Report on Professor Phil Hanlon’s talk to Business in Glasgow (BiG)
6 February 2007
Professor Hanlon led us down an amazing road. He started where you would expect – with some standard medical statistics about life expectancy in Scotland today, but took us onto an entirely different plane within 15 minutes. Fasten your seatbelts…
Some of the stats first. We have a working population aged between say 16 and 65. How likely are you to survive that period here in Scotland? 8 out of 10 reach it; but it is 9 out of 10 for affluent backgrounds and somewhere around 5 out of 10 for deprived ones.
Our speaker then hinted at where he would be going – by introducing us to a new word: “bio-psycho-social.” We are now beginning to understand public health in much broader terms than physical wellbeing, in bio-psycho-social terms. Put simply, it is no longer appropriate to split physical wellbeing from psychological wellbeing. Take heart disease: this is not just a physical ailment but needs to be seen in a bio-psycho-social context. Several factors other than physical ones play a part in the emergence of heart disease.
A lot is known about how we can maintain a healthy lifestyle and increase our chances of having a relatively healthy, long life. Healthy eating, going to a gym on a regular basis – these are just two of the contributory factors. But enjoying relatively good health and living a long time comes about, as we now know, as a result also of several other, more complex factors.
To exemplify this, Professor Hanlon asked us to imagine the full range of civil service grades. It was found that the higher your grade is the less likely you are to experience poor health. Researchers wanted to know why. They looked at smoking and diet where there were some differences but these did not tell the full story. They looked at stress – ditto.
Then came an American scientist called Siporski who made a study of the strict hierarchical nature of the life of baboons – in Tanzania if you want to know. He discovered that “top” baboons got over their high stress more quickly than “low” ones. Conclusion, borne out in studies of humans in very hierarchical organisations: it is not acute stress that is the deciding factor in making for better or poorer health, but chronic stress. A radical insight, this has been used to explain the variance in health between senior and junior civil servants.
We now hit the 15 minute mark. Professor Hanlon transported us to Finland where there has been the usual research into public health. But then the scientists went down this route: how hopeful are people about the future? They discovered that a bigger predictor of heart attacks and the like is your attitude to the future – your hope/hopefulness or your lack of hope/hopelessness.
So if you are at the bottom of a hierarchy, experience chronic stress, and have little hope about the future… you’ve guessed it: your life chances lessen (and you will be off work more often than others further up the pyramid).
HR departments are to be commended for helping employees give up or cut down on smoking and adopt healthy eating. But more needs to be looked at if the health of the workforce is to improve over time – in particular, “steep” hierarchies.
So much for some of the typical diseases of the 20th century. Professor Hanlon got us to brainstorm for a minute about the up and coming diseases of the 21st century. Answers included: obesity, diabetes, mental illness, addictions of many kinds…Take diabetes: it was at 1% and is now at 10%.
Coming on to the Scotland of 2007, Professor Hanlon broached the subject we would rather stay in denial about: alcoholism. (We like to distance it as e.g. binge drinking, i.e. we compartmentalise it as what that younger age group do on a Friday night in that part of town… we localise it). For most of the 20th century Scotland was below the cirrhosis average in Europe. But around 1990 we started to take off when it comes to cirrhosis problems and now have the highest rate in Europe with Glasgow at the very top of the problem cities.
Here now comes the climax of moving onto another plane: what links all the above, and what is perhaps the key factor determining health? Is it not the lack of purpose, lack of meaning, low self-esteem and the like? This factor, said Professor Hanlon, is at the root of so many diseases, so much poor health.
Then we moved even higher, onto the cultural, historical and philosophical plane. Professor Hanlon invited us to consider the Enlightenment. A major thrust within it was: turn to logic and reason; abandon superstition and religion. Some might agree that the American statement “it is self-evident that all men are created equal” is a great example of that Enlightenment thrust. But in fact it was not and is not at all self-evident that all men are created equal. That is a legacy – and current inheritance – of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Same thing applies to Burns’ famous words. When that major thrust of Enlightenment re-incorporated something of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, said Professor Hanlon, it became a very successful cultural, historical and philosophical movement.
But what has happened in our own times? Richard Dawkins has returned to the initial major thrust of the Enlightenment, deleting a religious (and some would say spiritual) understanding of man from the script. Says Dawkins: we are but nodes, with no direction, merely functioning as part of the evolutionary process.
Stripped of a higher understanding of our worth, place, value and meaning as human beings, we are left with investing in busyness, food, alcohol – and we are well on our way to producing new epidemics in this new century…
Having taken us up to that level and then nailed his colours to his mast, Professor Hanlon sat down.
Following a stunned silence, there began a stream of questions and comments that could have usefully gone on for a good hour. Alas, we could only spend a few minutes on them. Here is a taster:
Yes, there are lots of things people are tackling in the workplace – all are good. But how do we get down to the root causes of our diseases, our dis-ease? How do we motivate ourselves to move to that fundamental level? (Answers on a postcard…)
So what can we as individuals in the workplace do? Well, we can begin by taking full responsibility for ourselves and aspiring to personal transformation. Do we really need to be this busy or this stressed?
From World War II onwards, happiness, well-being and prosperity went more or less hand in hand until the 1970s. Then well-being and prosperity continued their upward progress, but happiness plateaued and even dipped. Said Professor Hanlon: “The highest we can attain is not in fact happiness but contentment and joy, e.g. as experienced when we serve others.”
Hyper-capitalism, yielded to, leads us to materialistic thinking, acquisition, the all-too-physical bereft of the spiritual.
We got a for instance. In about 1929 – as portrayed in the documentary series “The Century of the Mind” – a cigarette company in the USA “had to” create much more demand. The answer: get women to smoke. A great PR coup / event was the combining in a parade of the following factors that together created a whole new market, more demand: smoking, glamorous women, emancipated womanhood. Add the flashbulbs and the resultant press coverage – and bingo!
A religious dimension, some would say a spiritual dimension, is good for you. Studies have shown that people of faith live longer, are happier and have more friends – Professor Hanlon was quick to add: what is not known is whether religion causes all that or whether relatively fit and well-adjusted, confident people gravitate towards religion…
Religion can be “protective”: it addresses issues of purpose, meaning, relationships.
Hyper-capitalism on its own is a dehumanising force. Tempered by the religious/spiritual dimension, it can have something to offer.
One guest present said how he had been helped by this aphorism: “’Want what you have’; not: ‘have what you want’”.
Gayle Cattanach of BiG gave a vote of thanks and also referred to a Tim Chester and his book on stress. It is full of worrying stats on how many hours we work and points out that our average lunch hour in the UK lasts 27 minutes. But the book contains this startling recommendation: the antidote is to find meaning in life and hope. That can change everything.
Professor Hanlon had certainly changed some of our ideas about what constitutes our problems of public health and health in the workplace in Scotland. We will never quite be the same again…
Consultant to business matters