment: A Review.

Three Reasons Why Panda Bears Are Horrible Role Models

Aka Hige – Flickr Creative Commons

Panda bears are the poster-animals for numerous conservation causes and luck-based Chinese philosophies. Yet these malnourished creatures are not adaptable to their changing surroundings. So, here is an argument to stop celebrating these overrated beasts.

Every day we hear stories and see images that our global economy/marketplace/village is changing at hyper speed. University students will wind up working in a job that didn’t exist when they started school. Fast Company is writing interesting articles about GenFlux leading teams within the chaos of our modern world. Popular media and memes change faster than Survivor “stars” and Lady Gaga’s hair colour. Organizations merge, expand and downsize. Units are eliminated or integrate with others. Change is the only certainty. Shift happens.

Adaptability is crucial for success (career, community, family). People who are flexible with how the world is changing will lead its future as opposed to forever playing catch-up because they live in the past (are you listening, Republicans?). When it comes to building community, embracing change and nimbly adapting to life’s shifts are incredibly important – even necessary.

Which is why panda bears are horrible role models for everyone everywhere. Including you.

Here’s why:

1. They hate sex. “Male pandas suffer from a chronic lack of sex drive – more than 60 per cent show no sexual desire at all in captivity, and only a tenth of them will mate naturally,” says The Independent’s Clifford Coonan. “Zookeepers have even resorted to using videos of mating pairs in the hope that “panda porn” will help the bears get frisky, although scientists say the films don’t have much effect.” Unreal. This becomes even more infuriating when you examine the animals’ eating habits and state of their youngsters.

2. They are totally useless for the first six months of their lives. Polar bear cubs leave their ice caves when they are three months old, walk for dozens/hundreds of kilometres to find food, don’t find any because of climate change and adapt by fighting walruses or armed folk from Churchill, Manitoba. Panda bear cubs are blind for the first10-20 days of their lives. They can’t walk, hunt or function before they’re three months old. Sure, they’re cute, but so are kittens, which, as it turns out, are more ferocious and adaptable than panda bears.

3. They refuse to adapt. While the Internet insists on proving me wrong (thanks for nothing, The BBC, National Geographic and, I’m pretty confident that Planet Earth’s David Attenborough told me that panda bears mostly eat bamboo (it is allegedly 99 per cent of their diet), even though their bellies are designed to digest meat, just like the stomach of any good carnivore. Their refusal to consume non-bamboo-based-foods is mostly to blame for their low sex drive and weakling children and, with the erosion of this food supply in China and beyond, it seems startling that pandas don’t incorporate other food (meat, berries, garbage, etc.) into their diet, like tigers, penguins and grizzly bears. Penguins, on the other hand, are outstanding adapters – they can live on the beaches of South Africa or the freezing ice fields of Antarctica. It’s penguins that should bee on the World Wildlife Fund’s posters and calendars, not panda bears.

So, if you’re taking professional cues from panda bears, stop. It’s both weird (seriously, they’re bears) and counterproductive (you need to be adaptable and should also enjoy the physical act of love) for building positive and thriving communities at home and at work.

Get adaptable. Get flexible. And get comfortable with change. Because so much more is coming.

Adapting to a New Food Order

Food. Everyone can relate to food in some way, whether you eat to live, or live to eat. Through our choices around food, we can have significant impact on our environment. Since there are so many ways that food impacts sustainability, there are many ways people can make change.

A Broken System

Let’s face it. Our food system is broken. I could tell you how, but Oxfam sums it pretty well. We cannot continue on this path of destruction, as climate change makes itself more apparent, oil prices continue to rise and our agricultural land continues to be destroyed by both unsustainable farming practices and developed into high rises. People in developed countries cannot deny that much of this destruction is being caused by our society’s insatiable demand for avocados in Canada, strawberries in December and mountains of pre-packaged, highly processed, “convenience” foods. When does it make sense that a package of food amalgamated from ingredients from all over the world, processed in a factory, packaged in plastic, and shipped to the grocery store is cheaper than a head of lettuce bought from a farmer growing across town? Something isn’t working. The economics of our food systems simply are not sustainable.

Leading from Within

As an introverted and often shy person, I sometimes have a hard time identifying with “leadership” . I am not the type to go out there and start my own non-profit, write a book on food or create a blog with thousands of followers. It is difficult for me to see how I can make change about something I am so passionate about, but without the kind of outgoing people skills that push so many others out in front. But I realize that if everyone was that kind of leader, we would have a lot of people talking, but not enough people taking action. The world is full of countless quiet leaders, people out there doing the work, leading by example and making small changes in their communities and neighbourhoods.

