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Employee well-being is a team sport

Make employee well-being a priority by setting norms and engaging peers and leadership in embedding it as part of company culture, writes Richard Safeer.

5 min read


employee well-being

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Most companies are focused on helping individual employees as if employee well-being and health are solo sports. However, the science bears out that well-being is a team sport.™ We are more likely to reach our goals when we are supported by those we work with and when we are employed in a supportive work environment.

Richard Safeer

Programs and resources are important, but, in most cases, they can’t make a difference if they aren’t offered in a workplace with a well-being culture. To help leading organizations build a well-being culture, I’ve identified key building blocks to implement. This article provides an overview of half of them — peer support, leadership engagement and norms.

Building block #1 – Peer support

Our friends, families and co-workers have a huge influence on our habits. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, you have a much higher chance of success if you attempt to quit with a co-worker who also smokes.  You are more likely to lose up to three times as much weight when you work with a group of three or four co-workers than if you try and lose the weight alone.

 It’s not just our physical health that benefits. Our emotions are tied to others as well.  When we’re around happy people, we’re more likely to be happy. Even just seeing someone smile improves our mood.  When we’re next to someone stressed, we are likely to feel stressed ourselves.

 We can take advantage of this strong connection and encourage peer support on our teams and in our organization if we think in pairs or groups.

  • Design efforts with the intention of pairing your team members. When a new employee starts on the team, assign a “buddy,” someone to answer their questions and guide them through the new workplace. This will certainly make for a less stressful onboarding experience.
  • Team wellness program participation. If your company is offering a wellness program, think about having your whole team participate together.  When co-workers participate together, not only will they show up, but they will also be more likely to take something away from the event that they can carry forward with their teammates. 
  • Recognize well-being support. We offer praise for “hard work.” Why not recognize and appreciate employees who are supporting a co-worker in their well-being goals?  What the leader pays attention to gets repeated.

Building block #2 – Leadership engagement

It’s not enough for leaders to say they support employee health and well-being; they need to be engaged in the effort. We know that team leaders have a disproportionately large influence, including on the happiness and health of the team.

  • Be a well-being role model.  Your team is watching you.  If you take a lunch break, they will take a lunch break.  We all need breaks!  If you walk at lunch, they will be more likely to get up and move as well. If your well-being habits aren’t visible, tell your team about them during a meeting.  Sharing what you do to stay healthy shows your team that well-being is important.
  • Add well-being to the agenda. When we neglect our well-being it makes getting to our goals more difficult, so make it a priority.  That means putting well-being on our team agenda.  This way, there is always a placeholder to cause us to think about where we stand with our well-being and what we want to discuss, practice, or plan to support our health.
  • Keep emotions in check. Just as the emotions of our peers impact our health, our emotions influence those we lead.  When we are stressed, we need to slow down and take a breath.  Consider even faking a smile until it starts to feel more natural – and it will.

Building block #3 – Norms

Norms are the expected behaviors of a group of people, like those on your team.  Some norms support a healthy workday — like eating lunch together (which builds a sense of community among co-workers). Unfortunately, your team also likely has norms that are unhealthy, like working at your desk through lunch while answering emails. There are steps you can take to create healthier team norms.

  • Have a health goals conversation. Have a discussion with your team to learn what health goals they are trying to achieve.  Be careful not to solicit personal health information, but the simple question of “Did anyone make a New Year’s resolution?” might get the conversation started.
  • Drive norm agreement. Try and steer the team toward a consensus of what norm they’d like to see.  One common wish I often hear is to not be answering emails after work hours.
  • Address norm obstacles. Identify what hurdles are getting in the way of achieving the norm, and remove them.  Perhaps you, the leader, need to be a role model and exemplify the desired behavior.
  • Encourage a team promise. Have the team sign a pledge that you’ll all support each other in making this happen.

 When the team works together to create a healthy norm, it’s more likely to come to fruition, and everyone benefits.

 There are three more building blocks to shaping a well-being culture on your team. Watch for them in the next installment of this series.


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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