February 25, 2015

How to Create a Culture of Health at Your Office

HeartI’ve written quite a bit about employee health and workplace wellness initiatives in recent months, largely because I think they’re quite important. Health matters in a very basic and human way — i.e., healthy people live longer and live better — but it also matters economically and professionally. That is to say that healthier employees correlate to better business outcomes. See, for example, research from the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) that found “companies that build a culture of health by focusing on the well-being and safety of their workforce[s] may yield greater value for their investors.” Per the ACOEM study:

In the highest-performing scenario, CHAA companies [ed. note: companies that have received ACOEM’s Corporate Health Achievement Award in recognition of their dedication to employee health and safety] had an annualized return of 5.23 [percent] vs. -0.06 [percent] for the S&P 500. In the lowest-performing scenario, CHAA companies had an annualized return of 6.03 [percent] vs. 2.92 [percent] for the S&P 500.

It seems, then, that companies that cultivate employee health and wellness tend to perform better than the average S&P 500 company.

But before anyone runs off to grab some of that sweet, sweet health-boosted performance, we should probably take a few minutes to talk about how, exactly, company cultures impact health, what a “culture of health” really looks like, and how employers can build cultures of health at their own organizations.

And so, let’s turn to Missy Jaeger, vice president of client success at enterprise health-management firm Keas.

High-Pressure Environments Lead to Unhealthy Workers: the Connection Between Employee Health and Company Culture

When it comes to the afflictions plaguing employee health, many of them can be traced back to stress. Indeed, stress can wreak serious havoc on a body: untreated stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, anxiety disorders, and depression, to name just a few of the nastier outcomes. And many American workers suffer from stress: Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) went as far as to call it an “epidemic,” citing the fact that three-quarters of the American workforce describe their jobs as stressful. (Stress is also expensive, according to FDU: “Workplace stress costs U.S. employers an estimated $200 billion per year in absenteeism, lower productivity, staff turnover, workers’ compensation, medical insurance[,] and other stress-related expenses.”)

“At the end of the day, I think [all of this] stress is driven by performance pressures, the stress that we’ve created based on pressures brought about by trying to make our bottom-line numbers.” Jaeger says. “I [also] think it’s the individual being overloaded: technology is a terrific thing, but at the same time, we have to do more with less, so often people are working more than 40 hours a week.”

Given that company culture can drive unhealthy habits and states of mind, it stands to reason that they can also do the opposite: promote health, wellness, and high performance.

“The culture in the workplace is directly related to the performance and productivity of the individual,” Jaeger says. “Essentially, if you have an environment that promotes positive, healthy activity — that reinforces individuals and their health initiatives — then often [you] have a more productive and more engaged workforce.”

Promote Health and Productivity Through Social Support and Competition

The goal for any company looking to create a culture of health should be to create an environment that allows individuals to achieve their health goals and perform at their best, without the stress that so often comes with cultures that obsessively focus on the bottom line.

To do so, Jaeger suggests that companies use two tactics: competition and social support.

“What we find is that individuals really respond well to competition, whether it’s for the bottom line or for their personal health,” Jaeger says. “We also found that the social aspect of anything drives an individual’s behavior.”

According to Jaeger, companies should create programs that provide social support, a little bit of competition, and plenty of health information. Programs like this promote the health and well-being of the population and ultimately impact productivity.

And what sort of support mechanisms should employers use to create these programs that will lead to cultures of health? Jaeger suggests a few options:

  • Foster a culture in which healthy activity is positively reinforced by managers, executives, and coworkers.
  • Provide and subsidize healthy dining options in the company cafeteria.
  • Encourage people to take the stairs instead of elevators.
  • Reward people for choosing to do healthy activities, both on and off the clock.
  • Create fitness areas in parking lots or unused rooms.
  • Showcase employee success on a wall of fame.

“By creating a culture where health is the norm versus the exception — and promoting that [culture] and being involved in it — employers have the ability to impact productivity and, potentially, the bottom line,” Jaeger says.

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.