Does your company have a mismatch between its wellness programs and its larger culture?
Most do. Even those that boast about having a “Culture of Health” often have what I call a “Pretend Culture of Health.” Sure, they might have healthy options in the onsite cafeteria, walking paths that crisscross the campus, a meditation room at every turn, and all the bells and whistles of a state-of-the-art comprehensive well-being program. But, meanwhile, toxicity reigns. People are overworked and underappreciated. The wellness programs are there, but nobody uses them.
Before going full throttle on your well-being efforts, it’s essential that you take the time to “uncover the hidden factors.” (See Step 3 in Workplace Wellness that Works.) Take a deep dive into your organization to assess the culture. Is it a culture in which well-being is likely to thrive? Or, is it one in which well-being is likely to be undermined? Is it a “have to” culture (as in, people feel like they have to go to work) or is it a “want to” culture (as in, people actually want to be there).
You might have the best-laid well-being strategy in the world. But, if the larger culture doesn’t support it, it’s unlikely to flourish.
Here are 8 tell-tale signs that you’ve got a mismatch on your hands:
1. Hardly anyone shows up. You’ve got the same damn seven people showing up every time. And, they’re not the ones who need it most. Sound familiar?
When I speak with my fellow “activators” (people like me who are the ones doing the hard work to design and deliver well-being at work), I often use the "Field of Dreams" analogy to tee it up. “What we’ve learned the hard way,” I confess, “is that if you build it (as in a well-being program), they (as in, the people you’re trying to reach), will not necessarily come.”
Even with all of the discussions around workplace wellness not working, and what needs to be done so that they do, average participation rates continue to hover around 25%.
2. Leaders make cameo appearances—or they don’t even bother. OK, this one bugs me a lot. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve delivered lunch n’ learns and the people who show up are great. But there are no leaders in sight. On the rare occasion that one does make a cameo, they saunter in, make a few dismissive remarks and then walk out. For the time they’re there, the room is on edge. And, as soon as they leave, there’s a palpable, collective sigh of relief.
3. Emotions are running hot. Over the years of doing this work (I started Motion Infusion in 2008), I’ve seen it all. Tears, outbursts of frustration, total immobility and even despair. While working on a work performance initiative with a medical department, I conducted a series of one-on-one conversations with the staff to get a feel for what was happening in the organizational culture. In one of these conversations, an employee tearfully shared, “I promised myself that I wasn’t going to cry, and here I go.” In other conversations, two employees told the same story about how they were wronged by the other, but told from their side, each sure that they were right, and each confounded by the other.
In a “Get Moving!” lunch n’ learn presentation for a large financial services company, I encouraged participants to “Please, don’t have a seat!” In response, one exacerbated employee stood up and shouted out, “I’ve been asking for a stand-up desk for years! Can you talk to these people, please?!?”
And, during a Managers on the Move workshop, delivered at a prison facility, I asked participating managers to write out and then share what “Me At My Best” looks like for them. Everyone was animated and engaged with the exercise – except one. When I went over to her to check in on her, she responded with “There is no Me At My Best.” My heart broke, and I softly suggested, “Well, how about you at your better?”
4. Wellness champion are disempowered from the start. When I speak to wellness champions, I often start off with a riff. “Let me guess,” I share. Then, I show a picture of a cartoon figure holding a long, long list and I say, “You’ve been given a long list of expectations – save on our healthcare costs, reduce our absenteeism rates, increase productivity levels, make us become an employer of choice.” Then, image switches to a server holding an oversized tray with dozens of super-sized glasses filled to the brim with beer on the verge of sloshing over. “And, wellness is only one of the zillion other things you have on your plate.” Now, image changes to a woman who has a look of horror as she holds up an empty purse turned upside down. “Oh, and you don’t get any money.” Then, final image: little tiny baby in front of a giant barbell. “So, the chances that you’re going to succeed is about as likely as this baby is going to lift this barbell.”
Everyone laughs. Ha ha ha. Not a good sign. In other words, I’ve nailed it.
