by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

Programs vs. Culture: Which Comes First for Workplace Well-Being?

Wellness leaders have been talking about health culture for a long time. It’s the Holy Grail of workplace well-being. If you don’t have it, your individual wellness interventions are hit-or-miss efforts at best. And if you have a decidedly unhealthy culture — where people feel undervalued or worse — that HRA, screening, lunch ’n learn, or challenge you’re sponsoring this month can actually be a net-negative activity. You’d be better off doing nothing at all.


A mistake many of us have made is thinking health culture is mostly about health, but it’s not. It’s primarily about culture. And culture isn’t some lofty mission statement crafted at a retreat that everyone is expected to memorize and magically live up to. It isn’t something you do, it’s everything you do… the sum total of each action, interaction, and behavior from the mail room to the board room.


So while you may be proud you now have healthy vending machine options, built-in stretch breaks, healthy meeting guidelines, and an awesome salad bar in the cafeteria, you’re probably still nibbling around the edges if people don’t look forward to coming to work every day.


But how can you, the person charged with improving health at your organization, begin to influence culture? It’s the proverbial question: How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time. It’s a huge undertaking that can’t be achieved in a big gulp but must be cultivated over time. Whether you’re just a floor removed from the C-suite or relegated to the basement with your red stapler, you can begin steps today to influence culture and lay the foundation for a healthier organization:


  • Highlight the balanced Everyman/Everywoman in testimonials. It’s great that your VP of Finance is an ultrarunner, but who cares? Tell me about the young family who learned how to shop for, prepare, and share healthy meals, reduced screen time, got more involved in community green initiatives, or took an inspiring, healthy vacation.
  • Extol the accomplishments of groups whose supervisors encourage employees to take refreshing walks during the workday, use all of their vacation time, set aside a quiet room for meditation/reflection, put together healthy potluck lunches, leave work at work, allow time for wellness program participation during their shift, and celebrate personal well-being achievements.
  • Build a robust wellness champion network of volunteers from all levels. Invest time and energy in training them how to cultivate grassroots wellness activities. Reinforce the behaviors you’re seeking in champions — energy, enthusiasm, commitment — with timely praise. Recognize their contributions publicly and specifically with their management.
  • Get involved in the recruiting and hiring process. The most direct route to a healthy population is to hire healthy people. And while everyone may look healthy coming right out of college, how someone looks is unimportant and may even be misleading. It’s how they think about work, life, and health that is a much better predictor of their overall well-being today and into the future. Do they have balance in their lives? What does work/life balance look like to them? What are their passions? What does it mean to them to be healthy? What are some things they do to achieve health, balance, well-being? Approach your HR department with the request to help create processes that identify top candidates with this orientation.
  • Leverage your success in the recruiting and hiring function to influence other HR activities. Whether it’s performance review, training and career development, or annual surveys, you can find opportunities to affect how your organization conveys the importance of well-being and support.

Good wellness interventions without solid culture are not likely to have meaningful impact. Similarly, a conducive culture absent good wellness services will fall short of what’s possible. It’s not either/or and it’s not a matter of waiting until you have one before working toward the other. If you want a significant, lasting effect on population well-being, put your talents and energy into influencing a positive work culture while continuing to provide strong wellness programs.


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