Woman meditating in the office

Programs vs. Culture: Which Comes First for Workplace Well-Being?

Wellness leaders have been talking about health culture for a long time. It’s the Holy Grail of workplace well-being. If you don’t have it, your individual wellness interventions are hit-or-miss efforts at best, especially in today’s hybrid and work-from-anywhere workplaces.

And if you have a decidedly unhealthy culture — where people feel undervalued or worse — that cumbersome health portal, health assessment, screening, lunch ’n learn, or challenge you’re sponsoring this month can actually be a net-negative activity. You’d be better off doing nothing.

“Tell me about the young family who learned to shop for, prepare, and share healthy meals, reduced screen time, got more involved in community green initiatives, or took an inspiring, healthy vacation.”

Many of us have made a mistake in thinking health culture is mostly about health. It’s primarily about culture. And not some lofty mission statement generated at a retreat that everyone’s expected to memorize and magically live up to. It isn’t something you do, it’s everything you do… the sum total of each action, interaction, and behavior from the mail room to the board room.

So while you may be proud you now have healthy vending machine options, built-in stretch breaks, healthy meeting guidelines, and an awesome cafeteria salad bar, you’re probably still only nibbling around the edges if people don’t look forward to coming to work.

But how can you, the person charged with improving health at your organization, begin to influence culture? It’s the proverbial question: How do you eat an elephant? Answer: One bite at a time. It’s a huge undertaking that can’t be achieved in a big gulp but must be cultivated.

Whether you’re just a floor removed from the C-suite or relegated to the basement with your red stapler, you can begin today to lay the foundation for a healthier organization:

  • Highlight the balanced Everyman/Everywoman in testimonials. It’s great that your VP of Finance is an ultrarunner, but who cares? Tell me about the young family who learned how to shop for, prepare, and share healthy meals, reduced screen time, got more involved in community green initiatives, or took an inspiring, healthy vacation.
  • Extol the accomplishments of groups whose supervisors encourage employees to take refreshing walks during the workday, use all their vacation time, set aside a quiet room for meditation/reflection, put together healthy potluck lunches, leave work at work, allow time for wellness program participation during their shift, and celebrate personal well-being achievements.
  • Build a robust wellness champion network of volunteers from all levels. Invest time and energy in training them how to promote grassroots wellness activities. Reinforce the behaviors you’re seeking in champions — energy, enthusiasm, commitment — with timely praise. Recognize their contributions publicly and specifically with their management.
  • Get involved in the recruiting and hiring process. The most direct route to a healthy population is to hire healthy people — evident in how they think about work, life, and wellness. What does work/life balance look like to them? What does it mean to them to be healthy? How do they achieve health, balance, well-being? What are their passions? Ask HR if you can help create processes that identify top candidates with this orientation.
  • Leverage your success in the recruiting and hiring function to influence other HR activities. Whether it’s performance review, training and career development, or annual surveys, you can find opportunities to affect how your organization conveys the importance of well-being and support.

Good wellness interventions without solid culture are not likely to have meaningful impact. Similarly, a conducive culture absent good support and services will fall short of what’s possible. It’s not either/or and it’s not a matter of waiting until you have one before working toward the other.

If you want a significant, lasting effect on population well-being, put your talents and energy into creating a positive work culture while continuing to provide strong wellness programs.


Dean WitherspoonDean Witherspoon
Chief collaborator, nudger, tinkerer; leads the most inventive team creating well-being and sustainable living programs. Reach out if you’d like to talk about employee well-being, emotional fitness, or eco-friendly living.