5. Initiatives that incorporate well-being get renamed – and not in a good way. “You know they’ve been calling this the ‘yoga workshop.’” This is what my point person confided in me moments before I was going to step on stage to deliver “Leadership Odyssey,” a workshop that blended leadership with well-being.
Here I was, the wellness person, or in their view, the yoga person, trying to muster up the confidence to face an aggressive group of macho managers who had put up their guard before I had even said my first word.
It was in this moment that I got inspired to update my slide deck. "OK," I thought to myself. "Challenge accepted." With minutes to spare, I added in an image of an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand and prepared my updated pep talk. “This is a watershed moment for you. You have a choice to make. Are you going to stick your head in the sand and pretend like this well-being at work stuff doesn’t matter?" Slide change: image of a superhero flying through the air with a superhero cape. "Or, are you going to put on your superhero cape and become a Multiplier of Well-Being for your team members? Are you going to become that agent of change that really helps each to become their best self, navigating their way through this challenging time?”
The line has stuck, yoga workshop be damned.
6. They pick the image of the horse kicking the other one in the face. Or, the broken chain link. Or, the Sherpas with the heavy back packs. A painting tells a thousand words. So does a photograph, even a stock image.
I often open my workshops – especially when speaking to managers and leaders – with a “culture audit flip book” exercise. Participants each get a little flip book, with a range of different images. Some are positive, like a set of holding hands or beautiful light coming through the trees. Others are more negative, like a broken chain link, Sherpas carrying heavy back packs, or a horse kicking another in the face. I give the participants a moment to flip through all the images and then I ask them to consider: “Put yourselves in the shoes of the average employee here. Which of these images best represents their day-to-day experience at work? Pick one and then hold it up.” I pause, allowing the participants time to reflect. Then, the hands start coming up – and most of the images, I’m sad to say, are the negative ones. Images that reflect a culture of overwork, unfairness, and lack of compassion.
7. SURVEY RESPONSES ARE WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS. Those open-ended “any comments?” survey responses often tell it all.
A county government that I worked with was kind enough to share results from their recent wellness survey. (As a note, these were measured before I began working with them.) When asked, “Did you participate in any wellness programs?” Most said “No.” Then, in follow up, the next question asked: “If you chose not to, why not?” I kid you not, here were some of their responses:
“Co-workers took the fun out of it.”
“This is a workplace of manipulative conniving units run by power group of insiders.”
“I DO NOT WANT TO WORK OUT WITH EMPLOYEES AT WORK ONLY WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS.”
“Too exhausted to even be attending.”
As these comments suggest, this is not a wellness strategy issue here. This is a culture issue.
And, in the words of management guru Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Exactly.
8. People don’t look all that happy. In fact, they look miserable. Whatever the culture is, as amorphous as it may be, it hangs in the air, it’s inescapable and it’s written all over people’s faces. Especially as an outsider, you can just feel it.
It doesn't have to be this way.
In fact, I've seen lots of cases where there is alignment between the wellness efforts and the larger culture.
Elmbrook Schools (WI) is a place where authentic leadership paves the way for an amazing culture. We arrived early, and began setting up the room. Our point person helped us distribute the folders, the books, the sticky notes, the markers, the flip chart. Then, long before any of the participants began trickling in, Superintendent Mark Hansen showed up. He extended his hand, introduced himself and asked, "How can I help?" And, he actually meant it.
As he pitched in, he began asking questions. He wanted to know all about me and the work that I was doing. He made a sincere effort to get to know me. In turn, he was excited to share about all that his team had done to make well-being a priority. He shared how his school district had navigated an increasingly diverse student population and had managed to ensure that none were left behind.
Organizations like Elmbrook Schools can serve as that North Star where well-being and culture can work in partnership. Perhaps. most importantly, it's organizations like these that remind us that it's not about being the companies with the biggest budgets. It's about being the organizations with the biggest hearts. That's what counts - and that's what we need a whole lot more of.
The good news is—you can do just that, infusing well-being and vitality into your organization with a Workplace Wellness That Works workshop. FIND OUT MORE HERE >
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