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A culture of well-being can transform human behavior

Companies that build well-being into their culture are more likely to attract and retain employees, writes Richard Safeer, who offers ways to transform culture.

6 min read



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In this final installment of a three-part series, Dr. Richard Safeer, chief medical director of employee health, and well-being at Johns Hopkins Medicine, explains how organizations can leverage key building blocks to drive a culture of health. 

We’re now in the second month of the new year. How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? Research shows most people have given up. Although the commitment was genuine, the influences around us are too great to overcome, and we’ve receded to our unhealthy choices and thought patterns.  Given we spend most of our waking hours earning a living, it’s likely that our job and employer had a major role in our defeat. 

Richard Safeer

Your workplace culture can either support your health and well-being or work against it. Human behavior is complicated, and it takes much more than a note on your desk to create a healthy habit or get rid of an unhealthy one. But ultimately, human behavior can be transformed through a culture of well-being.

In the previous article, I shared the blueprint for a well-being culture, which involves six building blocks.  I conveyed the importance of peer support, leadership engagement and norms.  In this article, I’ll introduce the other three – shared values, culture connection points and social climate.

Building block #4 – Shared values

The values of an organization are essentially the guiding principles and beliefs that shape the way decisions are made, and business is conducted. These are the company’s priorities for how leaders and employees alike will conduct themselves.

Too often, a company’s values aren’t shared because they are written by leadership and for the benefit of the organization without regard to their impact on the workforce. When a company’s values all point toward productivity and profit, guess who suffers? You!

Do not fear. Your company can choose values that lead toward organizational success and create the caring and supportive environment employees seek. In fact, companies that embrace values that support employee health and well-being are likely to be “Best Companies to Work For” and see their company stock value beat the S&P 500 average by a multiple of four.

Arriving at shared values may appear challenging on the surface when you are a mid-sized or large company. How is it possible to come to a consensus with all these employees? Here are two possible paths:

  1. Ask your workforce for input – When Zappos was a mid-sized employer of just a few hundred people, it arrived at its company values by asking for feedback through email.
  2. Send representatives from across the organization – Johnson & Johnson is a multi-national company with more than 100,000 employees. There was no way they would all fit in one room! So, they brought together a representative pool of 2,000 for a retreat in 2017 to update their shared values.

Building block #5 – Culture connection points

Leaders and employers have an opportunity to nudge employees to make healthier choices and support more positive emotions during the workday. Where the influence of the employer meets the employee is a connection point and collectively, these nudges shape the culture.

Most often, employers rely on offering programs to address the health and well-being needs of their workforce. Programs are one example of a culture connection point, but they are highly unlikely to be impactful on their own. When many culture connection points are used together, along with the implementation of other building blocks, healthier days are much more likely.

Here are other culture connection points for consideration:

  • Recruitment – letting applicants know well-being is important to your company attracts like-minded candidates. 
  • First impressions & orientation – sending the message that well-being is important starts at the interview and on the first day of work.
  • Marketing & communications – what we say and how we say it impacts our chances of creating a healthy culture.
  • Stories sharing meaningful stories can be an effective and memorable way of making an impression and stirring inspiration.
  • Rewards & recognition – reinforcing desirable behaviors and attitudes will increase further adoption.
  • Learning & training – leading with well-being is not part of the usual curriculum for managers. Give leaders the skills they need to support a well-being culture. 
  • Symbols & traditions –implementing everyday signs and customs of well-being make a difference.
  • Physical work environment – designing the workplace to choose the healthy option helps employees make it easier to have a healthy day. 
  • Policies – ensuring your policies align with well-being.
  • Pushback – speaking up when you see or hear something or someone acting or saying something detrimental to health and well-being is important.  Complacency only breeds further unhelpful behavior.
  • Benefits – aligning your benefits to support your health and well-being strategy.

Building block #6 – Social climate

Monday mornings are better for some than others. One of the biggest determinants of how difficult it is to get up and go to work is the social climate on your team and in your organization. The social climate is a general feeling, the esprit de corps and the morale among your team and across your workforce.

There are three major determinants of the quality of your social climate. All of them can be influenced for the better. 

  1. Sense of community – Whether you feel like you belong, that you fit in, and can be yourself around others. We inherently want to trust those around us.
  2. Shared goals – People on the team feel as though they are all working toward the same outcome and contributing to the same goals.  Collaboration helps us feel as if we are rowing in the same direction.
  3. Positive approach – The mood on the team is generally upbeat.  Even when there are challenges, people remain optimistic. Having fun during the workday is a sure way to feel well.

It’s hard to break the bad habits and negative thought patterns we formed growing up. But, making small changes to your organization’s or team’s sense of community, shared goals and mood can have a profound impact.  

As a leader, you can work with your employees to choose and implement shared values that create the environment of well-being they seek. Employee surveys and/or bringing in employee representatives for discussions is a great way to start the conversation. You also have the opportunity to positively encourage employees to make healthier selections throughout the workday with key culture connection points. If the list above seems overwhelming, start by addressing a couple of key points. Lastly, changing your organization or team’s social climate starts with you. Your personal approach and the measures you implement can transform the social climate quality, which, in turn, influences employees’ sense of community, team collaboration, mood and ultimately, their behavior. 


Dr. Richard Safeer is the Chief Medical Director of Employee Health and Well-Being at Johns Hopkins Medicine, and the author of A Cure for the Common Company: A Well-Being Prescription for a Happier, Healthier and More Resilient Workforce. Connect with Richard on LinkedIn

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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