Holiday Stress Programs? Bah!

in Commentary, Employee Wellness Programs, Stress, Uncategorized

The Joy of Sharing image

It may be too late for employee wellness professionals to adjust their plans for holiday-season programs this year, but now is an ideal time to rethink the holiday stress programs we typically offer.

Every December, wellness program managers promote programs about managing “holiday stress.” These commonly take the form of lunch-and-learns or communication campaigns. They have the usual catchy titles like Holiday Stress Less and Take the Hassle Out of the Holidays.

The holiday season is stressful for many employees — no doubt about it. And it’s distinct from other sources of stress in the workplace in that the conditions that cause holiday stress can, indeed, be modified with behavioral approaches.

But I suspect that our holiday stress programs add to employee stress. They contribute to a culture that considers stress the primary mental state in which we experience the holidays and, as such, comprise a self-fulfilling prophecy.

May I suggest a new approach to promoting mental health during the holidays, even if some of the content may be the same? Let’s offer programs that promote happiness and joy, rather than just trying to remediate stress. Next year, instead of teaching people to manage holiday stress, why not teach them how to nurture their holiday happiness? Why not publish newsletter articles like “How to Share Holiday Joy”?

Instead of “5 Tips for Managing Your Holiday To-Do List,” how about “101 Reasons to Enjoy a Holiday Vacation”? Rather than “Balancing the Burdens of Work/Life During the Holidays,” how about “Focus on Family this Holiday Season!”

[Originally posted by Bob Merberg in May 2010 on the In TEWN blog.]

10 Books for Wellness Afficionados

in Communications, job design, job strain, Uncategorized, Wellbeing

wellness books

Summer’s here, and it’s time to unstrap the Fitbit and track some physical inactivity — the kind, for example, that takes place while reading. Pictured here is a pile of books that I’d recommend, or almost recommend, to wonky wellness professionals who have been at it for a while and are still searching.

You may think it weird that some of these books are old or even out-of-print. What good does an out-of-print book recommendation do you? Well, sometimes the story of a book is worth telling just as much as the story inside it.

Starting at the bottom of the pile…

Making Health Communication Programs Work.

Can you imagine there was a time — from 1989-2004, to be exact — when the US government gave this health communication book away for free? All you had to do was call and ask. This was the authoritative source on health communication — with more of a public health bent rather than employee wellness — affectionately known to health communicators as “The Pink Book.”

The good news is that you can get the final version of the book as a pdf. Who cares if it doesn’t include the last 13 years of developments? Who cares if the last entry in the glossary is a definition of “World Wide Web”? The book still covers an evidence-based approach to health communication theory and practice, with some behavioral change theory thrown in to boot. Get on it.

Manufacturing Knowledge: A History of the Hawthorne Experiments.

I’ve been studying the Hawthorne experiments for the last couple of years, and have assembled quite the collection of yellowed, musty, out-of-print books, this being one of the most important and, published in 1993, the most recent. At the heart of the matter is the field study of workers, supplemented with detailed interviews of 23,000 workers, under different conditions at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant outside Chicago, in the 1920s and early 1930s. It stands as one of the most important studies of workers, management, and productivity ever.

While the Hawthorne researchers weren’t committed to worker wellbeing as we think of it, they did recognize wellbeing as relevant to productivity. And much of what we believe today about management styles, leadership, employee engagement, and teamwork was rooted in the Hawthorne research. Forget the fact that it started as a study of lighting, or that it had an entire category of bias named after it. Most experts today believe that if there is such a thing as the Hawthorne effect — in which research subjects change their behavior simply as a response to being observed — it didn’t occur at Hawthorne.

Let’s get real… You’re not going to read an old book about a 90-year-old study. So take 9 minutes to listen to this peppy BBC podcast on the topic. Regardless of the Freakonomics interviewee drawing an unfounded explanation of the Hawthorne findings, the podcast may start to give you a sense of how important the Hawthorne experiments are to our understanding of work, motivation, and even research design.

Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity, and the Reconstruction of Working Life.

Yup, out-of-print — I don’t know why, as this is a seminal classic about the relationship between work and health, in which Robert Karasek, one of the most important worker health researchers of our time, lays out the case for the demand/control model of job strain.

Healthy Work may be too technical for a lot of people, but if you can get your hands on a copy, it’s great to keep around and skim through whenever you have a chance. Healthy Work changed how managers, health agencies, and labor organizations around the globe think about worker health.