Leading by Involvement

Change in the realm of food is happening everywhere. Throughout Vancouver, there are food policy councils and food security networks, engaging in discussion and driving change. Food security collaboratives are working to provide local, affordable and fresh food to neighbourhoods that are otherwise unable to access these things. Pocket markets and community kitchens exist all around the city. They are widespread and yet invisible to those who aren’t paying attention. There are many kinds of food related events going on all the time, promoting food that is organic, local, vegetarian, accessible and sustainable. Organizations like Village Vancouver bring people together over food on a regular basis, and often offer information and workshops on things like cheese making, canning and food production. And it is really easy and oh, so much fun to get your hands dirty on an urban farm or in your own garden plot. I have come to appreciate the simplicity and complexity of growing food, and have gained a solid understanding of everything that goes into the food that I eat, from the dirt that it grows in, the bees that pollinate it, and the effort required to keep it alive until it’s ready to end up on my plate.

Over my last 4 months of food immersion, I continue to learn a great deal, and I share that knowledge through conversation and action. Because it’s food, everyone can relate on some level. It’s not the huge, daunting, and divisive subject of climate change or politics or saving a world that very desperately needs saving. After all it’s all about what we eat. And the way to the heart of a non-environmentalist is through their stomachs.

Photos courtesy of Karly Pinch and Kitsilano Neighbourhood House

Sport and Community Leadership

The Vancouver Whitecaps FC is leading positive change in Vancouver. We predict the club’s ideas, commitments and positive role modeling will soon send ripples throughout the worlds of sport, wellness and community. We look forward to measuring the myriad ways that Vancouver’s newest professional sporting club reaches its potentiality – on the pitch as well as in the community.

As part of their club vision, the Whitecaps are committed to being a significant community asset. For the past year, the club has been championing the Vancouver Street Soccer League through a unique partnership with the DTES community sport association. In addition to frequent ticket giveaways, practices with Whitecaps FC men and women’s teams and the recent nomination of VSSL President Alan Bates as their community MVP, the team has also looked to grow its roots within the youth soccer community. A recent example was their free community clinic at UBC where the Whitecaps invited over 100 students from Hastings Elementary and U-Hill Elementary for a coaching session with Carl Valentine (‘Caps Legend and current Booster), Jay DeMerit (the club’s Captain), and Russell Teibert (one of the club’s Canadian stars).

A new study by Griffith University’s School of Business will explore the relationship between new sporting clubs and the communities they impact by investigating “the benefits gained in terms of the fan base they will stimulate as well as the well-being of the communities they enter” and will aim to “identify ways to maximise both outcomes.” [Editor’s note: please take note of our outstanding quotations and credit-giving, Margaret Wente!].

A study by Up2Us of American professional sports leagues and the philanthropy that they deliver for communities, suggests that “‘team-based philanthropy’ centers around the following five categories: Funding; Signatures and Seats; Free Marketing; Team/Player Involvement; and Use of Space.” The report recommends that professional clubs go beyond providing hand-picked organizations with free tickets, signed merchandise and field space by truly inspiring and investing in their communities, even if it’s for transparently self-serving reasons.

For example, a team might address the challenge of youth health, wellness and fitness by, say, contributing to the construction and management a giant Soccer Training Centre that will provide access to youth in the Lower Mainland (and beyond), but will also provide an incubator for future Whitecaps FC talent. Another example from the report is a recommendation for clubs to not award grants to single community teams or local nonprofits, but to challenge these community-based organizations to develop campaigns or programs as part of a competition, where the winning organization would receive something cool (e.g. taco night with Jay DeMerit!) from the professional team.

In addition to Vancouver Whitecaps FC, here are some randomly-selected North American pro-sports clubs (and one very tall man) that are doing cool things:

What do you think of how sport clubs give and how such engagement helps communities realize their potential?

Assessing the Impact of a Policy or Program on the Mental Health of a Population

There are many definitions of mental health promotion that have been put forward by organizations, governments, and individuals from around the world. While all similar, there are some important differences that impact how mental health promotion is understood and practiced. One of my favourite definitions is this one: the “actions taken to maximize the mental health and wellbeing of populations by improving social, physical and economic environments; and strengthening the understanding and skills of individuals in ways that support their efforts to achieve and maintain mental health” (Victorian Government Department of Health, 2010).

The reason I’m so partial to this definition is because it highlights the fact that mental health is influenced not just by the knowledge and behaviours of the individual, but also by the environment in which he/she lives, works, and plays; what’s more, the environmental factors influencing mental health are mentioned first in the definition, implying considerable weight should be given to these factors. I find too often, emphasis is placed on what an individual can do to promote their mental health, with little acknowledgement of the structural and environmental conditions that play a significant role in one’s mental health and well-being.

