Creating a Culture of Health

First-day sessions at this year's Health & Benefits Leadership Conference stressed the importance of focusing on creating an environment that encourages employees to adopt healthy behaviors without trying to force change upon them.

Thursday, April 20, 2017
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Laura Putnam kicked off Human Resource Executive®'s 2017 Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, held April 19 -- 21 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, with an anecdote that should resonate with HR and benefits professionals everywhere.

Putnam, the CEO and founder of San Francisco-based wellness provider Motion Infusion, recalled a recent email she received from an HR leader who had attended one of Putnam's wellness training workshops.

"She was really excited to talk with the C-suite at her company about starting a new wellness program," said Putnam, "and she wanted some resources to help carry out this new initiative."

Putnam directed her toward a handful of wellness-related books as well as some other tools with which to arm herself when she made her case to the organization's leadership.

The HR leader's presentation, however, didn't go over as well as she hoped it would.

Despite being prepared with data and anecdotal evidence to support her argument, the company's executives didn't see enough proof of how a new wellness initiative would improve the bottom line.

"It was back to the drawing board for her," said Putnam, who said the HR professional described the meeting as "the most frustrating" that she had attended in quite some time.

Putnam's opening presentation, "Going Stealth: How Not Calling It 'Wellness' Can Be Your Secret Weapon," focused on how "sneaking wellness initiatives into non-wellness related programs" can help other HR leaders avoid a similar fate.

Workplace wellness as we know it isn't working in many organizations, said Putnam. A quick poll of the audience seemed to support that assertion. Putnam asked attendees whether they agreed that their wellness efforts have achieved their goals, requesting that audience members "vote" by standing when she said "yes" or "no." The overwhelming majority answered in the negative.

Historically, the "typical protocol" regarding wellness programs, said Putnam, has been to assess employee health needs, solicit feedback from the workforce and then implement some form of wellness program in response -- a smoking cessation program or walking challenge, for example."The idea," she said, "is that [these efforts] are going to get people moving down the line" toward adopting healthier behaviors and lifestyles.

"We have programs that are probably very well-designed, but are often underutilized," she continued.

"We can do better, by going 'stealth' to encourage bottom-up engagement" in wellness initiatives.

Many organizations offer financial or other incentives in an effort to boost participation in wellness programs, "but money has its limits," said Putnam. "Rewards motivate people to get the reward, but not necessarily to sustain the activities that earned them that prize."

Ultimately, "we can never really get people to change," said Putnam, adding that the best way to introduce a wellness program might be by bringing it into the organization via a Trojan horse of sorts.

For example, Putnam -- who is also a personal trainer -- recalls being brought in to an organization to help weave a wellness component into the client company's larger, broader "work performance improvement program."

"The amazing, ironic thing to me was that there was so much wellness already packed into this work performance program," she said.

For instance, the program already entailed morning stretches, standing meetings and the implementation of a buddy system designed to encourage employees to support each other in their efforts to, say, eat healthier.

"That," said Putnam, "is how you sneak wellness into workplace programs that the C-suite views as being more bottom-line oriented."

Creating a culture of health -- whether it's done out in the open or on the sly -- indeed presents challenges. Another Wednesday session offered ways to overcome these hurdles.

The panel discussion, led by Mim Senft, president and CEO of Motivity Partnerships Inc., continued on the theme that trying to "change" employee habits or behaviors is a difficult -- and often downright futile -- undertaking. Rather, the panel -- which included HR leaders from The Breakers, Delta Air Lines Inc., National Van Lines and Owens Corning -- focused on how they've helped create an environment in which employees are happy at work -- where most adults spend 40-plus hours a week -- which in turn leads to better overall health and making better health-related decisions.

At Owens Corning, the philosophy behind the organization's wellness efforts is simple," said Gale Tedhams, director of sustainability at the Toledo, Ohio-headquartered developer and producer of insulation, roofing and fiberglass composites.

"If the company is to flourish, we need employees to flourish."

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As far back as 2001, the company began concentrating more closely on having zero work-related injuries, said Tedhams.

"We haven't quite gotten there, but we've gotten awfully close," she said, adding that Owens Corning has more recently made a similar commitment to measuring and mitigating the impact of fatigue on its employees, which impacts safety as well as workers' overall well-being.

"We've started to do fatigue risk management," said Gale, noting that the company has conducted employee surveys that revealed that sleep and stress were "big issues" among its roughly 15,000 employees, "not so much in terms of increased absenteeism, but in presenteeism.

"We've taken a big step back," she continues, "and asked ourselves how we can create a work environment not in which we change people, but an environment that encourages employees to make good health decisions."

Panelist Jae Kuller, manager of health and well-being at Delta, shares a similar objective, and spends a good deal of time working with those outside of HR in an effort to reach that goal.

"A lot of my work has been collaborating with our work safety team, our community affairs team, and our finance and compensation teams," said Kuller. "All of these groups are involved in wellness in some way. For HR, it's connecting all of those dots, and connecting all of the work done by these teams."

Maureen Beal, CEO and chairman at National Van Lines, shared her belief that taking care of employees is vital if you expect them to take care of themselves.

For example, the company sends employees marking their 30th anniversary with the company -- along with their spouses -- on an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii.

"When I tell people [outside the organization] that we do this, they're amazed," said Beal. "But it's really a simple thing to do."

Such rewards "make workers happier, which leads to better, healthier workers," adds Senft, who urged the HR professionals on hand to "learn the different 'languages" throughout the organization.

In other words, "you need to find out the 'why' in different areas of the company," in terms of what will encourage workers to engage in and maintain healthy behaviors, she said. "For wellness programs to work, you need all of these different employees and departments on your side."

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