The Invisible Power of the Workplace

An excerpt from The Healthy Workplace Nudge by Rex Miller, Phillip Williams and Dr. Michael O’Neal.

Ron Goetzel is the senior scientist and director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. When I interviewed him, he explained why most companies just cannot pull off the creation of a healthy culture.

It is very, very, very hard to change human behavior. The way to get there requires a combination of different activities…culture, physical design, incentive programs, communication dissemination, strategic thinking about how to do that and expertise in the science of behavior change.
All of those things are woven together, and most companies in America don’t know how to do that. They don’t have the expertise, they don’t have the background, they don’t have the knowledge. Many don’t have the money.

So how do you create a culture of happiness and health?

Let’s get started on the answer by stepping into another interview. I have learned that when Al Lewis speaks, you really don’t want to miss anything. So, when he recently summarized the best corporate approach to wellness, I leaned in and listened very intently: “If I led a company with a lot of employees, I would spend money on environment rather than spend money telling them to change their bad behaviors. It’s not even a question. If someone’s environment is going to dramatically impact their health, productivity, and retention–that is where I would focus.”

So why, despite the valuable perspectives of Lewis, Goetzel, and so many others, are most companies still trying to “do wellness” by requiring change at the individual employee level? That is not only futile, it is also very expensive. Because of our 18 months of research, I can tell you that improving the physical environment will prove to be a more effective and economical path to improving health than trying to force people to adopt behaviors which are in the best interest of their own physical being.

We found the best companies had two things in common; (1) committed and engaged leadership and (2) they invested the time and hard work to build healthy cultures. We know that leadership is the key. But without the hard work, of building a robust ecosystem to support the leader’s conviction, commitment, and congruence, those efforts become beautiful sandcastles that wash away under the next regime, budget squeeze, or market drop.

Just 5% of companies have the committed leadership and the necessary support structures and culture to nurture and protect employee health and well-being. So we think it’s important to find a strategy that works for the 95%. When we concluded that most wellness programs are ineffective and a waste of money, we faced the question: What’s the alternative? We believe it starts in designing healthy buildings.