Business of Well-being

Immersing Well-being into the Workplace Culture with Richard Safeer

Culture of Health

Over the years, many workplace wellness programs have focused on ticking conventional boxes that define health; from initiating monthly or regular health assessment tools to coordinating physical activity programs that are few and far between, well-being has not been the focus of most well-being programs, ironically. A culture that supports health and well-being has been the missing link in creating truly effective workplace wellness solutions.

In a recent episode of the Edelheit Experience, Dr. Richard Safeer talks about weaving wellness into the very fabric of work, taking a deep dive into what well-being truly means to the average employee. Dr. Richard Safeer, the Chief Medical Director of Employee Health and Well-Being for John Hopkins Medicine, gives his perspective on well-being culture and how traditional workplace well-being programs fall short, and what employers must do to rethink wellness culture.

Dr. Safeer describes the evolution of corporate wellness as one that had transformed from its early days of transactional programs to one that now takes a holistic approach to employee wellbeing. Historically, workplace well-being had been structured around creating programs that were either popular or that could help reduce poor health outcomes among employees, such as paid gym memberships, health lectures, and webinars, many of which employers found were not actually yielding the target outcomes.

After trying out one program after another, employers then go after whatever seems to be trending. Despite the effort and the budget, organizations are left with financial waste, and a burnt-out and unhealthy workforce.

“It does not matter how many lectures or webinars on healthy nutrition we attend if I am unhappy at my workplace, I’ll possibly reach for that half-a-gallon of ice cream at the end of the day, and that’s going to counter all the information on healthy eating we get from those lectures,” Dr. Safeer noted.

The key, according to Dr. Safeer, is to immerse well-being into the fabric of work. Well-being is beyond developing dispassionate and clinical initiatives that do not touch the actual needs of employees but only look good on paper or helps an organization pass credibility checks. Prioritizing well-being at work involves shifting the culture of work from being work-centric to being employee-centric.

Leaders need to ask themselves: is work making my employee unhealthier? How is the organization influencing my employees’ mental well-being? Is work adding more stress or joy to my employees? How are the organization’s wellness programs answering employees’ wellness needs? “Do we actually know what our employees' wellness needs are?

“In the workplace, the essential well-being metrics are: how do people interact with each other? What resources are available for each other? Is well-being a priority? Can I go through my day with a healthy amount of stress? Those are key to employee well-being, ” Dr. Safeer added.

The answers to these questions put a clear perspective on what corporate wellness should be. Shifting the culture of well-being essentially means redesigning work to support well-being. Mental wellness will no longer be only about webinars or about stress management (and a referral to the EAP), but also about identifying employees’ individual stressors and offering targeted solutions. Likewise, chronic disease management will transition from monthly or quarterly health assessment evaluations to helping employees identify personal factors or even workplace factors that exacerbate their chronic disease and offering practical and culturally competent solutions.

Essentially, employers cannot truly offer well-being solutions unless they understand their employees’ unique needs. Wellness is not a one-size-fits-all project, and this approach to corporate wellness is one of the biggest reasons for the failure of wellness programs. Employers must carefully analyze how they can weave wellness into work so that work and the workplace in itself becomes a driver of positive health results.

To help employers integrate wellness into work, Dr. Safeer enumerates six interconnected building blocks that define the culture of well-being at work, which include:

Leadership engagement: Organizational leaders play an important role in fostering a workplace well-being culture. Executives, managers, lifestyle medicine practitioners, health promotion professionals, and wellness committee members are all influential. Dr. Safeer says having leaders merely talk about wellness solutions does not drive employee engagement nor does it optimize participation. Leaders can make it easier for members of the team to practice healthy lifestyles and feel good about themselves, their job, and their employer. Leaders can create conditions that support people in their quest for better health and well-being.

Shared values: Organizations have values, often articulated through mission and vision statements, business, and strategic objectives. For a workplace culture of health to flourish, well-being needs to be a shared value and a priority.

Social climate: The social cohesiveness and morale of a group are determinants of health. How people treat each other greatly influences our emotional and mental health, which in turn influences our behaviors that impact our physical health.

Working in a non-judgmental, supportive environment contributes to a positive approach, which in turn contributes to feeling good about the individual with whom one works. Three essential elements of a good social climate include: feeling of belonging, positive attitude and working together toward the same goals.

Norms: Norms are the expected behaviors of a group. People often conform to group behavior. This can be great when the group is making healthy choices and harmful when the team has unhealthy habits. What are the day-to-day norms at work? What foods do you offer at your meetings? Are workers encouraged to sit all day working without taking frequent walking breaks? The norms at work reflect how much priority is placed on well-being.

Culture connection points: Cultures have formal and informal ways of “connecting” with the individuals who make up the culture. Culture Connection Points are any form of interaction between the organization and the employee which has the potential to influence their well-being; for example, policies and programs.

Peer support: Co-workers and friends play a major role in the choices we make and how we feel about ourselves. Whether or not we succeed in building and maintaining healthy habits is largely dependent on the support we get from those around us. Employers can provide strategies that encourage peers to support each other.

Each of these building blocks, according to Dr. Safeer, forms the basis of a culture of well-being, and employers need to re-imagine their entire workplace wellness strategies along these lines if they want to make a genuine impact.

Essentially, many workplace wellness strategies have failed because they were never designed to support employees’ well-being challenges throughout the workday. Although well-intentioned, most current strategies miss the target because they are transactional and rely on an individual helping themselves. To build a culture of well-being, leaders need to reflect on how interwoven work and health are, and take active and intentional steps to redesign work to support health and well-being.

To learn more about building a well-being culture in your workplace, you can visit or you may even read his book, 'A Cure for the Common Company'.

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