Coworkers chat happily while they walk through an office setting.

Culture vs. Programs: How to Achieve Well-Being at Work

3-minute read

Every few years the notion that wellness at work doesn’t work gains momentum. It’s happening again and is being propagated by industry veterans.

A recent Deloitte podcast and accompanying article states:

…instead of putting the burden of action on individual employees by providing them a constellation of difficult-to-access perks and programs, organizations need to take a hard look at the structure of work—and at the ‘toxic rockstars’ who may bring in revenue but drive off talent.

That statement contains several fundamentally misguided conclusions:

Instead of… It’s a false choice. A healthy workplace has never been an either/or proposition, where you either have good wellness interventions or you have healthy environment/culture. It’s both. A wellness program can’t be successful if people hate their work or dislike the people they work with — especially their bosses.

Difficult-to-access perks and programs… If you’re subjecting your employees to anything that’s difficult to access or use, stop. Easier said than done? Sometimes. Often it’s a matter of simply asking a couple of questions: Is this valuable? If the answer is yes, then ask: How can we make it easier to use? Then do it. If the answer is no, get rid of it – fast.

But we PAID for this bug-ridden health portal that almost no one uses unless we bribe them… and we have 2 years left on our contract! Get rid of it even if you don’t have an alternative in the short term. Prolonging the agony only makes recovery down the line that much more difficult.

Burden of action… Participation in wellness programs becomes a burden only when organizations do ill-advised things like make you pay more for health insurance because you’re not participating (the inverse — “rewarding” you with lower premiums for participating — is a distinction without a difference).

If you make wellness participation voluntary — like use of most other benefits — and provide great services, no one will perceive it as a burden. Employees will see it as another reason to work for your wonderful organization.

Wellness leaders can walk and chew gum at the same time

Great wellness programs can’t make up for a toxic environment. And a healthy culture makes participation in wellness initiatives natural, inviting, and rewarding in and of itself, not something that needs bribery. A healthy culture and outstanding wellness interventions can be achieved together.

As a wellness leader, having a seat at the table — for setting direction on policies and practices that influence culture in the entire organization — is the ideal scenario. If you don’t, your immediate and ongoing task is to get the ear of those who do.

But even if you don’t have an office in the C-suite, you can better serve employees by shifting wellness efforts from something you do to an atmosphere you create. Here’s how:

Focus on the whole person. Step challenges draw lots of participants, and that’s a good thing. But if your wellness program is limited to physical health options, you’re forfeiting the opportunity to have broad impact. Emotional well-being, financial fitness, mental health, and sustainable living are all within a wellness pro’s purview. Spend more energy addressing what employees care about and you’ll not only appeal to a broader audience, but they’ll begin to care about you. 

Provide opportunities to slow down, reflect. Around-the-world exercise programs are exciting and fun. But they should be balanced by encouragement to pause and just be. To refresh and renew the mind is just as important as 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day.

Pursue purpose. An emphasis on serving others and helping colleagues reach their highest level of well-being adds meaning. Mentoring programs, peer-to-peer coaching, team/buddy participation, and serving on wellness committees or champion networks… all are employee opportunities to contribute to the greater good and experience higher purpose at work.

Sponsor live (and streaming) events on topics beyond fitness and healthy eating. It’s an old-school tool that never gets old if done well. Examples to build your brand and expand your reach: Bring in skilled speakers and host panel discussions on whole-person well-being, looking inward, supporting coworkers, making connections, showing compassion and kindness, improving mindfulness/practicing meditation, enhancing emotional intelligence, and learning conflict resolution.

Culture isn’t something you do, it’s everything you do. By making progress in each wellness program area above, you’ll be doing your part to influence organization culture while helping individual employees flourish.


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.