How to Extend the Value of Your Health and Wellness Programs

Over the past decade, the workplace wellness field experienced a growing awareness of the influence of organizational culture and environment on employee health. It is not enough to implement a wellness or well-being program without also attending to the health-related influences of the larger context, including the values and norms of the organization, work team, friends, family, and the surrounding community.

Wellness program providers are evolving their approaches to include supporting and fostering health-related culture, environment, and climate changes within organizations. While this is a welcome development, changing the practices of the wellness field like any major change, is an evolution.


To effectively reshape a culture it will take strategic, systematic, systemic, and sustainable efforts. It will take some time for the wellness field to evolve the mindset and competencies that will be needed to effectively facilitate the evolution of health into the way of doing business within organizations.

Efforts to evolve a major shift in an organization would involve proactive and committed executive leader champions. Many leaders approve of workplace wellness programs, fewer understand what it takes to be active and committed champions of a broader strategic effort to evolve a healthier workplace culture and environment.


Even if your leadership is not 100% on board with a strategic evolution of health into the culture, there is a lot that wellness coordinators, human resources and benefits managers can do to start a movement toward a healthier organizational, culture, environment, and climate.

Think bigger-it's about more than programs

Many health-related issues we face today are a result of non-systemic thinking. Many organizations are focusing on quick hit "programs" that can be implemented easily and show a short-term return. But this expectation is not realistic.


Rather than having a singular focus on pushing employees to participate in wellness programs, it could be more effective to develop practices that help people create healthier conditions for themselves in their workplaces.


We don't want to throw away our commercial wellness programs, but we should surround them with other healthy rituals, policies, practices, environmental aids, and many others.

We should also help both organizations and individuals understand their own "why" related to health and well-being. People don't want to change in order to add more years on the far end of their life, but are far more interested improving the experiences they have today.


Plus, their preferred experiences are highly individualized and deeply personal. They are grounded in their personal purpose. So, provide development opportunities that help employees understand and nurture their purpose and help them grow in healthy ways.

There are many things that both organizations and employees can do to evolve the environment and culture on both a macro and micro-level. Encourage job crafting,[1] choice architecture,[2] incorporate insights from evolutionary psychology,[3] create a rich set of resources for developing positive leaders and managers,[4] and provide self-leadership development resources for all employees. These will all help foster greater levels of health and well-being in our employees.

Address potential root causes

There is growing awareness that health is far broader than our approaches have addressed in the past. In addition to physical health, this broader view of health includes many dimensions including mental/emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, environmental, financial, and occupational health.

We can learn a tremendous amount from other bodies of knowledge and practice about how to better understand the impact of "what" we do, and "how" we do it. We are learning from anthropology, sociology, public health, implementation science, economics, architecture, and design-thinking.


We can become better systems-thinkers and explore and influence the root causes and upstream influences on our health and well-being. We are seeing uptake on programmatic approaches and initiatives that align with this kind of broader health (stress management, mindfulness, yoga, resilience training, and so on). We can also include families and communities in these approaches.[5]

Think Smaller: Grass-Roots Efforts Often Yield the Greenest Grass

Involve people from throughout the organization in creating small home-grown initiatives that nurture health in order to build a richer network of grass-roots approaches and initiatives that foster health, wellness and well-being.

Look for where the grass is already greener? Seek out and embrace your outliers

The garden can be a useful analogy for understanding how to evolve a healthy and high-performing workplace. To cultivate a healthy garden you must tend the soil, provide ample sun and water, protect it from weeds and pests, and sometimes add fertilizer. Each of these has an obvious parallel to consider when developing or reinforcing a positive and healthy work environment.


Many gardeners have also had the experience of creating nice neat rows in the soil, planting their seeds, and tending their gardens with love and anticipation. Then some rogue tomato plant pushes up outside the boundaries of their garden, grows like crazy, and produces sweeter fruit than anything they've engineered in their plot. It doesn't always happen the way they intended, but they have even better tomatoes in the end.