Health Behavior and Health Education.

Get the 2015 version (5th edition), which is called Health Behavior: Theory, Research, and Practice. Health behaviors aren’t the foundation of employee wellbeing. (Exposures are.) But whether you agree with me or are convinced that, like people always say, “it all comes down to behavior,” isn’t it important to understand what makes health behavior tick?

The Workplace and Cardiovascular Disease.

This book was published in 2000 predominantly for clinicians and other wonks. It gets highly technical — so it’s not something you’ll want to read at the beach. But I keep it handy on my desk. It’s a collection of evidence documenting the relationship between work, psychosocial job stressors, and health, and suggesting a causal relationship — that is, bad jobs lead to poor health. The rigor of the studies contrasts with the vendor- and employer-fueled quasi-science to which wellness professionals are customarily subjected.

Amazon usually sells The Workplace and Cardiovascular Disease, used, for less than 10 bucks. If you want something cheaper and more current, you can try to access the article, “Globalization, Work, and Cardiovascular Disease,” published in 2016 in the International Journal of Health Services. Two of the article’s authors, distinguished researchers Peter Schnall and Paul Landsbergis, were among the editors of the book.

Why Nobody Believes the Numbers.

The only thing I find more painful than hearing our industry called the “ignorati” is noticing that we often do ignore criticism. Sure, we’ve all been paying the price for Al Lewis’s book ever since it was published, but we can be thankful that someone cast skepticism on the claims of the wellness industry. I don’t know if this is Al’s goal, but it is mine: To get better at supporting the wellbeing of the American workforce. In order to achieve this, we need to be able to assess our practices critically, and this book rallies us to do just that.

The Elements of Style.

Because writing!

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

Former Washington Post reporter turned work-life balance hunter, Brigid Schulte, endeavors to wake up America to the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into by putting obsessive “busyness” and profits ahead of our kids, our spouses, and ourselves. Schulte deconstructs an American culture driven by a destructive sense of individualism and machismo that puts us on a never-ending treadmill — the unhealthy kind — as well as the policies and gender inequality that keep us there. She draws upon the experience of her own work and family life, and visits Denmark where the possibility of a better way reveals itself to her.

The Status Syndrome.

Health is influenced by social status — specifically, our position in the spectrum of autonomy and of full participation in society. The workplace is a microcosm for this “social gradient.” Epidemiologist and author Sir Michael Marmot, who has devoted his career to spotlighting the social determinants of health, led the Whitehall studies — investigations into the work lives and the health of thousands of British civil service workers. Whitehall II is among the most important studies of worker health, but — as with much of the excellent research from Europe and other countries around the globe — is noncommercial and, consequently, infrequently discussed at American wellness conferences. Sir Michael once wrote in Lancet,

Healthy behaviors should be encouraged across the whole of society. More attention should be paid to the social environments, job design, and the consequences of income inequality.

If you’re not ready for The Status Syndrome, read the pdf pamphlet “Work, Stress, and Health: The Whitehall II Study.”

Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.

Of all the books in my pile, this is the one I most enjoyed reading. If it’s nothing else to you, it’s a heart-wrenching story well told. Triangle also is filled with historical detail about working life that, for many, will continue to resonate today. The importance of the Triangle Factory fire — along with the events that preceded it and those that ensued — remind us of the context for worker wellbeing, and how it represents something more profound than lower health care costs or even improved morale.

Worthwhile reading, but not in my pile:

  • Workplace Wellness That Works, by Laura Putnam. At this point in my career, I learn most by delving into topics that are unrelated or only somewhat related to wellness. I don’t own Laura’s book, but I flipped through a co-worker’s copy and found it to be thorough and well-researched. This is the book I’d recommend to someone who’s looking for wellness ideas or trying to assess the evidence basis for employee wellness.
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Quiet raises consciousness about what life is like for the large segment — perhaps the majority — of employees who consider themselves introverts. This is relevant as we plan our wellness programs and events and target our communications. Quiet isn’t on my pile because I lent it to someone and never got it back. I’d like to think that’s some sort of endorsement.
  • Any text on occupational health psychology. I like The Handbook of Work and Health Psychology, but others will do. Just as we should understand health behavior if we want to influence employees’ exercise and eating habits, we need to learn the science behind stress, burnout, adjustment to change, resilience, depression, motivation, and engagement.

