BOGOTÁ — A new in-depth study of the well-being of Colombian coffee farmers could help provide the prescription for good health for us all.

Understanding the fundamental elements of healthy living could lead to something of a "positive pandemic," according to researchers of a project that began in 2012 after medical experts gathered in Toronto to consider the question: what causes good health? Seeking answers to the seemingly simple query, the group began the Health of Humanity Project, which led to the "Health Pandemic" summit two years later, inviting thinkers in the sector to find ways of promoting health. One of the organizers was the Colombian physician Alejandro R. Jadad, head of Canada's Centre for Global e-Health Innovation.

Colombia's Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria, who had attended the 2014 summit, was keen for Colombia to be one of the first epicentres of this health pandemic. He wanted it to become a model showing that health could be understood differently, not exclusively from the perspective of illness and that people could take part in improving their own welfare. While 72.3% of people in the world believe they are healthy, says Jadad, "We can talk of a pandemic phenomenon, which means health can be created."

The country's coffee-sector workers, a population of some 540,000 people united in the National Federation of Coffee Growers, have acted as a living laboratory in this project, providing data on work activities and conditions that had a direct impact on their state of health.

Jadad, Gaviria and Federation representatives recently published the results of their investigations in a book, Desatando una pandemia de salud desde el sitio de trabajo. Hay que creer para ver ("Unleashing a Health Pandemic from the Workplace. Seeing is Believing"). It has contributions from 23 experts from four countries who believe work environments are fundamental for good health.

A clear link between health and material conditions

And yet firms are paying too little attention to the essential role they play in people's physical and mental well-being and social relations, or to their ability to improve these. Quite simply, you can be happier or healthier depending on where you work.

Coffee growers provided some clues. After interviewing 3,442-grain harvesters, 94% said they felt healthy. Only four people said they did not, and when asked what should be done to maintain or better their health, their answers tended not to be medical. The head of the Federation's health services José Humberto Devia, says requests he receives tend to be more for increased leisure time and better transportation services, higher wages or improved housing. He sees the clear link between health and material conditions.

Fresh coffee beans — Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

The Federation designed a strategy to make itself the country's healthiest organization. "We're in a country where health management is oriented around managing illness. But beyond that, an organization's role is to help workers deal with the psycho-social challenges life throws at them," said Devia.

While designing a health strategy based on the data collected so far is proving to be complex and requires time, the Pandemic book seeks more focus on the various physical, geographical, legal or environmental factors that can affect workers' sense of security.

The book highlights some specific connections. With depression, it indicates, "Work-related stress, especially when caused by inadequate workload management, has become the main source of incapacity in the world. Things seem worse at senior levels in organizations, with studies showing 96% of leaders feeling high levels of exhaustion, which a third of them qualify as extreme."

And concerns are mounting. The book cites "the collusion of technology, economy and politics" in the workplace that ultimately undermines good health. For now, at least, the men and women who harvest Colombia's coffee bean are apparently shielded from that.


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