Employers invest in wellness programs because they want to have healthy employees and, ultimately, healthy businesses. Wellness programs promise to help control healthcare costs and improve employee health, morale and productivity. Good programs deliver on these promises while others fail to demonstrate much impact on individual outcomes or the bottom line.
There are many reasons why individuals, wellness programs, and whole businesses don’t reach their potential, but organizational culture is perhaps one of the most overlooked influences. We believe that a supportive culture is the secret sauce that helps employees and businesses thrive.
Our national public health agenda, HealthyPeople 2020, recognizes a supportive culture (social and physical environments) as a primary element of an effective work site wellness program. Organizational culture is a complex topic, and changing a culture takes time and focused effort, but there are simple and inexpensive things you can do today to build a wellness culture — one that supports the wellbeing of your employees and your organization. Here are three of our favorite strategies:
1. Value Relationships
Humans are social animals. While lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and sleep have significant impacts on our health, so do relationships. In his book, Love and Survival, Dr. Dean Ornish shares research and observations about the impact of relationships on our wellbeing. He says, “I am not aware of any other factor in medicine that has a greater impact on our survival than the healing power of love and intimacy. Not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery.”
Encourage bonding: Forget the typical “team-building” activities — help employees bond through natural opportunities such as sharing a meal. Sharing a meal is a simple way to create and strengthen the social ties that make people happier, healthier and more effective. Researchers who interviewed firefighters in a large city found that those who ate meals together had higher levels of cooperation and their teams demonstrated better performance. Consider how your organization can make it easier and more pleasant for employees to eat together. They should feel free to leave their work stations during break times, and have nice, clean places to gather.
2. Make the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice
American culture values individualism, so we tend to put a lot of stock in willpower. Self control is certainly important when it comes to our ability to make healthy choices and resist temptation, but the work of psychologist Roy Baumeister shows that willpower has its limits. Like a muscle, it can be developed — and it can also fatigue. It’s easier for people to follow through on their good intentions when they are backed up by their surroundings. Cues from our social and physical environments influence our behaviors and can be harnessed to enable healthy behaviors and discourage unhealthy ones. The key is to make healthy choices easier, and to make unhealthy choices less convenient.
Elevate the fruit bowl: Cornell researcher Brian Wansink, PhD, has done extensive research on eating behaviors and found that making healthy foods convenient, attractive and normal enables healthy eating. Something as simple as a well-placed bowl of enticing fruit can highlight a healthy choice while edging out less healthy options, like candy and packaged snacks. Wansink’s website and book, Slim by Design, are full of practical ideas that are backed up by solid research.
Do an inventory of the food offerings at your organization, from candy bowls to cafeterias. What types of foods and beverages are most visible, accessible and affordable? What kinds of snacks are served at meetings and celebrations? Consider highlighting healthy options and demoting less healthy ones. Make sure employees who bring food from home have a space where they can refrigerate and reheat their lunches.
3. Examine Role Modeling
Role models aren’t just for kids. Even as adults, we take cues from each other’s behavior. Consider the last time you ate out with a friend or family member — did their choice of food or beverage make you feel more or less likely to order what you were eyeing on the menu? Maybe the fries they chose implicitly gave you “permission” to make a less healthy choice. Maybe their side salad reinforced the healthy option you were considering. For better or for worse, the behavior of the people around us influences our own choices.
Researchers who examined hand-washing behavior among healthcare workers made an interesting discovery. In rooms where higher-ranking doctors or nurses were present and did not wash their hands, the other workers were less likely to wash their own hands. This suggests that that role modeling behavior may be most powerful as a negative influence.
Model wisely: Who are the influential people in your organization, and what kinds of behaviors are they modeling? Role models can be leaders and managers as well as those who have informal social influence among peers. Make sure that people in positions of influence know that it’s important for them to walk the talk when it comes to the organization’s mission and the spirit of the wellness program.
This doesn’t mean being perfect — just conscientious. At the very least, they can reduce the visibility of negative behaviors. Being the last person to leave work, sending emails at all hours, and bragging about lack of sleep can get in the way of other people making healthy choices.
Create a Wellness Culture
Is your culture nudging your employees and the organization toward thriving? We believe in the power of culture and relationships, which is why our wellness tools are socially powered. We put the focus where the employees want it — on activities they love that support their personal and communal health. Livzo offers a Facebook-like group model that encourages positive change, constructive accountability, and constant reinforcement. We know that common interests bring people together to create the type of supportive environment that not only fosters a culture of health, but a successful business culture as well.