Even if we don’t always understand the science of worker health, we benefit from recognizing that there is science to worker health.

For those interested in evidence-based approaches to wellness, reading these or similar books will be a breeze this summer.

Marvelous Food, Beautiful Food, Glorious Food!

in Uncategorized

cookiesCongratulate me! This week, I celebrated ten wonderful years at my current job.

Yes, I started in the thick of the holiday season. I remember my first day, a co-worker came over to my cubicle to offer me a gooey chocolate confection she was serving off a piled-high tray. “Wow, what a classy holiday treat!” I thought.

Another co-worker left a tray of Italian cookies on the long credenza down the aisle. Then a couple of gifts came in from vendors — caramel-dipped popcorn from one, mixed nuts from the other — and they also were put on the credenza to share.

Then we had a big meeting where I was introduced, and a giant bowl of candy was passed around, for reasons unknown to me. It reminded me of my orientation the day prior, when the facilitator did an ice-breaker by asking us trivia questions about the company, and if you answered correctly he threw you — threw you! — a packet of M&Ms.

Anyhow, after the candy-bowl meeting, I was taken to lunch at the company cafeteria, where I enjoyed a good-sized serving of pork tenderloin with a side of fries. For a beverage, I stuck with water — you know, to keep it all healthy.

Holiday feasting and food-sharing are wonderful and important social traditions. Little did I know back in those days that the feasting had little to do with the holidays, and would ebb and flow — but mostly flow — for the next 10 years.

It surprised and saddened me back then that, as I was introduced to co-workers as the new wellness manager, they sometimes felt the need to make an awkward joke about whatever food they had around at the time, assuming I was judging them for the muffin on their desk or the McDonald’s bag they were carrying.

But I wasn’t judging, and never have. I’ve observed an unbridled abundance of edible goodies pervasive in the workplace — my workplace and others — and I believe it’s a force in wellbeing that employees quietly contend with daily. But, indeed, it’s a force that challenges me — I like food, too — so far be it from me to judge anyone else.

Food at work. It’s a thing…for a lot of us. And that’s the topic of my new post over at LinkedIn, My Nine Assumptions About Workplace Food-Sharing — And Why They Matter to Employee Wellbeing. Please check it out. If you like it, click “Like.” And if you don’t like it, click “Like” anyway…because that helps get the post into other people’s LinkedIn feeds and encourages them to chew on it and chime in with their own point of view.

And…speaking of feeds, I sincerely hope you enjoy a magical holiday, feasts and all!

Beware of Running with the Wellness Herd

in Commentary, Uncategorized

Like many industries, we in the wellness biz tend to run with the herd. A few years ago, all we could talk about was mindfulness. Then we veered toward resilience. Last year, financial wellness was the buzzword. This year, the herd must be getting tired, as we switch direction toward…sleep.

Sleep loss and its cost to business are hot topics these days. Employee Benefit News recently published an article titled, Companies Can’t Afford to Ignore Sleep in Wellness Offerings. Fast Company published Your Employees’ Sleep Problems Are Costing Your Business Time And Money. The Institute of Health and Productivity Management created its Sleep Health and Wellness division, to be introduced with a day-long conference. And a book, Work and Sleep, will be published next month and will draw additional attention to workers’ sleep loss.

New sleep program providers are cropping up, and existing wellness vendors are waking up to the opportunity to hop on the bandwagon.

Don’t get me wrong. Mindfulness, resilience, financial wellness, and sleep are important.

herd

And I’m not saying that none of us have run against the herd by addressing these topics before they got trendy or supporting employee wellbeing in innovative ways. But, in general, our industry flits from one topic to another, from one tactic to another, falling in line with our herd’s stampede. The risk is that workers get trampled in the process.

One key to sustaining established wellness efforts, rather than letting the sun set on last year’s program as dawn breaks on this year’s, is to strategically scale up the size of the team that operationalizes these efforts. In other words — to use the term HR has eerily adapted from cattle ranchers — “add headcount.” Expand resources in proportion to demands? What a concept.

Despite my earlier acknowledgment  that our herd mentality is comparable to other industries’, there is a difference: Other industries — especially those that are consumer-oriented — respond to changes in demand: Cold-pressed juice with chia one day, probiotics the next. Fuel-efficient cars one year, technology packages the next.

What drives our wellness herd?

