Worksite Wellness

Rethinking Corporate Wellness: A Compelling Interview with Natalie Johnson

Wellness Solutions

The world of work is changing, and more so with recent disruptions induced by the coronavirus pandemic and the Great Resignation. These ravaging events of the last two years have uncovered the deficits of the conventional wellness model, demanding an urgent shift in workplace wellness models to cater to the needs of a new era of employees. 

In this interview by Corporate Wellness Magazine, Natalie Johnson, a foremost health and wellbeing expert, takes a deep dive into the changes disrupting the corporate wellness industry and what the future holds.

CWM: Tell us about yourself

My name is Natalie Johnson, and I am the CVO and Co-founder of VIDL Solutions  (Pronounced “Vital” solutions). I live in Lakewood Ranch, FL, and get to work all over the world. I’m married to a Law Enforcement Officer, and I have two teenage sons. An interesting thing about me is that I love donuts! Prior to COVID-19, I tracked donut journeys on @mydonutdiaries. I have an educational background in human performance, specifically performance psychology, exercise physiology, performance nutrition, and wellness promotion.  I started my career working in sports performance and then realized quickly that all the strategies we used for high-performing athletes worked with everyone else. We all want to be high performers in life.

I transitioned out of sport and began a career in healthcare where my role was to help organizations create effective wellness strategies and programs. It was through this experience that I learned we weren't addressing the core issues that contributed to poor self-care. Companies were investing in traditional wellness programs like fitness centers, nutrition education, and wellness incentives but participation remained low and healthcare costs remained high. After many years of seeing the same thing happen in all the companies I worked with, I decided to have real conversations with employees instead of relying on medical claims data and biometric screenings.

I talked to real people and asked them what was standing in the way of them taking care of themselves. Overwhelmingly, people said the same thing — stress and burnout from the job, being connected 24/7, challenges with their leaders, lack of trust or connection with others, and organizational cultures that didn’t support work-life balance.

In hearing from others and thinking about my own experiences in the workplace, I began to understand why traditional wellness programs weren't helping. I got really interested in how the workplace itself affects well-being and then, I gradually transitioned my work to focus on what we call “organizational wellbeing”.

In 2018, I partnered with Rebecca Johnson, who had had a similar realization as me and was also evolving her knowledge and work to focus more on organizational wellbeing. We brought our work experience, intellectual property, and clients together to create ViDL Solutions

Today, our mission is to help organizations, teams, and individuals to function at full capacity. We are a team of 5 and growing. We work with organizations globally and we see phenomenal results.

How has wellness or well-being transformed since you started in the industry?

When I first started working in the well-being industry, it was called “wellness” and it was an approach that focused primarily on lowering healthcare costs through improvements in employees’ physical health. The thought was that if people eat better, exercise more, and stop smoking, health care costs will decrease.  Many employers invested in these types of wellness programs, often times creating complicated wellness initiatives that required people to complete HRAs, participate in biometric screenings, and complete other activities to earn incentives.

What we’ve learned over time is that this approach was ineffective and often even counterproductive. Not only did this approach not help with the root cause issues of poor wellbeing; but it also definitely didn’t lower costs. As most of your readers know, healthcare costs are high in the United States primarily due to an abundance of systemic issues within the healthcare system itself and not because people aren’t exercising enough or eating enough vegetables.  

What I see today are more employers focusing on a holistic approach to well-being that goes way beyond physical health. Most employers recognize the need to support mental health and emotional well-being just as much and in some cases more than the physical health. Thankfully, we’re also seeing employers recognize that relationships in the workplace have a huge impact on wellbeing - the relationships between leaders and the people they serve, and the relationships between colleagues.

We’re also seeing employers recognize the importance of attending to culture and climate in order to help their people function at full capacity. Transforming leaders, culture and climate requires a multi-pronged approach including training, coaching, hard conversations, the evolution of processes, and so much more. Most of the clients we work with now recognize the complexity of wellbeing and performance and are willing to let go of old narratives about wellness, and transform their thinking and initiatives to better align with what we know actually works. 

Where do you see the industry heading?  Are we moving to organizational resiliency?

I see well-being continuing to evolve as the science evolves and as we continue to learn more about human nature and what makes a highly supportive workplace.

Specifically, I see the industry heading in a direction where wellbeing lies in the forefront of conversations and decisions and is integrated into every aspect of the business. For example, during recruitment, potential employees learn about how the company supports well-being and employees know that this is important and should be a deciding factor in their decision to consider working for the organization. When employees are hired and onboarded, conversations about well-being lie at the forefront of the process. Teams create clarity on what it means to create a culture that makes it easier for people to care for themselves – and they know what it means to operationalize a wellbeing-supportive culture in their day-to-day behaviors. As many companies have done especially since the pandemic, business leaders rethink their practices, policies, and systems to better align with what makes it easier for people to care for themselves holistically.  

