Winning Hearts and Minds: A Perspective on Employee Health

Employee health is the greatest asset a company has to ensure. But, all too regularly among companies, employee health stops at healthcare. Too often in the United States, "health" is used synonymously with "healthcare." This is not merely a philosophical failure, but an economic one.


In a healthcare-centric paradigm faced with ever-rising costs, citizens are categorized according to their disease burden and related financial demands. Individuals are viewed as generators of costs rather than as assets. For corporations, employee health needs to be regarded as a critical requirement to performance at its best.


After all, the top priority of any organization is its ability to deliver on its brand promise, and employees are responsible for making that promise a reality. A leader's job, however, is to drive that performance. There are two key levers to do this - alignment and engagement. To think about alignment and engagement, picture a boat.


We need the boat to ride straight toward the target -- to be aligned with our goals. And we need every seat to be filled with rowers - not just any rower, but the best, most engaged rowers, putting in 100 percent effort. So how is the United States doing in the healthy citizen category? We can begin by looking at traditional metrics: longevity and infant mortality.


In both areas, the United States trails most other nations, ranking 34th, in 2013, in both longevity and infant mortality, according to the World Health Organization. We also have some less direct, but more comprehensive health measurement indices, like the newly created social progress index.


This innovative index combines metrics on three major categories to produce an overall score: basic human needs, foundations of well-being, and opportunity. The United States placed 16th on the social progress index. We can also measure health by looking at the prevalence of key risk factors for negative health outcomes - obesity and smoking to name a few. In all of these measures, we are at the head of the pack - and that is not a good thing.


The United States is ranked as the 18th most obese nation, but is doing much better - 51st - on per capita consumption of tobacco. Clearly, the United States has a lot of catching up to do to reach the notion of a healthy citizenry. Like a very gifted athlete or a person who has inherited an enormous amount of wealth, there is the potential to someday squander what we have today.


We are slipping into some patterns that are not sustainable and are in need of national efforts to focus on health. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has made shifting the national culture toward a one of health a top priority. I applaud that effort and hope it is adopted nationwide.


A "culture" describes the norm of behavior; it answers the question: how do we do it here? We can explain and define culture by witnessing the choices people make through the subconscious decisions people make. The American culture is rooted in rugged individualism and freedom. As a nation, we remain suspicious of too much government control.


Under this backdrop, we must walk the tightrope of public and corporate policy and individual choice. This is where my experience serving in the military has given me perspective on how we do this. During this time, I became familiar with the phrase, "winning the hearts and minds,"which was often used to explain the important role that non-forceful means could play to influence national security and, thus, prevent the need for more forceful actions.


Perhaps this analogy may be a little too extreme for some, but for me it rings true in establishing the proper way to approach corporate wellness programs. This phrase recognizes that health is a strategic priority and critical to our ultimate mission. It recognizes that setting the condition for success involves a campaign to influence more than just the way one thinks, but how they feel. We can provide lots of information and data - hard scientific facts.


But in order for that information to be translated into action, we must tug at the heart - the metaphorical symbol of emotion and desire. "Winning the hearts and minds" also suggests that the ball is in our court to shape programs that are meaningful to the recipients. We can be the architect at a high level, but we also need poignant communicators to reach people on a deep level.


In conversations with companies about their health and well-being strategies, our discussion often points to one or two programs that inevitably centers on a technology platform. Although technology is great as an enabler, the most important drivers of health within an organization are it policies, its people, its communication and its compassion.


Policies translate the overall focus on health into clear rules on "what is expected from me." Companies should thoughtfully consider their policies and how they do or do not send a clear message on how and if they value health. Whether it is a no smoking regulation or policies that encourage breast feeding, use of the gym during business hours, or healthy snacks at meetings - they are a very clear message of what the company feels is important.


People of an organization also play an obvious, but underutilized role. There is great value when leaders authentically communicate their belief that the well-being of people is a top priority. Ambassadors can also be involved on the ground as culture catalysts to spark healthy changes.


These health ambassadors should be supported and their stories shared to show that real people with similar circumstances can make the simple changes needed to drive them down a very real journey toward health. This leads me to communication and the importance of consistent and persistent messaging. There is a lot of noise out there.


We do not need to add to this noise by poorly developed communications. We can cut through the noise and become a voice of clarity to explain "why our health is important to each of us" and "how we can support ourselves and others on their individual health journey." The role of compassion is important.


"Winning hearts and minds" recognizes that one shoe does not fit all. We need to meet people at where they are at. Some people are living life to the fullest right now and are physically, mentally and spiritually doing well. But, others may be facing struggles and, in the midst of those struggles, it's too hard to see past the pain.


Everyone has past stories and hardships. Some people may have hardships that cause their emotional tank to empty or their mind to develop protective patterns of behavior that in the short term make sense, but in the long term are not sustainable. Compassion recognizes that people need to feel that we care, that we have services that can support them when they are anxious, depressed, or at a loss at how to navigate through their current obstacles.


I have found that "winning the hearts and minds" works well with the old adage, "give a person a fish and you feed them today. Teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime. "Our leadership development and training program should focus on building the resiliency skills needed to improve an individual's capacity to address adversity.


The U.S. Army figured this out quite some time ago and invested heavily in its resiliency building program, dubbed Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. Finally, a strategy that focuses on winning the hearts and minds of our own people recognizes that culture is an important part of sustainability and, thus, worth the investment. Persistence is a key attribute in this strategy along with the focus on policies, people, communication and compassion.


We are all on this journey together. Our prize is more than just reduced healthcare costs for the company. Our prize is a workforce that stands ready to meet the challenges of today based on their inherent capacity to address adversity and succeed. If we believe that our people are our greatest asset, then together we can contribute toward creating a national culture of health that supports a healthy citizenry.


About the Author

Dr. Kent Bradley is the Chief Medical Officer at Safeway, where he develops and guides the company's extensive portfolio of healthcare programs which include employee and consumer wellness and prevention activities.