As our newfound devotion to employee sleep takes hold this year, I suspect our herders may be revealed to us if we  keep an eye on who is sponsoring the events, the publications, and the research that promotes it. There, the presence of vendors and pharmaceutical companies, for example, wouldn’t invalidate sleep as an important issue for employees, but it seems unlikely to serve as a sustainable driver of a successful long-term employee wellbeing strategy.

My Dinner with Al Lewis

in Commentary, Uncategorized
Wellness Critic Al Lewis on Jeopardy

Archived photo of Al Lewis on Jeopardy

When I attend wellness conferences, everyone has one question for me: “What do you think of Al Lewis?”

It’s a dubious honor: The thing my colleagues most want to know about me is what I think of someone else. It reminds me of cities that promote themselves as “gateways” — Gateway to the West, Gateway to the Finger Lakes, or whatever. You know you’re in a lackluster city when the best thing it can say about itself is that it’s on the way to someplace else. My colleagues view me as a gateway to Al Lewis.

If you aren’t in the wellness industry, you can catch up on who Al Lewis is via his Linkedin profile, in which one of his jobs is listed as “Troublemaker-In-Chief.” Continue reading »

My “Tell-All” Interview about Employee Wellness

in Employee Wellness Programs, Uncategorized

NewspaperWow. I’m super appreciative of Dean Witherspoon from Health Enhancement Systems letting me be me in a “tell-all” Well-Being Practitioner interview.

[READ THE FULL INTERVIEW (page 4 of the pdf)]

You’ll find the interview to be a light-hearted and quick read (I called it a “tell-all,” but I’m stopping short of calling it a “romp”!). In it, I offer my offbeat musings on employee wellness:

  • The common culprit that induces stress in all industries
  • The underpinnings of employee wellness program success
  • Challenges that lie ahead for the industry
  • My numero uno best practice.

But I also get personal, sharing…

  • How I achieve balance in my own life and work
  • My wellness pet peeves
  • The book that transformed my take on work and health
  • Why I’m optimistic about wellness

There’s more fun crammed into this quick read… About banishing jesters; Dean’s offer to grant me unlimited funding; and how employers can really get their wellness on.

Check it out, if you have a chance. And let me know if you like it. 🙂

[READ THE FULL INTERVIEW (page 4 of the pdf)]

Sitting is the New Smoking. Smoking is the Old Standing. The Old Standing is the New Sitting.

in Uncategorized

Warning: Do Not Sit or Stand HereIn 2013 the LA Times quoted Dr. Anup Kanodia serving up the catchphrase, “Sitting is the new smoking.” Ever since, you’d have to be an epidemiologist to separate the fact from hype. And you and I are no epidemiologists.

Personally, I’ve resisted the phrase “sitting is the new smoking,” except to use it mockingly. In equating sitting and smoking we diminish the 50 years of investigation, social change, and sacrifice committed to understanding and addressing an insidious chemical dependency — tobacco use — that remains the world’s leading preventable cause of death.

But I get it. Prolonged sitting puts us at risk for future disease and premature death, inducing harm that can’t be undone even by regular exercise. The research suggests that interrupting prolonged periods of sitting is essential to health.

No one is surprised to hear that lack of physical activity is a health risk factor. The unique finding in the sitting research is that there is something deadly specifically in the act of prolonged sitting — the position itself — and that standing (or breaking up periods of sitting with standing) has health benefits. The recommendation from a landmark study in 2010 was:

Public health messages should include both being physically active and reducing time spent sitting.

[emphasis added.]

A group of international experts commissioned by Public Health England recently obliged, publishing a consensus statement that recommends:

seated-based work should be regularly broken up with standing-based work, the use of sit–stand desks, or the taking of short active standing breaks.

For starters, the panel advised sedentary workers to accumulate two hours of standing or light activity (such as the type of low-speed walking you do on treadmill workstations, which usually have top speeds of 2.0 mph).

A workstation for standing

Sit-stand workstation. Photo: John M

The 2010 study and others like it catapulted the popularity of standing workstations, which already were on the rise as a potential solution to ergonomic back pain. In my experience, however, enthusiasm for standing workstations was quickly eclipsed by a preference for sit-stand workstations, which offer workers the option to change position at will.

