Amazon.com Widgets

Interview with Laura Putnam about Employee Well-Being

Laura Putnam is a well-respected consultant, trainer and speaker on the topic of workplace wellness. She also writes on the topic for publications such as The New York Times and Entrepreneur, as well as authoring the book Workplace Wellness That Works. Laura is the CEO of Motion Infusion, a consulting and training firm that provides workplace wellness solutions to foster positive behavior change as well as improve employee engagement, performance and well-being. Laura has received various accolades for her work including the American Heart Association’s “2020 Impact” award.


1) As the workplace wellness industry tries to shift financial evaluation of wellness programs from ROI (return on investment) to VOI (value of investment), what are some ways you have seen organizations evaluate program success that are removed from these two equations that are still meaningful and measurable?

In the shift from ROI to VOI, we might say that there are three evaluation “buckets” to consider. The first bucket, which is what an ROI approach has primarily focused on, is medical cost-containment and risk reduction. This includes tracking the impact of wellness programming on medical costs, disability costs, workers compensation costs, rates of injuries, types of injuries and recovery time. The second bucket is productivity and performance, which includes effects on absenteeism, productivity, energy levels, team collaboration and customer loyalty. Finally, the third bucket is becoming an employer of choice. Companies now recognize that they cannot be competitive, especially when it comes to retention and attraction, without well-designed wellness programming. The reality is that employees, especially Millennials, expect their employers to care about them as people and to also care about making the world a better place. Data points in this third bucket include measuring rates of retention and attraction, job satisfaction scores, levels of employee and leadership engagement, quality of life for employees and even level of connection with a higher purpose.

In order to address the productivity and performance bucket, companies like Goldman Sachs and Google offer wellness programs that help employees to become more focused, more competitive and ultimately more resilient. In lieu of a potentially stigmatizing “reduce your stress” types of programs, they offer “I can become a more effective employee” types of programs. Goldman Sachs’ resiliency program, which is sold as a means to “sharpen one’s competitive edge,” attracts over 500 employees every quarter. The legendary “Search Inside Yourself” program, launched at Google, trains employees how to become both more mindful and emotionally intelligent. In both cases, the companies are less interested in ROI on medical costs and are more interested in performance enhancement.

This idea of using wellness as a means to better oneself and make the world a better place is something I am personally interested in. I love companies like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher that are going after this third bucket of impact. They are both invested in well-being as a means to not only become an employer of choice, but as a vehicle for protecting the environment. While Patagonia does not have a “wellness program” per se, every aspect of doing business breathes well-being and is deeply connected to its mission to “use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Eileen Fisher also connects well-being with environmentalism by encouraging employees to become “sustainability ambassadors,” acting as champions of well-being and advocates for protecting the earth.

Companies like Salesforce.com and Square are using impact on the community as a metric for success. Salesforce just hit 1 million volunteer hours. Square has a clean streets initiative, where employees go out and clean the neighborhood. Leveraging the broken windows theory, the idea is that small changes can have a larger impact. So, something “meaningful and measurable” might be as simple as, “how much trash did we pick up?”

2) Big enterprises have some innate advantages to small and mid-size businesses when it comes to providing workplace wellness solutions: economies of scale, access to insurance brokers that provide various free wellness products as value-added services and better access to aggregate employee health data (to name a few). What are some of the advantages smaller companies have to larger companies when it comes to building a workplace wellness program?

In smaller organizations, there are inherently fewer leaders and fewer people. So, it’s much easier to: a) implement a program; and b) shift the culture. If a leader decides to support well-being, then it is easier for that to actually happen in a smaller organization. If an employee has an idea, it’s usually easier for them to be able to move on it. And, certainly, it’s much easier to shift the culture in a smaller organization.