This is the definition that is utilized within the Victorian Government Department of Health’s recent publication, Using policy to promote mental health. This publication is intended to provide policymakers with the skills to be able to understand and consider the social and environmental determinants of mental health when developing or reviewing policies. Some of these key determinants include social inclusion, freedom from violence and discrimination, education, income, employment, and working conditions. One of the things I appreciate most about this document is that it provides some concrete steps policymakers can take to assess the mental health promoting impact of a policy or program.

Because mental health is influenced by such a broad range of social, environmental and economic factors, a large majority of programs and policies could benefit from having their mental health promoting impact assessed. For instance, an assessment of the mental health promoting impact of the City of Vancouver’s Healthy City Strategy (which I have previously written about here) could be very useful in deciding which programs and policies to implement. I would encourage anyone involved in developing or reviewing economic, social, or environmental programs or policies to think about these programs/policies through a mental health promotion lens, and consider assessing the mental health promoting impact of their program/policy.

Victorian Government Department of Health (2010). Using policy to promote mental health. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Masthead photo courtesy of Pink Sherbert Photography from Flickr

Bridging the Gap between Research and Action

Go to any academic journal and pull up a random scientific article. Can you understand it? Chances are you will probably not understand all of it. Even if you do understand all of it (yes, even including the statistical analysis section), do you understand how this relates to the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of other articles done on the same subject? And equally as important, do you have the time to sift through stacks of articles to make an informed decision on a program, policy or service you are considering implementing in either your private or professional life? Herein lies the value of knowledge translation. Knowledge translation is the process of taking research and translating it into something practitioners, professionals, policy-makers and the general public can understand and use.

While this type of undertaking doesn’t happen enough in Canada (e.g. with professionals being given the time and resources to review research and translate it into understandable language), a good example of structures being put in place to support such KT activity is the National Collaborating Centres (NCC) for Public Health. These Centres aim to translate academic evidence and develop resources that can be used by public health practitioners and policy-makers to address a number of public health topics, including infectious diseases, health inequities, environmental health, and healthy public policy.

Living up to their name, the Centres also collaborate with one another on a number of special projects, including a structural profile of public health systems and functions across Canada. A particularly interesting project that has recently commenced within the National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health looks at how the social determinants of health and health equity can be integrated into population health status reporting, and in turn how such reports can result in effective health equity policies, and improved health equity in Canada.

While research and practice are equally as important and in many ways dependent on one another to fuel their respective activities, the importance of having systems in place that allow for critical and independent translation between the two is crucial to ensuring valid and reliable research is driving quality, evidence-based practice and policy.

Australia’s Strange Sporting Obsession

Last Saturday night, with a level of hype and expectation akin to the lunar landing, a seriously large number of Australians stayed up late to watch the country’s most successful racehorse, Black Caviar, race at Royal Ascot in England. You read right – people lost sleep in order to watch a racehorse compete in a race thousands of kilometres away, in a country that everyone in Australia loves to hate. The reason why of course is that as a community, we are absolutely obsessed with sport. Any sport.

Babies born in Melbourne routinely have an Australian Rules football team before they have a name, and once that minor detail has been finalised, the next step is getting them straight on to the waiting list for membership of the Melbourne Cricket Club. The current waiting list for MCC membership, which entitles the holder to entry to all football and cricket games held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, is somewhere in the vicinity of seventeen years.

So what is it that makes Australians such sporting tragics? One school of thought is that as a young nation with comparatively few competing narratives, most of our national heroes have ended up coming from sport, and sporting success has come to be a key indicator of our success as a nation. We’ve got a small number of war heroes and a couple of cultural icons, but the vast majority of our identity comes from sport, and we measure our place in the world through it.

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Australia slipped to number six on the medal tally, after finishing fourth in 2000 and 2004. We still won half the amount of medals that the USA won (not bad for a country with one fourteenth the population) but the media response in Australia was uncompromisingly hostile. If you were visiting Australia at this time and happened to pick up a newspaper, you could have been forgiven for thinking that we’d come out at the bottom of the medal table, or that our entire Olympic team had been outed as drug cheats.