“Sitting Is No Worse Than Standing”

In recent weeks, however, we’ve seen a slew of studies that offered new perspectives — some refuting previous research about standing, some expanding on it:

First: An analysis of the Whitehall II study data (which I’ve described elsewhere) determined that sitting is no worse than standing. Reporting in the International Journal of Epidemiology in October 2015, the researchers found no association between sitting time and mortality. Their recommendation:

be cautious about placing emphasis on sitting behaviour as a risk factor for mortality

Next… Hold the phone. Acknowledging that there’s “insufficient evidence specifically focusing on the public health and medical implications of increasing daily standing,” researchers set out to identify the relationship between standing, metabolic syndrome (a cluster of risk factors), and obesity. They found that people who spend 25% of their day standing are less likely to be obese compared to more sedentary counterparts.

The plot thickens: Much of the earlier research was based on subjects’ total time spent standing or sitting. An employer may well question why they should invest in a sit-stand workstation if Joe-The-Knowledge-Worker goes home and spends hours on the couch at home. Why not encourage people to stand while watching TV or eating? Is the idea of a standing dining room table or a raised counter in front of the TV really so far-fetched?

Sitting at Home Is the New Sitting at Work

Along comes a small study that evaluated the outcomes of workers outfitted with sit-stand workstations. Data was collected via self-report and via instruments that monitored the workers’ position. The conclusion: Workers using sit-stand workstations spent significantly less time sitting at work…but significantly more time sitting while they were home. (Interestingly, previous work showed that workers with sit-stand workstations spend more time standing at work, but was not able to correlate this difference to health outcomes.)

That employees with sit-stands spend more time sitting at home is entirely plausible. Consider our tendency to overcompensate for a workout by overeating afterward. Another explanation may be that people standing more during the day experience fatigue that leads them to sit more at home.

Speaking of fatigue from standing, read on…

Standing Is Linked to Problems with Pain, Cardio Health, Pregnancy

For me, an irony of our newfound penchant for standing is the long and hard-fought battle workers previously waged to sit more. This came to my attention when I researched my blog post about the workers who ultimately perished in the Triangle factory fire. Seamstress jobs at the Triangle factory were considered cushy at the time, because the workers sat all day, in contrast to the more common manufacturing jobs in which workers toiled on their feet for hours on end.

The UK’s Hazard Magazine, which covers health and safety issues — from a decidedly pro-labor perspective — chronicles the history of European workers seeking the right to sit at work. But let’s not dismiss the right to sit as a relic of European history… In 2014, AT&T Mobility settled a complaint by workers and agreed to redesign stores with “learning tables” that gave retail staff the option to sit if customers also chose to do so. (The settlement also required AT&T to pay approximately $250 per eligible retail employee.)  In 2007, Safeway — self-anointed prophet of all that is righteous about employee wellness — was unmoved when a customer took sympathy and gifted stools to cashiers.

Prolonged standing was identified as an epidemic health risk long before cigarette packages even existed to put warnings on.  In the 17th century, Bernardino Ramazzini, the “father of occupational medicine,” called for shorter periods of standing and more frequent breaks during work.

A recent analysis confirmed that prolonged standing at work increases risk of low back pain, fatigue, cardiovascular problems, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Most modern-day experts favor a mix of sitting and standing rather than prolonged periods of either.

A treadmill workstation.

Treadmill desk. Photo: Wicker Paradise

At this point, the body of evidence remains a labyrinth, with important variables — sitting at work vs. away from work; the role of standing vs. physical activity — not fully teased out. In the interim, we need to be wary of the “sitting is the new smoking” hype and learn more about the problem and the solutions.

In my opinion, pending further research, sit-stand workstations are a reasonable solution to attenuate problems associated with prolonged sitting at workstation desks. They give the worker more control over the work, which, all things being equal, is always a good thing for employee well-being.

I also have come around to supporting treadmill workstations, though I sacrifice a piece of my soul in doing so. Some physical activity is better than no physical activity, just as shifting positions is better than prolonged sitting or standing. But treadmill workstations seem just a step away from succumbing entirely to absurdity and putting workers in a hamster wheel.

There’s another approach that may be more sensible, well articulated in the quasi-satirical New Republic piece, “Screw Your Standing Desk!

Of course the long, stationary workdays of most Americans are unhealthy. The solution should not be to sit less, but to work less. If sitting is as bad as the doctors say—and I’m sure it is!—then why not prescribe longer lunch breaks, shorter hours, and more vacation? You can still be chained to a standing desk.

