January 11 2008: 8:02 AM EST

Attaining wellness was never so easy

Light a candle and gaze at its soothing flame to let go of workplace aggravation? Why didn't I think of that before?


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(Fortune Magazine) -- Our company's wellness program invites employees to take an online risk-assessment survey provided by one of the nation's top clinics. I generally don't take those things because I like to fly high and tight, and if a piece of antiaircraft fire is coming my way, I don't really want to know about it. But it came to my attention that participants get a 10% reduction in the cost of their health insurance. Since that would bring my annual bill down to just below $40 billion, I decided to give it a shot.

There were surprises. I was pleased to discover that I do not drink too much. According to the clinic, I could drink more and still not be at risk. I made a mental note.

Other news was not so positive. It turns out that I am at moderately high risk because I report a significant level of stress and have no plan to do anything about it. I thought about that for a moment. It was true. My stress level was indeed quite high, and I didn't have any plan - any plan at all - to reduce it.

The online information told me that stress was produced not by events themselves but by one's reaction to events. Those who can manage their responses to stressors can bring down the fight-or-flight impulses that drive hormones into the forbidden zone. Well, I thought, I can do that!

I e-mailed Ambrose in Human Resources, which is in charge of Wellness around here, and told him of my intention to lower my profile, not forgetting to remind him that I was now eligible for that cost reduction. Wow, I thought, putting my feet up on my desk. I feel less stressed already. It's amazing what a mental adjustment can accomplish!

My phone rang. It was Bob. "Listen," he said. "I have a meeting with the Skeezix people in, like, 20 minutes. I'm going to need some basic situation analysis. I think I asked you for that some time ago. Where is it?" I could feel his stress flowing down the phone line and into my head like tincture of hebenon in the ear of Hamlet's father.

Before I had time to intercept the hormones on their way to my thalamus, my phone rang. It was American Airlines. "Your flight to San Francisco tomorrow has been canceled due to future equipment trouble. We can strip you of your upgrade and put you in a seat between two morbidly obese salami eaters in coach on a later flight if you would like." I said thanks and took the downgrade.

Before I could pour baking soda on the acid fire in my adenoids, Beverly came in. "The McKinsey guy is on line one, the Bratislava conference call is on line two, your son is on line three - he said something about needing money - and a stress counselor from the clinic is on line four." I picked up line four.

"Hi," said a pleasant, childlike voice. "This is Carla? I'm with the clinic? If you've got a few minutes, I'd like to talk to you about your stress levels?"

"Sure," I said. It was a charming conversation. Carla had a lot of nice ideas. I could smack myself for not thinking of them before. Like, just kicking back now and then when I need to? Also, lighting a candle and looking at it for a while in the evening? Also, exercise is good?

Carla and I made an appointment to talk again in a month. It was a little island of hope and naiveté.

After 34,682 more phone calls, 16 brush fires, and an exploding truck filled with toxic baby food, I got home that night. There was a letter from my insurance company. "Here is an explanation of your benefits!" it said in big, bold type, and it enumerated a list of claims for reimbursement that they were denying because of a paucity of information, new policies on diagnosis, and the price of mongoose sputum.

I looked at the letter, which may take its place alongside the hundreds I receive every year that explain why I won't be paid any money by them. I could feel my fight-or-flight muscles fibrillating. I'll give them Wellness! Ha! But then I said no. No more! I poured myself a huge glass of Scotch and sat down calmly, staring into the middle distance. Moments later, almost magically, I could feel my stress abating. That's better, I thought.

Carla was right. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Stanley Bing's book, CRAZY BOSSES (Collins), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com and on his website, stanleybing.com.  To top of page