Going Stealth

Speaker at upcoming Health & Benefits Leadership Conference shares her unique approach to employee wellness.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017
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After presenting a series of employee-wellness seminars at The Permanente Medical Group in 2013, Laura Putnam helped the organization develop workforce-performance initiatives that addressed issues around employee engagement, culture and teamwork. Surprisingly, these initiatives produced more positive well-being outcomes than the company's wellness program itself. So Putnam began promoting wellness through other areas such as culture or teamwork. As CEO of Motion Infusion in San Francisco, she shares her "stealth" philosophy in the following Q&A with HRE Writer Carol Patton. She is also speaking at the opening general session, Going Stealth: How Not Calling It "Wellness" Can Be Your Secret Weapon, on Wednesday morning, April 19, at HRE's Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas.

You believe there's a better way to build a healthier workforce, something you call a "stealth strategy." Overall, how does the strategy work?

A stealth strategy is one in which you look for opportunities to infuse well-being in a sneaky way into non-wellness [activities] that are already up and running, already funded and already taken seriously. As the person designing and delivering the wellness program, you're not facing this uphill battle, trying to push a rock up the hill, trying to sell people on wellness. Instead, you look for opportunities [among the] things already happening within the organization. You're not going to necessarily call it wellness and can avoid scary wellness jargon such as risk reduction or disease management.

What are some of the key differences between "stealth" and traditional wellness programs?

This quest to reduce healthcare costs has actually gotten off track. If a company or organization is investing in a wellness program as a means to reduce healthcare costs, the employee will [see it that way and] think that the primary driving reason [behind the investment] is simply to save [money]. This can easily translate into what feels to employees like a program that's being done to them as opposed to a program being done for them.

On the other hand, if the leaders of an organization start from a place where they want to invest in the health and well-being of their employees because, first and foremost, it's the right thing to do, then it's much more likely to set a tone in which employees feel like the organization they work for actually cares about them.

Some companies report high employee-participation rates in their wellness programs, often in the 90-percentile range. So why should HR professionals make any changes when their current program is effective and supported?

Ninety percent is great but it's important to dig a little deeper to understand what 90 percent means. While 90 percent of employees completed health-risk assessments for a $100 incentive, have they done anything after filling it out? Not really. All they've done is self-report their risks -- things such as their weight, how often they exercise, if they smoke or if they're stressed out. Then they get a report back saying they're stressed out and overweight and not exercising enough. So nothing has really happened. So I would not call that a successful program.

Many wellness programs were established years, even decades, ago. How can HR professionals transform what's already in place?

If you have a wellness program that's up and running, find out what people actually like and don't like about it. You can conduct a survey, but a better way is to conduct focus groups and have actual conversations. Walk around and ask people what they think of the wellness program.

There's often a giant disconnect between the employer's and employees' perceptions of wellness at work. I'm always surprised when I do [manager] training programs. I list all the different wellness offerings at their organization and ask them to check off activities they do or events they participate in. Over and over again, many managers don't know a lot about their wellness program.

Do a deep dive. Look at team influencers such as managers and find out the extent to which they are doing it, speaking about it and creating systems to make it possible for their team members to actually engage with the wellness program.

Another part of this is to use real language, not survey language. Ask employees, "When you wake up in the morning and get ready for work, what's the first word that comes to mind?" People might say, "Tired or stressed," or are they saying things like, "Excited"? That tells you something about your culture and level of well-being in your organization.

Another great strategy that I often use is showing employees 10 different positive and negative images -- like of a horse kicking another horse in the face, a broken link chain or people holding hands. Ask employees, "Which of these images reflect your day-to-day experience here?" Out of that, you get all of these stories about what's actually happening.

One story emerged out of this exercise in a focus group at one company with a wellness program that focused on emotional and mental well-being. In the employee break room, the TV was set [to] CNN. Employees were not able to change the channel. In every single focus group, this story came up. People were [angry] and stressed out about that. One of the best things the company could have done to boost emotional well-being was to give those employees choice around the channel that's on the TV.