Warning: Do Not Sit or Stand Here

For further reading:

Sitting Is the Smoking of Our GenerationHarvard Business Review article by Nilofer Merchant

Taking A Stand at WorkWall Street Journal interview with Dr. Anup Kanodia

Calorie Burner: How Much Better is Standing Up than Sitting? — BBC

Partnering with Community Supported Agriculture May Be the Best Wellness Thing an Employer Can Do

in Commentary, Employee Wellness Programs, Uncategorized

Farm fresh vegetablesLast summer, I offered up my family as guinea pigs for a local Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA). As the leader of an employee wellness program, I was considering creating a partnership with the CSA to have shares of their harvest delivered to employees directly at work, and I wanted to check it out myself, first. If you’re not familiar with how CSAs bring together residents and farmers to support local agriculture and promote fresh food, find out more about them here.

My family started getting our weekly deliveries of vegetables and fruit — eagerly checking-in with the earthy young workers at the local pick-up spot and collecting our garlic scapes, bok choy, berries, broccoli, peas, greens, corn, chard, melon, and so forth.

My epiphany occurred around week two of the 14-week summer season. We’d received a bunch of green peas in that week’s harvest. The pods were plump and firm and seemed ready to burst. Like I said, I’m no foodie, and I wasn’t sure whether to eat the pods. So I did. Raw. I had about six or seven, and soon felt like I was digesting an electric sander. The next night, we cooked them, which I thought might soften them up but instead just seemed to toughen the fibers. So I went to the CSA’s Facebook page and asked whether the pods were edible.

“All that hot weather,” they wrote back, “followed by the thunderstorms made those peas really GROW in the last week. So, although typically delicious and tender. if you don’t enjoy the shells a bit more fibrous, the peas themselves are still delicious…”

That muggy weather. Those storms! I remembered them from just five or six days earlier. As I held a plump pea pod in my hand, I was thunderstruck by how it had been affected by the same storm clouds that had flash flooded the roads during my commute and overflowed the roof gutters of my house. There was a direct line from the weather into the ground through the pea and into my body. We were connected.

Of course, this realization isn’t that novel — even for a city kid like me. After all, I’d planted gardens that were influenced by the environment. But something about this direct experience of it in my core food supply brought it home and made it real. And I related to those pea pods, and all the veggies that came after, in a way that I’d never related to food before.

At work, we went on to pilot delivery from the CSA to employees at four worksites. One hundred co-workers out of about 2500 participated. That may not sound like a lot, but we chose not to set participation goals and didn’t push the pilot aggressively. We weren’t trying to change anyone; we were providing employees with a convenience they’d been asking for.

I considered subsidizing employees’ purchases. In today’s world of wellness, however, a subsidy functions like an incentive — and health incentives are deadly to the success of employee wellness programs. But I may rethink this.

The primary objectives of the program were:

  • To support employees who seek convenient access to whole, fresh food.
  • To support local agriculture.

But what I hope may be a bonus, and the reason this small program might be the most important wellness program I’ve ever offered, is because it has the potential to help employees experience their relationship with food in a whole new way — just like I did with the peas (Caution, however: n=1!).

Most healthy eating promotions used today — calorie labeling and nutrition education, merchandising tactics like those promoted by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and behavioral interventions like Weight Watchers— haven’t been a match for the proliferation of unhealthful food, oversized portions, and appetites that, for whatever reason, are insatiable. Conventional approaches have their place, but none have achieved good results on their own. And, with the possible exception of mindful eating strategies, none get to the root of the matter by a change in folks’ relationship to food, potential that exists with a CSA partnership.

I believe we also experienced an unintended consequence: A social effect that stands to bolster an employee community that rallies around well-being. Not only do some participants choose to split their shares, teaming up to divvy their bounty and exchange recipes, but on the day the large boxes filled with each week’s share were delivered, there was a heightened level of energy, curiosity, and camaraderie amongst co-workers.

We expect participation to double this year. Our next step is to source some of our employee cafeteria menu items from the CSA. This will, of course, support local agriculture in an even bigger way. More importantly, it will make high quality food available to a larger population, and it will integrate with our CSA purchase program — cross promoting and allowing prospective participants to experience how local crops can be transformed into delicious meals.

And a little transformation can go a long way.


(My wellness colleagues needn’t fret about the usual… ROI, outcomes, and definitions of terms. We’re helping get fresh veggies onto the tables of employees and their families. No vendors, no registration, no incentives, no behavior change, no contracts. The simplicity makes it sublime.)

