The data demonstrating the health and wellness benefits of social support is overwhelming. And although worksite health promoters have known social, emotional, and spiritual health is as important to well-being as physical health, few employee wellness programs give it the same priority as fitness, nutrition, weight loss, or smoking cessation. Part of the reason is the culture in most organizations doesn’t lend itself to social health. The classic The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge, et al, says it best:

By fulfilling their economic mission, industrial enterprises improved living standards for many millions of people. But they also separated us from our traditional ties to the land, to our families, and to communities of place — without filling the vacuum left by diminished sense of common purpose and social values. We see the results in the workplace in drug abuse, personal stress, family crises, and health problems — all of which cause as many problems for the organization as they do for society and for the affected individuals.

Changing the workplace culture to one with shared responsibility and a sense of community isn’t a short-term proposition. Many organizations are trying — through team-building, shared decision-making initiatives, and most recently with attempts at online social networking tools geared toward health behaviors. Success has been scattered at best. And the damage to morale caused by staffing cuts the last few 2 years has eroded whatever gains may have been made to this point.

Where the Employee Wellness Practitioner Fits

You, as a worksite wellness promoter, probably have more influence on culture and a sense of community than you know. Some ideas:

  • Written communication. In many organizations the most widely read publications are online wellness newsletters, blogs, and program announcements. Shifting your focus to a balance of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health in these materials sets the stage for additional efforts.
  • Presentations. Regardless of the topic, it’s easy to build in a social health message — discussions on others attempting the behavior change, examples of how community or group support has helped them achieve success, or reference to additional resources (support groups, literature, online services) to assist with the change.
  • One-on-one attention. Many participants may benefit more from counseling and support that concentrate on life balance, social involvement, and community participation rather than on grams of fat or exercise minutes.
  • Management education. Monthly or quarterly reports that highlight community involvement, group activities, and team success will begin to influence management thinking and create opportunities for more investment and participation in social health activities.
  • Support groups and mentors. Maintaining a database of employee background and health interests gives you a chance to connect individuals and groups with similar needs. Changing your strategy from provider to facilitator may be of more value to the entire population.
  • Leadership. Become an expert in social health and community processes, then advocate them — not only through your immediate employee wellness programs and services, but in your larger sphere of influence — through management champions, involvement in human resource committees, and sharing your views in training programs and employee feedback sessions.

One of the best examples of a complete culture of social support can be seen in the highly successful online retailer Zappos, as described by founder and former CEO Tony Hsieh in his new book, Delivering Happiness. Employee wellness takes on an entirely new meaning when it’s the CEO who is not just implementing a happiness culture, but also living it. Hsieh didn’t just add an employee wellness program to an existing company culture — he created the company culture out of wellness initiatives designed to make people happy. The results were staggering, and the company value increased by a $billion in just over 10 years.

About the author:

Dean Witherspoon, CEO and founder of worksite wellness firm, Health Enhancement Systems, has 25 years in health promotion. He has served on the board of the Association for Worksite Health Promotion and held several regional as well as state offices. Dean is a nationally known speaker and author, having presented at more than 70 conferences and written hundreds of worksite wellness articles for national publications.

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