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Employee well-being: Culture is the cure

Companies that invest in and promote a culture of well-being will reap the benefits, but leaders need to be trained how to make that happen.

5 min read




4 Trillion Dollars.

That’s the cost of poor health and neglected well-being of Americans — most of whom are working adults.  That’s more than eight times the combined revenue of Apple and Microsoft in 2020. An unwell workforce contributes to medical and pharmacy claims, lost productivity, workers’ compensation, absenteeism, paid disability and more. How much is your company paying for recruitment, and losing because of vacancies because employees have fled to find an organization that is more supportive of their well-being?

Richard Safeer

In some of the biggest organizations, healthcare costs are the largest items on their P & L accounts. Starbucks spends more on healthcare than it does on coffee beans. Even before COVID-19 entered our lives, chronic conditions and a lack of systemic focus on employee well-being had already created a significant problem. 

As Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford points out in Dying for a Paycheck, 61% of workers felt that their workplaces had made them sick. Stress and overwork might be leading to over 120,000 deaths a year. This is after spending billions on health care!

Don’t forget that Americans aren’t getting younger. An aging workforce means more chronic diseases and illnesses. Historically, the younger portion of any workforce has offset the higher cost of insuring their older colleagues. With a falling birth rate, and later retirement, that shell game is ending.  

Balancing well-being and the bottom line

There’s a lack of self-care nationwide, perpetuated by a propensity for immediate gratification over consistent good choices. Companies are fueling the deterioration of our well-being by focusing on quarterly profits and personal ambitions over the greater workforce community. The lack of investment in our human resources will not go unaccounted for long. In fact, reconciliation has already started. 

For those employers not already positioned with a healthy and well workplace culture, the upheaval created by COVID-19 was the final straw to spawn the Great Resignation. Unless a culture of health and well-being becomes a strategic objective, organizations will be facing a full-blown crisis. If companies and organizations want to be successful, which means having a viable and reliable workforce, the time to act is now.

This isn’t to suggest that companies haven’t taken note. A multi-trillion dollar wellness industry has sprung up globally to address the problem. While business leaders and boards may be aware of the need to improve employee health and well-being, unfortunately, they rely on skin-deep programs with little meaningful effects. The current solutions of health risk assessments and the well-being webinar of the day have demonstrably fallen short.   

Leadership’s role in a culture of well-being

By focusing on the individual and putting the onus on employees to change, organizations are willfully ignoring their own role in the health and well-being of their workforce.  We cannot overlook the importance of the system that perpetuates unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns.

The current strategy for most organizations ignores the importance of the collective behaviors, attitudes and beliefs of the people who constitute the workforce. More simply, the current approach ignores culture.

Katy Milkman of Wharton reminds us there are many obstacles to change. Working in an organization with a culture of health and well-being makes it easier to overcome these obstacles. To create a culture of well-being, organizations need to move beyond transactional tactics and transform their approach. 

What’s needed is a systematic overhaul, with long-term objectives, that includes the active engagement of all stakeholders. When there is a culture of well-being present, we don’t need to “sign up” to participate because we are already immersed. We receive well-being when the policies, environment, benefits, resources, relationships and business practices are all aligned in a supportive direction.

A position like Chief Well-Being Officer sounds nice. It’s easy to implement, and importantly, assigns responsibilities to an individual and their team. But cultural change requires the participation of everyone in the C-suite, including managers and team leaders. It also depends on how we treat each other — the person we’re next to right now, regardless of title.

Let’s face it. When promoted into your current position, was training to create a culture of well-being on your team or department part of your orientation? Was well-being even mentioned as part of the job?  Lightbulb. How can organizations possibly create a well-being culture when leaders don’t have the knowledge and tools to lead this change?

Organizations will have to invest in and focus on six building blocks to create a culture of health and well-being. In the next two articles, you’ll learn more about these six culture-building blocks that not only support well-being and improve health, but will also increase job satisfaction, morale and employee retention.


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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