How You Can Make Workplace Wellness Work

Why settle for less than the best? From the time we’re young to the day we retire, we’re taught and encouraged to strive for more. Train hard to make the top team. Study hard to get top grades. Earn a college degree that will really pay off. Get more for our money. Achieve maximum results from our exercise and diet. Realize optimal returns on our financial investments. Reach the top of the ladder at work. Retire early so we can enjoy more time doing what we love.

Why do CEOs settle for less when it comes to the health of their employees? Sure, as business leaders we all say we are committed to building a healthier workforce because we realize the impact it has on our business. But when push comes to shove, we’re satisfied with offering workplace wellness programs that deliver average results. In fact, current surveys show that while the majority of employers offer a workplace wellness program, an overwhelming percentage of employees—as many as 80 percent by one estimate—are opting out of those programs.

Recent conversations, including a University of Illinois study about the impact of workplace wellness, have focused on how wellness doesn’t work. Researchers in studies like this one rightly point out that most workplace wellness initiatives struggle with low rates of engagement. However, when done well, workplace wellness can have far-reaching benefits for an organization. Studies have shown, for example, a positive correlation between having a comprehensive well-being program and performing well on the stock market.

So, the real question is: What can we do to address the vexing topic of low rates of engagement?

If you build it, they will come. Or will they?

If you’ve followed the traditional workplace wellness program protocol, you’ve probably assessed employee health status, provided feedback on risk factors, and then matched employees with interventions that teach them how to change their behaviors. Considering that we’re continuing to see low rates of engagement, not to mention the fact that most organizations have not made much of a dent when it comes to meaningfully enhancing the health and well-being of their employees, it’s fair to say that this well-worn path is in need of a reboot. The upshot is that simply offering workplace wellness is not enough. Rather, these programs must be carefully designed so that they meet the needs and interests of the employees that they are intended to reach.

What employers have discovered, perhaps the hard way, is that unlike the Field of Dreams, if you build a well-being program, employees will notnecessarily come. Even if you offer financial incentives, which most employers do, employees may not stay past the first inning. In fact, a recent study found employees are leaving money on the table by not taking full advantage of incentives available to them. Moreover, there’s evidence to suggest that incentives may perversely undermine the intrinsic motivation and willingness to sustain a behavior over time.

So, what can be done to address lagging rates of engagement? Although each workplace culture is unique, there are seven simple things all employers can do to lay a foundation of success upon which wellness, and managers at all levels, can thrive.

7 steps to take well-being from good to great

Set the tone. As a CEO, you are the one who sets the tone and allocates resources for any wellness initiative. You create the big picture for well-being within your organization. Moreover, as companies like Johnson & Johnson, Cleveland Clinic and Barry Wehmiller exemplify, the fastest route to building a culture of well-being is when the CEO leads the way

Activate your managers. The next step, often overlooked in efforts to build a culture of well-being, is to engage middle managers. While your endorsement may create a broader acceptance for well-being on an organizational level, every employee is likely looking to their boss to “give them permission” to actually engage in wellness. What this means is that every manager has an opportunity to serve as either a gatekeeper or multiplier of well-being for team members. According to Gallup, managers likely account for 70 percent of the variance in how individual employees engage with their work and their wellbeing. Our research shows that in organizations where managers have learned to become multipliers of well-being, both participating managers and their team members reported increased engagement with work, enhanced well-being, and improved productivity.


Start with what’s right. For decades, health improvement has used scare tactics to get people to adopt the basics of a healthy lifestyle: stop smoking, eat better and exercise more. Here’s the rub: Most people already know what they should and shouldn’t do, and yet over 97 percent of Americans fail to meet these minimum requirements, according to a recent study. Preaching and scare tactics rarely help change these behaviors for long. Therefore, rather than using fear to motivate change, try starting with what’s right. A positive-first approach has been shown to have lasting effects. For example, in one study of heart attack patients, a fear-based approach to compliance with post-event lifestyle guidelines was effective only in 10 percent of patients. Alternatively, when encouraged to embrace life and focus on the positives of their situation, over 85 percent of post-cardiac patients were compliant with guidelines one year after a heart attack and nearly 80 percent were compliant three years later.

Uncover the hidden factors. Transforming your workplace culture starts with understanding and uncovering its inherent challenges and opportunities. This can best be accomplished by utilizing a formal culture assessment tool along with conducting assessments that are more qualitative in nature. These include employee focus groups or visioning sessions to gain a better understanding of how your workplace culture is perceived and experienced by employees. 

Design nudges and cues. Use the findings from your quantitative and qualitative culture assessments to design and deploy cultural “nudges” and “cues” that reinforce the desired culture to employees on a daily basis. Nudges are environmental prompts that make it easy to stick to healthy habits, such as offering healthy snacks at meetings or establishing a safe walking path around the office, while cues are cultural prompts that make healthy behaviors the norm, such as conducting walking meetings or starting meetings by focusing on things that are going right with a project or work initiative.

Go stealth. Wellness works best when it’s not a standalone program, but rather when it’s embedded into the fabric of business as usual. A smart way to achieve this is by looking for ways to “go stealth,” incorporating well-being into other, non-wellness programs such as leadership development, safety training, and onboarding. Think also about the language you use when talking about wellness to employees. If you focus your communication around concepts like “energy management,” “resilience” or “human performance,” you may find that employees are more likely to engage and in more meaningful ways.

Create meaning. Financial incentives or devices may present an initial allure that gets employees on the dance floor, but meaningful stories and experiences will motive them to change and embrace well-being for the long term. Take, for example, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon who famously used his experience undergoing cancer treatment to encourage his employees to focus on their own health and family connections. Finding relatable examples from your own experience can help make well-being seem more attainable to employees.

Employee well-being is not a “one-and-done” proposition. It is a journey of many small steps made by numerous individuals—from corporate leadership to frontline managers and your entire workforce. Together, these individuals and the culture you allow them to create can take your workplace and your well-being efforts from good to great.


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