One of my favorite examples is The Sioux Empire United Way in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A single employee, Colleen Thompson, finance director, decided to take up walking as a way to lose weight and support her newfound commitment to a healthy lifestyle. Rather than just doing it on her own, she invited coworkers to join her. To this day, eleven years later, she and her coworkers are still at it. Everyday – rain, shine, sleet or snow – employees walk together, twice a day, a mile each time. To ensure that weather doesn’t get in the way, they’ve mapped out both an indoor route and an outdoor route. This story is proof that one person can really have an impact, especially within a small organization.

Another important element to this story, of course, is the championing of well-being from the president, Jay Powell. In conjunction with this twice-a-day walk, he decided to try out standing desks with a few employees. Once it proved to be an effective, he extended the offer of a standing workstation to every employee. Because of its small size, the initiative was relatively easy to implement across the office.

3) In your book Workplace Wellness that Works you build a lot of your ideas on a wide range of concepts from established thought leaders. What I particularly enjoyed is in the spirit of a true “da Vinci approach” a lot of the concepts were taken from outside the field. Avoiding folks like Dee Edington and BJ Fogg, who are three “outside” thought leaders we in workplace wellness should get to know (and a quick reason why for each)?

  1. a) Barbara Fredrickson: Dr. Fredrickson is a positive psychologist affiliated with the University of North Carolina. She has really done some incredible studies on both positivity and positivity resonance, which is positivity in the context of others. Her work has really inspired my rethinking of the prevailing “identify what’s wrong and then fix-it” model, which I think creates a depleting experience for people. It’s no wonder why so many employees are opting out of wellness at work! The research suggests that over 80% of eligible employees are choosing not to participate in workplace wellness programs. In some programs, the participation rates are as low as 1-2%. I am convinced that these low rates of engagement are largely due to the overly invasive and negatively oriented wellness programs that we’ve developed.
  2. b) Chip Conley: Chip’s work, especially his book Peak, has had a huge influence on my understanding of the role of culture and how to go about building a positive culture. I am more and more convinced that when it comes to the practice of well-being, we are less “creatures of habit” and more “creatures of culture.” Therefore, as wellness practitioners, we must become experts in culture change – and not just experts in behavior change.
    As CEO of Joie de Vivre, Chip modeled a different way of leading. For starters, he dubbed himself the “chief emotions officer.” In addition, he facilitated open, transparent conversations with employees asking questions like, “Is this a job? Is this a career? Or is this your calling?” And, “If it feels like a job, what can we do here so that it feels like it’s more of a calling?”
  3. c) Arianna Huffington: In the field of workplace wellness, we have placed such a premium on science and research and have not paid enough attention to the importance of being able to share our message in a way that resonates for people. This is exactly what Arianna does so well in her most recent book Thrive. While it is not a perfect book, it speaks to people on an emotional level. In both her writing and her speaking, Arianna uses storytelling, humor and even tonality to deliver her message. These are all the kinds of things that I believe we have to do much more of to change behaviors. It is less about reaching people’s rational minds and more about reaching people’s hearts. This is why the first step in my book is titled “Shift your mindset from expert to agent of change” – and I cite Arianna as an example of an “agent of change.”
  4. d) Michael Gervais: I love Dr. Gervais’s message of imagining what’s possible and then planning from there. This approach dovetails well with a detour from a “what’s wrong with you and let’s fix you” approach toward a “what’s right with you and let’s build on it” approach.
  5. e) Firdaus Dhabhar: Finally, I am enthralled with the research of people like Dr. Dhabar, a researcher at Stanford. His research has uncovered many of the benefits of stress – and that it’s less about stress avoidance and more about acknowledging and even embracing stress. His work underscores the fact that stress can be leveraged as energy. He advocates actually intensifying short periods of stress and then offsetting that with proactive restoration, which really is in line with a lot of the stuff that people like Tony Schwartz, CEO and founder of The Energy Project, have been talking about for a long time.

4) Speaking of a “da Vinci approach” to wellness, for those that have not read your book yet, can you explain the essence of this method? And, can you provide an example or two of the most creative ways you have seen “da Vinci” put into action?

