Editor’s Note: This GWF2019 Advance Paper was written by the Catalysts for the Health in Mission Issue Network as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the related session at the Global Workplace Forum 2019 held in Manila, Philippines.
Health. One of the most misunderstood words in the English language. In a Western context, for the most part, health is understood as the absence of disease—one who is not sick with the flu or suffering from some form of cancer or any number of other physical maladies. Good health is associated with eating the right foods (though this always seems to be a moving target), drinking the right mix of liquid and working out on a regular basis. But good health seems to remain an elusive dream for the majority of humans in the world. Though the statistics regarding the global burden of disease has shown a significant reduction in communicable diseases (malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS, etc.) the burden is now shifting to non-communicable diseases.
Those known as chronic or lifestyle forms of disease would include diabetes, many forms of cancer, cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory disease. These in large part are caused by unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, tobacco use, and harmful use of alcohol. Treating the former, communicable diseases, is difficult enough while treating the latter, those mainly caused by lifestyle choices, is supremely more difficult as it requires a change in behavior and habits.
One aspect of health, mental health, has received much needed attention and acceptance as of late, though much work still needs to be done before we see Christians fully embrace their opportunities to help those suffering with mental illness. It wasn’t so long ago that this was a taboo topic in most churches. How could someone who knows Jesus personally have a mental illness? Doesn’t coming into a saving relationship with the Lord of Creation make all things, right? Including our mental health? In many churches the general consensus is that if you are suffering from a mental illness you cannot possibly be a true follower of Jesus. But slowly this attitude is changing. Especially in light of the fact that some very high-profile church leaders have children who are or have suffered from severe mental illness.
Add to this the fact that the world is facing the largest refugee crisis in history, with concomitant mental stressors, and we will begin to see the massive calling and opportunity Christians have to significantly impact the lives of many thousands of people, many of whom come from some of the most unreached regions of the world.
Another historically neglected health topic relates to those suffering with physical disabilities. Some may consider those with disabilities a unique and unaddressed unreached people group. Leaving that discussion aside, there is no doubt that Christians have not been active enough in addressing the needs of the disabled in their communities. While our churches should be the most welcoming of places, how many made accommodations for those in wheelchairs, for example, until they were forced to by local ordinances? We are all made in the image of God, thus even though with the most severe form of disability are a reflection of our Lord.
But even if we become expert at meeting the physical and mental needs of our people and make all efforts to welcome and integrate those with disabilities into our local expression of the body of Christ, we will still not have a complete picture of what health really means. In his sentinel work, Health, the Bible and the Church, Dr Daniel Fountain states
Health cannot be defined. It is not simply an object for analysis. To render it such is to think secularly about health. Health is life, a gift we receive, an endowment we are to develop, and a journey we are to pursue. We can observe and analyze much along the way. We can manipulate and improve certain aspects of health and life. But we can never comprehend the whole.
Perhaps the best way for the church to understand health from a biblical perspective is the have a deep knowledge and understanding of shalom. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, ‘Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature. . . . But the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, not merely being in right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment on one’s relationships.’ But our understanding must go deeper even than right relationships. From an outline of biblical usage, we find a rich variety of application, including completeness, soundness, welfare, health, prosperity (not the prosperity gospel variety), quietness, contentment, and friendship. Sounds a lot like the kind of life those who follow Jesus should be experiencing but are not in most cases.
If we agree that this broader understanding of health is biblical and applies to the calling of Christians, and if we believe that we exist in communities and that we are made up of a mind, body, and spirit, then who is primarily responsible for helping people live healthy lives? If we fall prey to thinking about health in a secular way, then our answer may be that governments are primarily responsible since they are perceived as being responsible for providing ‘health for all, or Universal Health Care’—the slogan adopted during the 1978 Alma Ata meeting in what is now Almaty, Kazakhstan. Along this same line of thinking, secularists, and some Christians, believe health is a human right and that someone must provide. Those who promote this line of thinking rarely speak of the individual as being primarily responsible for their own health. Health as a human right leads to an entitlement mentality which always looks outside of one’s own context for the answer to one’s health problems.
But let’s return to our focus on Christians and their role in all this. Keeping in mind that we exist in community as integrated beings—mind/body/spirit—we think it safe to say the most important aspect of our health then is our spiritual well-being. From this stance then we can conclude that those who care for our spiritual condition, our family, pastors, elders and mentors (there are others) are our most important helpers when it comes to living a health life, aside from our own personal responsibility for making wise lifestyle choices.
Wherein then does this intersect with the work place? The most obvious application is to those who have been called to a health care profession, as understood from a Western perspective: doctors, nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and any number of other professions that primarily deal with restoring wounded people to physical wellness. These professionals have perhaps the most vital role to play in touching people with the love of Christ. Literally. No one is more receptive, in general, to conversations of a spiritual nature than those suffering from a disease of the body. The compassionate care and touch of a Christ-following healthcare professional opens many doors to conversations about Jesus. These must be done respectfully and with great care so as not to use this privilege as a means to coerce someone into a superficial commitment to Christ. We cannot go about hitting suffering people (figuratively speaking of course) over the head with our Bibles while exclaiming repent and believe before you end up in hell!
Mental health and the workplace
The relationship between mental health and work is bidirectional. In other words, mentally healthy workers are essential for productive, satisfying workplaces that reflect ‘shalom’ in how they operate, and conversely, the quality of work and the workplace impact the mental health of its workers.
While mental health has often been dismissed as an insignificant health factor that is ‘all in a person’s head’, in reality mental health problems have a profound global economic impact. According to the World Health Organization, the estimated cost of depression and anxiety to the global economy is 1 trillion USD per year in lost productivity. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is the number one health reason for absenteeism and low productivity in the workplace.
Conversely, the workplace environment can contribute to mental health problems. Risks to mental health include harassment and bullying, a lack of health and safety policies, poor and management practices, and long or inflexible working hours. Clearly, there are also extreme circumstances of exploitation of workers such as human trafficking and slavery. Certain jobs, by their very nature, are at high risk for mental health problems including work as a first responder and combat service in the military.
Christians worldwide are just in the past few years awakening to the toll that mental health problems and trauma have on people. The problem of stigma makes these issues all the more difficult to address. People feel a sense of shame and of being defective in a way that they usually do not for other kinds of health conditions. Stigma often leads not seeking treatment, despite the fact that mental health treatment is generally highly effective. Christians are well placed to educate people about mental health in ways that will reduce stigma. In addition, new treatment approaches are focusing on ways that community organizations like churches can provide support and education that often can reduce the need for professional treatment.
Mental health workers who see their work as a Christian calling are greatly needed worldwide, which is especially the case for mental health workers who view their work ‘missionally’. Within the past 10 years there has been an emphasis on ‘care and counsel as mission’ that describes mental health workers who are open to using their skills to serve not only Christians but others who have not yet become Christians as an act of witness and compassion.
I would also make the case that employers also play a vital role in helping people live healthy lives. The workplace environment can be a very unhealthy place to earn a living, if the employee is even earning a living. What is the culture of the workplace you manage? Is it a cutthroat place to work where survivors are those that are most effective in maximizing the bottom line and eliminating the competition? Or are they places where employees are encouraged to develop themselves to the fullest? Is it a place where people simply work to live or do they work to thrive? Is their pay sufficient to live a healthy life or is it just enough to survive?