But while we’re totally obsessed with sport, I like to think we’ve also got pretty decent manners too. Every Friday night for most of the year, up to 90,000 people cram into a stadium to watch an Aussie Rules game. Fans from both teams travel to the game together, they sit together at the ground, and at the end of the night they pile sardine-like into a packed train together to go home. There’s no team-based segregation, no fights and no need for masses of police. Why? Because it’s community at its finest – Australians don’t care what sport you love, as long as you love sport. And they don’t care which team you support, as long as you support someone. It’s obsessive, but it’s kind of nice too.

Masthead photo from this photostream, body photo from this photostream. Both used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.

The Launch of Vancouver’s Healthy City Strategy

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to attend the City of Vancouver’s Healthy People, Healthy City conference. The conference marked the launch of the Healthy City Strategy, which complements the City’s other two strategies – the Greenest City Action Plan, and the Vancouver Economic Action Strategy. Together, these three strategies attempt to address the social, ecological and economic needs of Vancouver. The Healthy City Strategy is comprised of three components – healthy people: taking care of the basics; healthy communities: promoting inclusion, belonging and connectedness; and healthy environments: ensuring livability now and into the future. Within each of these components, a number of ‘building blocks’ needed to achieve a healthy city are identified.

A highlight of the conference was the keynote address by The Globe and Mail public health reporter André Picard. Reflecting on what it takes to create a healthy city, Mr. Picard spoke of the importance of addressing the social determinants of health (for example, income and housing), as well as creating healthier environments through the creation of healthy public spaces, as a foundation of a healthy city. The focus on the social and environmental determinants of health speak to a good wealth of research suggesting that medical care accounts for only about 10% of one’s health. Some of Mr. Picard’s suggestions for creating a healthy city included investing in good public transit, public spaces, greenery, and local farming; developing public institutions in the downtown core; creating mixed-used neighbourhoods and roads; and de-uglifying the city by taking cars out of the equation as much as possible – a key facet in all of these suggestions is the ability to bring people together.

Throughout the morning, a total of 9 lighting-stroke quick presentations (no exaggeration – each presentation was three minutes long) described some of the ways in which the City  was already working towards some of the building blocks identified in the strategy. For example, Bill Briscall spoke of the ways RainCity Housing was creating opportunities for healthier housing, and Miguel Testa and Steven Dang spoke about CitizenU, an innovative initiative that engages young people as leaders in addressing racism, discrimination, and bullying. The afternoon panel echoed some of the key points made by Mr. Picard in the keynote address, with a focus on decreasing health inequities in our more vulnerable populations and creating healthier public spaces and opportunities for increased social connections (something addressed in length in this recently released Vancouver Foundation report).

The strategy put forward by the City of Vancouver is ambitious, and serves as a comprehensive conceptual framework for the City. Mr. Picard offered some good advice moving forward: be bold with the strategy, but remember to have goals and timetable, as well as to prioritize (“if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority”). I look forward to seeing how the plan is put into action, and how it (in the words of Mayor Gregor) will accelerate and deliver.

Photo courtesy of JamesZ_Flickr

Journey into the Wilds of New Westminster on the Greenway

This Monday, intrepid Gumboot illustrator/photographer Phil Skipper and I embarked on a journey to ride from East Vancouver to New Westminister along the vaunted Central Valley Greenway, a bike route that weaves through the “Vancouver specials” of East Van, along the flat Skytrain route to Boundary and then into the forest and lake district of Burnaby all the way to the heart of New Westminster.

The trail runs past a wide range of interesting sites (neighbourhood library, awesome cycling bridge, old New West prison, gorgeous lakes, angry looking Canada geese) which we were sadly unable to spend too much time observing due to the pouring rain that buffeted us throughout the day. Below are a few photos that chronicle the journey – which despite the weather, was a very good one. To learn more about the Greenway and other associated routes – visit Translink’s website.

This is a little “library” alcove buried off Lakewood in Grandview Woodlands. Talk about a neat little concept for the community to share books.

Despite the rain, we enjoyed a brief picnic of nuts, strawberries and raisins in Burnaby's lake district as we watched Canada Geese give us the evil eye.

Amazingly tasty meal at the Dublin Castle Pub in New West. I got the soup and beef dip. Skipper enjoyed the very British Shepherd's Pie

Happy International Anti-Homophobia Day

Yes, that’s right, today is international anti-homophobia day. Lots of things happening around the world to mark this day. I’m going to focus one one small event that happened locally. In Gladstone Secondary on the eastside of Vancouver, a pride/Canadiana flag was flown proudly as students got decked out in all sorts of purple get ups, munched on purple cupcakes and painted/decked the halls all sorts of funky colors. Bright balloons and streamers were everywhere.

Support for LGBTQ youth was at an all time high. Here are a few photos to really get in the spirit. Happy Anti-Homophobia Day!