15 Do-This-Not-Thats to Transform Your Wellness Program Into a Recruitment, Retention, Engagement, and Productivity Health-a-Palooza

in Commentary, Employee Wellness Programs
Strawberries and workers

Photo by JD Hancock

Only about half of employers evaluate their employee wellness program’s effectiveness, so it may be time to own up to the possibility that you have no idea whether your program is helping or hurting, or whether anyone even knows you have a program. Or whether your company even knows it has you. That’s okay. You’re okay.

Here are 15 Do’s and Don’ts to help you rise out of the abyss of employee wellness mediocrity:

  1. Don’t:  Start with changing employees’ behaviors.
    Do: 
    Focus on changing your organization. Healthy employees require reasonable job demands, input regarding job demands, appropriate rewards, reasonable work schedules, fair treatment, empowerment, less work-life conflict, and more social support.
  2. Don’t: Expect your program to reduce health care costs. Most likely, it won’t.
    Do: Strive to support your employees’ wellness aspirations. Positive outcomes originate with your good intentions.
  3. Don’t: Encourage your employees to get annual screenings.  Screenings are probably one of the least cost-effective components of your program.
    Do: Offer your employees paid time off and good health insurance so they can get the care they need, when they need it.
  4. Don’t: Invest heavily in health incentives. Incentives don’t support behavior change, and may stand in the way.
    Do: Offer wellness programs and opportunities employees want.
  5. Don’t:  Get caught up in language: “Wellness” vs. “well-being”; “return-on-investment” vs. “value-on-investment”; “health risk appraisal” vs. “health assessment.” Not only are these sideshows, but in most of these debates, the wellness industry is settling for the less specific — hence, less measurable — option. That said…
    Do:  Distinguish between “participation” and “engagement.” To use them synonymously is downright fraudulent. Especially: If you have incentives, you have unengaged participation.
  6. Don’t:  Call your health surveillance program an “outcomes-based wellness program.” It gives a bad name to those of us, and those employers, who truly care about worker wellness.
    Do:  Speak out — in professional networks, on social media, at conferences, in journals, and in your company — against the scourge of “outcomes-based wellness.” If you don’t stand up to protect employees from mercenaries trying to pass off discriminatory tactics as “wellness,” who will?
  7. Don’t:  Try to address all the dimensions of wellness.
    Do:  Pursue those dimensions of wellness that employees want addressed, that they will respond to, and that are actionable by and meaningful to your organization. (The dimensions of wellness — physical health, emotional health, spiritual health, financial health, occupational health, environmental health, relationship health, and so forth — are interdependent. When you influence one, you’ll influence others.)
  8. Don’t:  Rely on wellness committees to do the work. You don’t use committees to run your other employee benefits or your total rewards programs, do you?
    Do:  Hire qualified professionals to do the work.
  9. Don’t:  Do something just because you heard about it at a conference.
    Do:  Avoid insularity by attending wellness conferences and conferences focusing on unrelated industries.
  10. Don’t:  Limit yourself to the conventional American perspective on wellness.
    Do:  Read the World Health Organization Healthy Workplace Framework and also RWJF’s Work, Workplaces and Health. (They make scant mention of biometric screenings, health risk assessments, incentives, coaching, apps, portals, or wearables.)
  11. Don’t:  Fret about what external critics think.
    Do:  Define a clear goal and measure progress toward achieving it. Satisfy the needs of the organization.
  12. Don’t:  Expect much from your health risk assessment. It’s outdated and was never an effective catalyst for behavioral change.
    Do:  Leverage your aggregate health risk assessment data as a tool to assess how you’re doing and how you can most effectively serve employees.
  13. Don’t:  Obsess over obesity in the absence of population-based solutions.
    Do:  Provide employees with delicious, fresh, whole food, when it’s necessary to provide food, and with opportunities to move.
  14. Don’t:  Get preoccupied with employees’ families. They don’t want you messing in their business.
    Do:  Get preoccupied with the health of the community you are in. They do want you messing in their business, and you’ll stand to affect employees and their families in the process.
  15. Don’t:  Take it from me…
    Do:  Seek diverse sources of evidence and opinion, and draw your own conclusions.
    ……

[15 Do-This-Not-Thats to Transform Your Wellness Program Into a Recruitment, Retention, Engagement, and Productivity Health-a-Palooza was originally published on the InTEWN blog, April 2015. Some of the links have been updated]

Not Everyone’s Idea of Workplace Fun

in Commentary, Wellbeing
workplace slide

Every worker’s idea of fun?