In terms of organizational resilience, I do think we’re moving in that direction. Many companies recognized when the pandemic hit that they were not prepared for how to shift their workforces and procedures or come back strong as the pandemic receded. One of the bright spots of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it brought the concept of resilience to the forefront.

While we still see a lot of organizations just wanting to “check the box” in terms of providing wellness benefits, more organizations are evolving and recognizing that we’re not ever “done” with a wellness initiative; supporting wellbeing is an ongoing process. The same is true for other efforts that impact well-being but that isn’t often considered to be in the “well-being bucket” such as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

What do you see as the biggest mistake organizations make when it comes to well-being?

This is an easy question for me. We see the same two mistakes over and over again: short-term thinking and addressing only symptoms.  

Employers utilize aggregate data to attempt to create and design well-being in the workplace. This can be an HRA, Medical Claims data, or engagement surveys. These can sometimes be helpful in measuring progress long-term but the more important factor that they miss is the direct feedback from their employees at every level.

By asking for our employees’ input, we can better understand the root cause of issues we’re really needing to solve. Employee surveys that ask the right questions in the right ways can be a great starting point but employers may also want to consider focus groups to help get details and context that often doesn’t come through on a survey.

 It’s very important to ask your employees questions like, “What gets in the way of you taking care of your own health?” and “What occurs at work that gets in the way of you showing up as the best version of yourself?” or “What factors at work impact your personal wellbeing the most?” or “What is the company doing well in terms of supporting your overall wellbeing?”

These are the questions that get to the heart of the real root cause issues. These questions will highlight cultural, relationship, and leadership issues that must be addressed if the workplace is to eventually have a net positive impact on wellbeing.

The model we use for working with clients almost always starts with a discovery phase where we are asking employees these types of questions. It’s during discovery that we truly begin to understand the root cause of barriers impacting wellbeing. We have never (not once!) had employees say “we need an onsite fitness center,” or “more nutrition education and weight loss programs.” Yet, these are the resources still being provided by many employers to support wellbeing.

The other mistake is that employers are making conventional wellness programs available to employees in whack-a-mole, “check the box” fashion. They decide on initiatives that they think employees will like (i.e. weight loss programs and nutrition classes) but that are often disconnected from root cause issues. Their programs don’t connect to the culture, and the bigger strategic plan and utilization remain low. The wellness initiative ends up being a siloed program that has no connection to other parts of the business. We see this most commonly when an employer has a Wellness Coordinator or similar position that they fill. This position sometimes reports to HR or Benefits (typically people who are not trained in wellbeing) and they are given limited or no budget. The coordinator continues to coordinate programs that are not helpful and are not included in business strategy. It’s a waste of people, time, resources, and energy. But they can check the box and say – “We have a wellness program and we support our employees’ wellbeing.”

What are the biggest successes you have seen companies achieve?

We have seen many of our clients achieve success by creating the conditions needed to function at full capacity. This means that well-being is seen, heard, and felt among employees. It means that people recognize the value they bring to work and feel safe in their environment to truly show up as themselves. They feel like their employer cares about them as a whole person and the conditions exist for them to show up as their most authentic self.

From a business perspective what you see and hear are employees who are more honest with themselves and with each other about what it takes to balance the demands of work and life. We see business leaders genuinely willing to listen to the voices of their employees and then make major changes to better support well-being such as rearranging flexible working opportunities, adding additional employees to better support workload, and revamping outdated processes.

We have one large global client with more than 200,000 employees. Many years ago within this workplace almost across the board, you would hear statements like “There is no time or opportunity for wellbeing. We are expected to be on 24/7. We serve global clients and there is simply no way to have this job and NOT feel overwhelmed and stressed. Work/Life balance does not exist.” These days, after many years of transforming culture and revamping processes, and changing expectations, we more often hear things like “My job is really demanding, but I’m supported by my colleagues and leaders to also take care of myself. We’re more honest with each other about expectations and the need for self-care. Yes, we have global clients and need to sometimes be available outside traditional work hours but it’s not the norm. We have flexible schedules and I truly feel that other people support my family time and RTO (“REAL time off”).

What is the one thing organizations need to focus on more than ever?

Business leaders need to consider how the systemic aspects of the workplace itself are having either a net positive or negative impact on wellbeing – and then make changes as they reasonably can. Ask questions like “What cultural norms make it easier for people to care for themselves? And which cultural norms make it harder? What are the relationships between leaders and the people they serve like? Which leaders seem to know how to lead teams where wellbeing and resilience are the norms – and which leaders need help? What can we do to improve trust, connection, and support?”

Once companies know the answers to these questions from their employees’ perspective, they have the right information to solve root cause issues that will impact wellbeing substantially more than any weight loss program or tracking app will ever be able to.  

Natalie is a performance, resilience and health and wellbeing expert that supports organizations at every level to function at full capacity.

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