How to create a healthy workplace culture Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2010

Although rising direct health care costs are a concern for every company, many don’t take into account the indirect costs that also impact the total cost of health care.

Indirect costs are losses that occur as a result of a decrease in productivity caused by employee illness, absence and “presenteeism” — when employees are on the job but not contributing to their full capacity due to physical or mental health issues.

To combat these rising costs, business leaders should consider instilling a culture of health in the workplace.

“Transforming a culture to one that promotes and supports employee health requires active support from management in making workplace health a priority,” says Sally Stephens, president of Spectrum Health Systems.

Smart Business spoke with Stephens about how a culture of health in the workplace can benefit your company and the steps to creating that type of culture.

Why is creating a healthy culture important?

It is well documented that a healthy work force contributes to a healthier bottom line. Trends including globalization, changing work force demographics and the increasing costs associated with attracting and training skilled workers are contributing to a shortage of human capital. Finding talented employees is likely to be the single most important management concern.

Providing benefits that keep employees healthy, productive and loyal is a leading strategy for acquiring, retaining and satisfying skilled workers who provide a competitive advantage for any company.

What workplace factors need to be addressed in order to create a healthy culture?

Changing to a healthy culture is not easy, especially with a majority of jobs placing Americans behind a desk or in an office, working at a breakneck pace that allows no time to foster physical or mental well-being in the workplace. The habits of a more sedentary and stressful culture put employees at increased risk for developing disease and chronic conditions. Because of this, it is far more challenging for employers to keep their workers healthy in an era in which obesity, cardiovascular disease, stress and diabetes are dramatically on the rise.

Focusing on keeping health care costs at bay is not the best strategy. Instead, companies should adopt a strategy to stop disease within the work force before it even starts. Active engagement and the ability to induce a positive health shift in the culture of your employees are key elements to successfully creating a healthy workplace culture.

How can employers address those factors?

Organizations that embrace their role in employee well-being can shift their investment emphasis from one of failure costs to one of detection and prevention costs. Pursuing the path of excellence in employee well-being requires the same investment that businesses make in service and quality improvement. The incidence of employee stress, illness and injury can be managed. Healthy organizations have outstanding 360-degree communication, meaningful and focused empowerment, and balance between work and personal life.

What steps should employers take to implement a healthy culture?

  • Assess the characteristics of the existing culture.
  • Determine the desired culture.
  • Communicate the desired culture to all employees.
  • Have management that leads by behavior.
  • Conduct appropriate training at all levels.
  • Reinforce the desired behavior through recognition and reward systems.
  • Continually evaluate, monitor and assess to maintain the desired culture.

How can you inspire employees to buy in to a healthy culture?

Active engagement, or true buy-in from your employees, and an organized, observable shift in your company culture are visible characteristics of successful programs that can move you in the right direction. True engagement of your team in healthy programs will result in a cultural change, just as a change in your workplace culture will steer those resisting the program unconsciously toward active participation. There are three keys to achieving true buy-in.

  • Lead from the top. Actions speak louder than words, so you must have senior leadership involved in health initiatives. Senior management must be actively engaged in and using wellness services.
  • Communicate. There must be a clear statement and clarification of new values and beliefs of the organization. Keep employees informed about the process of cultural change and allow them to be involved and to take ownership of initiatives.
  • Offer recognition and rewards. Make sure your policies align with your company’s vision to strengthen the clarity of the message.

How can you determine if your company’s cultural changes are having the desired effect?

The most successful and profitable programs have active participation or engagement by at least 60 percent of employees. Healthy cultures support the principles of changing behavior, rather than simply providing information. Individually tailored information directed at behavior change is the most effective resource, and when this style of program becomes embedded within an overall healthy workplace culture, the results are clearly visible.

Achieving cultural change is not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Proper preparation and systematic implementation of these steps to achieve a cultural shift can greatly improve your chances of success.

Approaches combining individual initiatives with ongoing support and a philosophy centered on achieving positive behavior make good business sense.

Sally Stephens is president of Spectrum Health Systems. Reach her at (317) 573-7600 or sally.stephens@spectrumhs.com.