Taken from Medcitynews.com:

Workplace wellness programs are our biggest hope for fixing our national healthcare crisis because they have a unique power to shift employee mindsets around health. As designers and researchers who have spent the better part of two years creating a system of healthy living for a huge national populous, we’ve read a lot about what companies need to do to move their populations towards health, but not enough about why corporations are in a unique position to effect change so powerfully, and we think it’s important to share this deeper understanding.

Working to design a wellness system for the Department of Defense, the nation’s largest employer, we learned the power an organizational community can have on influencing individual behaviors, what we termed an organization’s “reach and influence.” But when it comes to health behaviors, not all organizations have the right combination of reach and influence for sustained change. Consider two of the most prominent health focused organizations in our country: the federal government and medical institutions.

Cortney Rowan

Our government wields both reach and influence. It has a strong voice in the national health conversation, writing healthcare policies that impact the nation. But the government has a weak connection to the community it serves. While the information it provides is important, it often feels disconnected from our day-to-day lives. Our medical institutions also have reach and influence. With doctors seeing multiple patients a day, they have the ability to move individuals toward health. But because they see patients at single points in time, they can’t create an ecosystem around them. And their influence erodes quickly beyond the office walls.
So, why is the workplace in a unique position?

At work we are surrounded by a pre-established culture — a common set of values, norms and a language system that employees align with. When organizations meld their messages to their culture, tapping into the values employees have already internalized, our research shows that they can have a powerful influence. At the Cleveland Clinic, for example, employees are bound by a common purpose of providing patients leading healthcare and research. To connect with their employees, who are medical professionals that view health in clinical outcomes, the company links health behaviors to concrete biological outcomes, showing their direct impact on organs through simulated videos.

Influence also stems from an organization’s ability to create an ecosystem of health around an individual. While a doctor’s advice often fails to stick because it gets drowned out in our hectic lifestyle, workplaces can support an individual’s adherence to health everyday by surrounding an employee with a physical and social environment that makes health the simple and meaningful choice. At USAA, it’s hard to ignore the physical representation of health. The company has made it so convenient it’s become part of the fabric of the organization with amenities, such as bike stations, BMI testing rooms, indoor and outdoor walking paths, stairway signs estimating calories burned for use, energy rooms, healthy food and a massive gym. Culturally at USAA, health has been woven in, with departments competing to collect healthy points. The reward—a sense of group pride—is a compelling force to action and holds people accountable. When we bump up against these attitudes and resources day in and day out at the workplace, they influence our perspectives on health.

By reach, we are not talking about getting your message out with a top down communication approach or a deluge of marketing material. Reach works best, according to our research, when organizations communicate health messages through multiple pathways and decentralize the message. People have different health engagement triggers, and you’ll never reach everyone through one path or point of communication. While some people respond to leadership messaging and company values, others connect with co-worker encouragement and coaching.

The best wellness programs lean on both formal and informal roles within their populations to achieve this layered approach to reach. The roles create what we termed the Human Architecture of an organization. The first formal role is that of the Beacon, usually a senior leader within an organization with high visibility. He or she elevates health to a core business value, setting a vision and committing resources to make it a reality. The next formal role is that of the Stewards. They are the gatekeepers—most often the wellness managers—designing interventions and crafting health messages that resonate with employees. But the Stewards can’t do it alone; they need to broaden their reach. This is where the formal role of the Advocate comes in. They are the eyes and ears on the ground. Without them the Stewards can’t drive relevancy. Advocates can be managers or even employees in different departments or locations. Finally, there’s the informal role of the Champion, which emerges organically over time. They have lived the program and have had a personal health journey, increasing reach by inspiring others around them with their stories.

Each of the distinct roles in the Human Architecture has a differentiated and compounding value on employee engagement. The more people that are pulled into the architecture, in the various roles, the more people they activate, building pockets of healthy living and creating a culture of health. Ultimately, the goal of tapping this architecture is to create a self-sustaining wellness system—moving beyond organizational push to employee pull. Susan Tufts, the wellness manager at L.L. Bean, says that the best indication of success is when programs come from employees—who create their own running groups, coordinate lunch-learns, and even set up farmers’ markets on site. The program then becomes part of the fabric of the organization, living beyond any one leader’s vision.

We spend the majority of our waking hours at work. The office environment has a great deal of influence over the shape and structure of our lives. While the doctor’s visit is where many health conversations start, it is rarely where they continue to live. Workplaces have the opportunity to keep this conversation going. As Catherine Baase, Global Director of Health Services for The Dow Chemical Company, states, “The workplace, through its established culture, can have greater long-term impact than the visit with your doctor, the reach of government and even the sphere of your family.  It is the secret sauce to driving outcomes — and an essential factor in achieving population health.”