Recently, I chatted with the Human Resources director from an employer known for encouraging “fun at work.” The company had the usual symbols of a fun workplace: foosball tables, slides, Xbox, pie-eating contests, and parties for every occasion. The HR director boasted about parades, in which employees construct floats, dress up in costumes, and march around the office to mark company milestones. I asked, “What if you don’t want to join the parade?” No problem. If you’re not the parading type, you can work on building a float. “Everyone is expected to participate in some way,” she told me. “Our employees know what kind of place this is when they accept a job.”

Fair enough. But count me out. When the data reconciles, when I have that eureka moment of identifying a creative solution to a work-related problem, when a team member rises to a new challenge or lights up when recognized for a job well done… That’s what I call fun. Some employees enjoy the fun of work, and don’t depend on adding fun to work.

Much of what passes for “fun at work” — parties, games, playground apparatus, contests, dress-up, etc. — represents little more than workplace tyranny of extroverts over introverts. And studies show, according to author Susan Cain, that one third to 50% of employees are introverts. So consider that half of your workforce may experience fun by setting their minds to their work, and they may be put off by someone else’s brightly colored and boisterous version of fun.

Lately, the social web has shone a light on “surface acting” in the workplace and the body of research, albeit thin, which suggests that being compelled to demonstrate positive emotions  — like when service workers are required to smile and chirp to customers, regardless of what they are actually feeling — leads to emotional exhaustion, stress, and reduced productivity.

(Surface acting occupies one end of a spectrum of emotional labor — in contrast to physical labor — opposite the more intrinsic deep acting. For more info about emotional labor, check out the pdf,  When The “Show Must Go On”: Surface Acting and Deep Acting as Determinants of Emotional Exhaustion and Peer-Rated Service Delivery,” which was published in the American Journal of Management).

While most research demonstrating the negative effects of surface acting is based on studies of frontline workers such as customer support reps, food servers, hair stylists, clinicians, and first responders, blogger Mike Pearce — in a post called Surface Acting: Bad for Business and Your Health — points to a study suggesting that expressing inauthentic emotion in meetings is linked to employee burnout and turnover. Indeed, it’s not unheard of for supervisors to warn office workers — even those who have no exposure to customers — to smile more, a directive that serves no purpose other than allowing the supervisor to perpetuate their own delusion of leading an energized team.

In a LinkedIn post called The High Cost of Acting Happy, Time magazine contributing writer Annie Murphy Paul proposed well-founded alternatives to forced happiness:

Train workers well, so that they satisfy their customers with good service. Offer them congenial working conditions, so that they’re glad to be at work. Allow them more personal control over how they do their jobs (research shows this can buffer the stress imposed by surface acting). And provide them with opportunities to develop genuinely warm relationships with managers, coworkers, and customers—so that employees have something real to smile about, and so that when they tell someone to “be well,” they mean it.

Paul’s advice is rooted in evidence that maps how employee well-being is a product of healthy organizations and job design rather than employee behavioral change.

Do employers’ attempts to foster fun at work actually promote surface acting and its unwelcome outcomes? Do employees really want fun at work? Does contrived fun serve any purpose whatsoever? We’ll need more evidence to know for sure. In the interim, here are six tips for keeping the fun fun, and for keeping the surface acting at bay:

  1. Genuine fun arises effortlessly. It may come organically to some workplaces whose culture is well suited for it. If you try to have fun, you’re not likely to.
  2. Allowing people to bring their individual authentic personalities to the workplace, to express them freely, and to socialize according to their own desires, may be more fun than so-called fun-at-work events, campaigns, or games.
  3. Not all employees seek fun in the workplace, and not every organization needs it. Tune in to employee demographics and organizational culture.
  4. Fun in the workplace efforts may not be the only employer contrivances that promote a culture of surface acting. Be on the lookout for unintended consequences of the increasingly popular resilience and positive psychology initiatives so that stress, sadness, depression and even everyday introversion are not stigmatized.
  5. What employees and employers sometimes perceive as a need for more fun may actually be a need for something else — gratification, camaraderie, satisfaction, purpose, hope, inspiration, or self-expression.
  6. Based on studies of surface acting, expecting employees to act like they are having fun may lead to burnout, job dissatisfaction, turnover, and absenteeism. And that’s no fun for anyone.