Good "gardening," like good cultivation of culture and positive organizational health, consists of embracing the volunteers that crop up far from where your seeds are planted. These are your positive outliers. Look for those instances in your organization and learn from them. What is happening in those cases that can be replicated and scaled elsewhere within your organization.

Build connections and embrace collaboration

You can become a better facilitator of connections within organizations, and help others become connection builders as well. Connecting people with valuable resources, connecting people with other people, and connecting people with better versions of themselves is in our DNA. Embrace it. Use that in your efforts to connect your efforts with the work of others in your organization or even connect with others in other organizations.

Ask for help from your many colleagues, including leaders, directors, directors, supervisors or front line employers, and colleagues from many different functional units throughout the organization. Each will being his or her unique ideas and perspectives-and remember that "none of us is as smart as all of us."

Start small ask for a conversation, ask for words of wisdom. Keep it positive. Help them see how helping you will further the quality of their work. People want to have meaning in their work. So help bring more meaning into the work of your colleagues-and others.


It might be informal at first, but many great collaborations begin with a small exchange of ideas. Help them see how working with you can be a source of success for themselves and everyone else in the organization. Be sure to share the recognition for any successes with those who have helped you.


Like any other deep change in organizations, building these relationships may take some time it will be an evolution. These collaborations are crucial for evolving healthier workforces and workplaces.

Think (and act) like designers

Design thinking is a type of problem-solving that is catching fire across many industry sectors today.[6] By definition, design thinking is also highly collaborative and engaging. It is both a method and a mindset that emphasizes strong empathy with the end user and the ability to see the world from multiple perspectives.


It involves integrative thinking-striving to see all sides of a potential solution, optimism and confidence that workable solutions are possible in spite of the many challenges, and creativity and fearlessness to ask out-of-the-box, and even off-the-wall questions to general ideas (ideation).


It involves the will and resilience to "iterate," or try out potential new solutions, learn quickly, throw out what doesn't work and try something new.

Be optimistic and surround yourself with a core group of trusted colleagues who share your vision. Engage as many different types of stakeholders in the process as you can. There are many small ways to shape the environment, culture, and climate that don't necessarily require permission from anyone above you in the organization.


Start with something that 1) concerns you (and others), and 2) that you can influence (tip of the hat to Steven Covey's circle of concern-circle of influence).[7] Start small, succeed (or fail) and then try again. Grow your successes, and learn from your failures.

There are many great resources available to you to learn about how to use design-thinking practices in your organization. Try it out? It will be fun, it could be frustrating, but it will surely be exhilarating. Both the process and the resulting solutions will likely be far more engaging than what you could build alone.

There is a change coming within organizations that seems to be increasing the pressure on management to diminish their exclusive focus on shareholder value, replacing some of that focus with an interest in the quality of life at work, meaningful work, on-boarding programs and effort focused on recruitment and retention.


More notice will be given to the work environment, culture, and climate. This change will impact the role of the wellness and well-being programs.

Work Cited

[1] Wrzesniewski, Amy, and Jane E. Dutton. "Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work." Academy of Management Review 26, no. 2 (2001): 179-201.

[2] Thaler, Richard H. and Sunstein, CR (2008) "Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness." (81).

[3] 145 Fitzgerald, CJ. "Evolution in the office: How evolutionary psychology can increase employee health happiness and productivity." Evolutionary Psychology. 2012;10(5):770-781.

[4] Cameron, Kim S. Positive leadership: Strategies for extraordinary performance. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012.

[5] Edington, Dee W. and Jennifer S. Pitts. "Shared Values-Shared Results: Positive Organizational Health as a Win-Win Philosophy." Create Space. https://www.createspace.com/5053948.

[6] Brown, Tim, and Roger Martin. "Design for Action." Harvard Business Review (September 2015) (2015): 55-64.

[7] Covey, Stephen. "The seven habits of highly successful people." Fireside/Simon & Schuster (1989).