Research shows that one of the biggest drivers of stress is lack of autonomy or control. This is a small but important way to give employees more of a sense of control. This is a way of digging in. Do your wellness programs have their intended impact, or are they actually sabotaging your efforts to promote emotional or physical well-being?

Senior managers may not be so easily swayed. How can HR solicit their buy-in?

It's no accident that advertisers understand that it's emotion, the heart, that sells products. When you're trying to make this sell, you need to do a better job of making the emotional sell. This is where using personal stories can be really powerful . . . and then sharing unexpected statistics such as the No. 1 reason for absenteeism is depression and anxiety, and other mental-health related issues. Someone struggling with these issues misses almost twice as many workdays as somebody who's battling cancer. Also, if we don't do something about our current level of health and well-being as a nation, for the first time ever, children are likely to have a shorter life expectancy than [their parents]. When I share this with senior leaders, it's a big wake-up call.

So what types of stealth activities can be incorporated into daily workplace rituals? Can you provide some employer examples?

There is no one-size-fits-all. So much of this is culture-specific. Look at anything that occurs regularly, is part of the day-to-day work experience, and is taken seriously.

At LinkedIn, walking meetings are a regular practice. It's normal at Huffington Post for employees to take naps. At Eileen Fisher, employees have time-out rooms to refresh. Another employer begins meetings with employees doing five squats. People can also practice meditation or teams can get together and stretch for several minutes. You can provide stand-up desks, have treadmill desks, create walking paths . . . . One employer has a central atrium that people have to walk through to move between its buildings. This helps foster accidental collisions and, in this employer's view, fosters innovation. People are actually doing things to help promote their level of health and well-being while at work.

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Think about how to help people strive at work and become their better selves. Examine your culture and build a sense of hope and optimism. Don't start by identifying what's wrong with employees or their risks. Instead, start with what's right with them and build on those strengths and celebrate them. Create a more positive energy to this initiative.

Shift your mind-set from expert to agent of change. Think less about a program you're going to develop and more about how to start a movement of well-being within your organization that will move people on an emotional and logical level.

Besides HR, who else should be involved in planning or implementing stealth activities?

Senior leaders need to set the tone but everybody should be involved. It's also a matter of identifying key influencers. There seems to be a growing body of evidence that says managers are among the most or the most important influencers.

Managers have become our primary focus. They're the ones who really effectively give permission to their team members to either engage in wellness and well-being at work or not. I've teamed up with an organization called Pro-Change Behavior Systems and we launched a new program called Managers on the Move that empowers managers to become multipliers of well-being for their team members.

What about employees? Can they help drive these activities?

While a best practice is getting top-down [support] . . . there have been examples of employee-driven programs. One employee set up her own stand-up desk . . . . That created a ripple effect among the people around her. It could be something as small as that. At another organization, employees played basketball during lunch. It gained momentum. Senior leaders saw what was happening and built an on-site basketball court. One employee at the United Way decided to get in better shape by taking two walks a day during work time. She mapped out a one-mile indoor and one-mile outdoor route and started walking. She encouraged other employees to join her. Now this has become a regular practice for 12 years running. As an office, they regularly walk together twice a day, every day.

These programs didn't require an expert or any kind of funding. But at some point, you have to get senior leaders on board. If they're no longer supporting it, that's probably the No. 1 reason why wellness programs are discontinued.

Wellness programs have been criticized for being ineffective at helping employees become healthier. Why is "stealth" different?

A lot of organizations and leaders are operating under a fantasy that a check-the-box wellness program, such as filling out a health-risk assessment or listening to a canned webinar, is going to make a difference in their employees' level of health and well-being or significantly save on their healthcare costs. Using strategies such as health-risk assessments or biometric screenings can, frankly, be pretty frightening for employees.

One of the mantras I often share with leaders and managers is that, first and foremost, workplace wellness or well-being is about doing the right thing. Secondly, it's about doing the smart thing. Third, it starts with you as a leader, as a manager, as an employee. Each of us can stand up for change. [With stealth,] you're going to inspire employees by building winning teams, creating an oasis of well-being, helping them become their better selves and making the world a better place.


The 2017 HRE's Health & Benefits Leadership Conference will be held April 19 through 21 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Visit for more details.


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