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Laura Putnam headshot

To Improve Employee Health, Start with Workplace Culture

By Laura Putnam

Workplace wellness has been around for decades and its focus has been primarily on helping individual employees make lifestyle changes. This has been based on the belief that if a collective group of individuals change their bad habits, the health of the group as a whole will improve. While it’s true that personal choices affect how people perform at work and the level of health care services they need, the habits of individuals are greatly influenced by their surroundings. And, where do most adults spend the majority of their waking hours? At work.

Think your coworkers, your company culture or your larger environment don’t influence your health behaviors? Consider these facts.

  • Studies have shown that a person is 57 percent more likely to become obese if a friend becomes obese. If that friend is a close friend, then that risk triples.  

  • A growing body of research indicates that the workplace itself is fueling poor health and well-being. According to the Willis Towers Watson “Stress in the Workplace” 2017 survey, work-related stress is the number one workforce health issue.
But why does it matter? For starters, investing in employee health and well-being has been shown to influence worker productivity and corporate financial performance. But equally important is the notion that helping employees thrive is simply the right thing to do, coupled with the knowledge that the workforce of the future cares more about an employer’s beliefs and culture than about corporate perks.

The upshot: To realize the benefits of a healthy workforce, companies must take a macro view of employee well-being.

When it comes to improving employee health and well-being – and perhaps making even a dent in health care costs – employers need to take a hard look at the conditions in the workplace itself that are giant contributors to poor individual health and well-being if they want to realize benefits, such as increased productivity, and reduced absenteeism and presenteeism.

How can we go about addressing these bigger issues? Here are six ways employers can make a difference:

  • Reframe the conversation. It’s not uncommon to see workplace wellness messaging that goes something like this: “Better health begins with taking personal responsibility.” But that message might be better framed as, “Better health begins with changing our culture and environment so it’s easier for individuals to make healthy choices.” While the saying goes that we are “creatures of habit,” arguably, we are more “creatures of culture.” That is, most of us  adapt to the culture and environment that surrounds us. Therefore, workplace wellness needs to begin first with addressing the larger culture before pushing individuals to “take responsibility.”

  • Uncover the hidden factors. Addressing the culture begins with examining it. Very simply, is it a culture that is likely to support or undermine well-being at work? For example, are attempts to exercise or take mental breaks during the workday met with disapproval from supervisors and coworkers – or are these kinds of healthy behaviors readily embraced and normalized? On a broader scale, what is the level of “perceived organizational support,” or extent to which employees feel that their organization actually cares about them? These are big questions, but ones that impact people’s capacity to make healthy choices.

  • Design “nudges” and “cues.” Building on the notion that we are more creatures of culture, we need to think about how we can optimize the environment and culture to support well-being. Every organization can literally design better health through healthy nudges and cues. Healthy nudges, or environmental prompts, make health and well-being easier. These includes things like signage, accessible stairs, subsidized healthy options in the cafeteria, and dedicated spaces for rest and recuperation. Healthy cues, or cultural prompts, make health and well-being “normal.” These include policies, rituals and regular practices that promote well-being at work.


  • Enlist senior leaders. Clearly, senior leaders play a critical role in designing these nudges and cues. They set the tone, allocate resources and set policies that support well-being. Case in point, Microsoft recently enacted a family care leave policy, giving employees up to four weeks paid time off to care for an ailing family member. Research has shown that employers who provide flexibility and support for employees to balance work and home lives or personal passions with policies such as these see higher productivity and creativity.


  • Activate managers. While senior leaders set the tone, managers effectively give permission. Moreover, every manager has the capacity to carve out a “micro-culture” of well-being within their team. These micro-cultures, or “pockets” of well-being, can spark a ripple effect throughout the entire organization. A manager who utilizes walking meetings or who takes time to show compassion for an employee who is experiencing a difficult time in their personal life fosters well-being within their team, and at the same time, enables their team members to do the same.


  • Connect with the community. Thanks to the influx of community-minded millennials, mission-driven organizations have become the norm. Companies increasingly recognize the connection between profits, people and community. At Square, for example, teams of employees gather together on a weekly basis to clean up the neighboring streets. Efforts such as these are a great way to give back – and a positive way to connect internal, organizational wellness efforts with the larger task of creating a healthier society.
Ultimately, as individual teams within an organization become more focused on supporting health and well-being, this will create an oasis of well-being that makes it possible for others to follow suit. Committing to this as a goal and acknowledging that we are indeed creatures of culture allows us to finally begin tackling the tidal wave of poor health and well-being – company by company and community by community.

Image credit: Riley Kaminer/Flickr

Laura Putnam headshot

Laura Putnam is author of Workplace Wellness That Works, and is the CEO and founder of Motion Infusion. She is the recipient of the American Heart Association’s 2020 Impact Award. Her work has been covered by MSNBC, The New York Times, US News & World Report, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, and NPR. Laura can be reached at laura@motioninfusion.com.

Read more stories by Laura Putnam