The essential trio

There is a problem-solving principle that exists within the philosophical field known as Occam’s Razor. In layman’s terms, it advises that the simplest explanation is often the best one. Here’s a plea to employers

I was starkly reminded of Occam’s razor during the lockdown when, one morning, I woke up with an excruciating headache. Now, for a person who doesn’t regularly experience headaches, this ordeal left me puzzled. I took a Panado and spent the rest of the day just hoping that the pain would subside.

Fast forward a week and a half, and that lingering pain in my head refused to find occupancy elsewhere. The situation became a little more alarming when my girlfriend found a bump on the back of my neck. So, I decided to drop my strategy of self-medicating with pain pills and to consult everyone’s favourite guru, Google.

We’ve probably all been warned not to let our curiosity take us down the proverbial rabbit hole, yet I found myself self-diagnosing the most terrible ailments known to man. I had cancer, meningitis and sebaceous cysts all in one. At this point, I needed to remind myself about Occam’s razor, not only for peace of mind but also for the rationale and goal-directed pragmatism it offers.

So, I booked myself an x-ray and ultrasound and waited impatiently for the results. My GP called me and, lo and behold, the diagnosis was both a huge relief and underwhelming: I had “sitting in front of my laptop all day” syndrome.

So Occam’s razor saved the day. This old notion holds a plethora of benefits when we apply it to problem-solving in our everyday lives. Take, for instance, the fatigue and stress experienced across the working world in the 21st century. According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), more than 40 percent of work-related illnesses are due to stress, major depression, burnout and anxiety disorders.

This staggering number paints a very sombre picture of mental health in South Africa. Stress costs our economy a hefty R232 billion per year (according to research from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2016).

Many South Africans are questioning the response to such sobering numbers. Here, I argue, we should consult Occam’s razor as a catalyst for structural change.

Before I make a case for my proposed remedy, I must add a caveat to keep myself honest by not oversimplifying mental health. Although I believe we can benefit immensely from my argument, we should always adhere to the principles of looking deeper into issues and of staying clear of claiming any form of monopoly on the truth.

I therefore encourage you to receive my argument for what it is, a simple approach that yields optimal value towards combating mental health, stress and fatigue in the workplace.

“The simplest explanation is often the best one” – Occam’s Razor
When we adopt the simplest explanation, it is not a big stretch to approve the recommendations that come with it. When considering mental health, and physical health, we can look at the fundamentals that will yield the greatest value for us. I’m referring to the essential trio: sleep, exercise and nutrition – three necessities that are often not met in South Africa.

First and foremost, sleep deprivation has acute effects on the South African employment sector. According to Charles King, an MBA graduate at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, insufficient sleep is directly linked o seven of the 15 leading causes of death. Furthermore, he explains that sleep deprivation has numerous workplace implications, such as increased absenteeism, lack of productivity and focus, and increased accidents.

With South Africans getting an average of seven hours of sleep per night, rest is taking a backseat to more erratic demands in the form of shift work and increased overtime. It is not an uncommon occurrence for an employee to work over the weekend and after hours. The outcome is that more and more people are sleep-deprived, and the risk of mental and physical ailments is growing.

The next two essentials can be spoken of as one, as they are the focus not only within the World Health Organization’s Global Plan of Action on Worker’s Health, but also of South Africa’s legislative framework. However, I am not positioning this article to force anyone’s hands; I am writing it as a plea to focus on what matters, both morally and practically.

Simply put, the argument for nutrition and regular exercise goes like this: a healthier workforce – a more engaged and fit workforce – ultimately drives performance, benefiting both the individual and company. If this seems too “fluffy” for you, I can recommend a study conducted in a telecommunications company called Bell Canada.

They found that, for every dollar invested in the wellness of each of their 52 000 members, they saw a return on investment of US$4,10. In other words, for every (approximately) R13 spent on wellness they recovered R52 (currency conversion as of May 2020).

Furthermore, a systematic review of wellness interventions, aimed at workplace nutrition and physical activity, found that there was a significant influence on absenteeism and other work-related outcomes.

Cue Occam’s razor: before we get struck with analysis paralysis, let us consider focusing on the basics promised reccomendations. Now that we understand the significance of the essential trio, below I offer employers, policymakers and decision-makers science-based suggestions for a healthier workplace:
• Cut back on overtime – you’re only burning your people and your profits;
• Initiate regular breaks, every hour on the hour;
• Promote awareness and education around the essential trio (sleep, exercise and nutrition); and
• Bring the gym and physical activity into work.

Published by

Kyle Bloch

Kyle Bloch is a registered industrial-organisational psychologist with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). He is the operations manager at StratisQ Africa focusing on safety across multiple sectors and industries.
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