I’m more and more convinced that the only way we are going to have real impact is if we start to integrate wellness and well-being holistically, and not have myopic standalone programs. A great way to do that is by channeling Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian polymath, and taking an interdisciplinary approach toward promoting well-being in the workplace.

On an internal level, you need to engage multiple perspectives from multiple departments. As much as possible, break down silos and reach across to as many different departments as possible:  training and development, organizational development, community outreach, IT, marketing, compensation and benefits, health and safety, facilities, etc.

On an external level, I would encourage you to move away from a one-stop-shop vendor to a team of outside partners, which might include brokers, insurance carriers and even community resources. For example, the American Heart Association provides all kinds of support for organizations that are interested in creating cultures of health.

Schindler Elevator Corporation is a great example of a company that has taken a “da Vinci approach” toward promoting health and well-being in the workplace. Rather than delivering a stand alone wellness programs, Schindler has incorporated well-being concepts into non-wellness initiatives, such as leadership development programs and safety training initiatives. These interdisciplinary programs have partnered the OD department with both safety and HR departments, as well as a number of outside wellness, learning and culture vendors.

5) We are seeing some progressive employers move the corporate wellness conversation from concerns regarding employee “wellness” to thinking about workplace wellness in terms of improving employee “well-being”. Trying to improve population health has already proven to be a complex problem for most, could broadening our focus too fast potentially have risks in the sense that complexity can be inherently paralyzing and might lead to further inaction from organizations simply trying to get started?

Yes and no. Yes, the concept of “well-being” can feel amorphous and overwhelming. Certainly, this broader mission, that encompasses dimensions beyond healthy eating, physical activity and smoking cessation, might lead to inaction.

On the other hand, I think a lot of people are tired of the worn out healthy eating, physical activity and smoking cessation wellness programs. The idea that other factors, like social connections or meaningful work, play into our overall level of well-being is really inspiring and is actually catalyzing organizations and people into action. In my experience, “better health” is not that motivating for most, whereas, becoming one’s best self is. “Wellness” is more focused on (and associated with) the former, whereas “well-being” is more linked on the latter.

The truth of the matter is that well-being moves into areas that companies have already been addressing for a long time. Therefore, this shift actually allows for an opportunity to connect with pre-existing programming (like safety training and leadership development). This is certainly what I have seen in cases like Schindler.

I think the key is for each organization to first define what “well-being” means and based on this definition, identify the areas to focus on. For example, HubSpot, a fast-growing technology company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organizes its well-being programming around three different areas: physical activity, healthy eating, and mindfulness/stress reduction. The City of Sioux Falls, on the other hand, has organized its programming around five areas of well-being: physical, emotional/social, career, financial, and community.

This broader landscape of well-being provides each organization an opportunity to identify its “signature” program. For example, Treehouse, a technology company based in Portland, Oregon, has designed a four-day workweek for its employees. The CEO insists that people actually take the day off on Fridays to spend time with their families or engage in leisure time activities – not work. What he has found is that employees are more productive – and the program serves as a great recruiting tool. While Treehouse cannot possibly compete with the Google’s of the world in terms of salary, they can say, “Well, if you work at Google, are you going to have a four-day workweek? Probably not. But, here at Treehouse, you will.”

Ultimately, whether we’re talking about wellness or well-being, it comes down to carving out regular practices to be embraced by all levels of employees. Companies like LinkedIn have walking meetings as a regular practice. At Eileen Fisher, employees regularly begin meetings with emotion-boosting activities like a moment of silence. At Campbell’s Soup, former CEO Douglass Conant modeled the practice of saying thank you. It is fabled that during his 10-year tenure, he wrote over 20,000 thank you notes to employees. In his view, this practice played a key role in the company’s turnaround. The company went from having lost 54% of its market value to its stock rising over 30%.