Laura Putnam, author of Workplace Wellness that Works: 10 Steps to Infuse Well-Being and Vitality into Any Organization, is the CEO and founder of Motion Infusion, a wellness organization that has worked with public companies, NGOs, universities and public institutions.  According to her, the secret sauce to wellness initiatives that offer the best results are ones that are not programs, but are “movements” started organically in the organization by inspiring leaders and employees.  Laura shares best practices and case studies of several organizations creating healthy practices and shaping the built environment.

LS: Laura, tell me a little bit about your background and what led you to write Workplace Wellness that Works.

Laura Putnam: I don’t have a background in exercise physiology or nutrition or medicine.  Rather, I’m a former dancer, gymnast and educator (I was an urban public high school history teacher), so I come at wellness a little differently from other professionals in the field.  The impetus for my book was that I was seeing a lot of workplace wellness programs that were not working.  As a country, and increasingly around the world, we are facing a giant tidal wave of health issues – chronic stress, chronic conditions like obesity, and chronic disease – that are all largely preventable.  The question is – what are we going to do about it?  Workplace wellness is a really good idea if you consider that the workplace is one of three portals where we can take action (if you include school, the workplace and the community).  The problem is that we are wasting this opportunity when you consider that 80% of companies have some sort of wellness offering, but over 80% of those employees are opting out.  Something is wrong here.  That is what this book is about – offering 10 steps on how to roll out wellness programs a little differently.

For starters, I believe that instead of starting yet another workplace wellness program, companies should think about starting a movement.  That’s what inspires me – seeing examples of “mini movements” started not by people who have positioned themselves not as experts or program administrators, but as leaders of a movement.

LS: I hear you!  Where I live in Washington DC, there is a lot of buzz around political movements – all constructed on the premise that people get excited when a campaign is tied to a wider purpose and mission, not just about the individual candidate.  It’s a pretty successful strategy.

LP: Yes, that’s one reason wellness efforts fit nicely into mission-driven organizations.  At Eileen Fisher, for example, they have “sustainability ambassadors” (similar to wellness ambassadors you might find in other organizations) combining the efforts to promote well-being with sustainability – connecting individual and corporate wellness to something bigger.

LS: I know that at their headquarters, Eileen Fisher also provides space for the Westchester Buddhist Center, connecting mindfulness (one of their core values) to that of the local community.  Their space also supports a wider mission.

LP: Exactly.  But focusing on a wider mission is not something an expert is likely to do.  This is why I contend that the first step to achieving better results is to shift our mindset from expert to agent of change. I would argue, for example, that Oprah Winfrey has had more impact on our behaviors than any expert out there in the field of health promotion.  It’s no wonder that President Obama studied her in devising his 2008 campaign.  What we can learn from people like Oprah is that programs and interventions don’t move people; feeling part of something bigger does.

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia is another great example of an agent of change who has inspired well-being in his company with messages like “Let my people go surfing” or “The work can wait but the weather can’t.”  Patagonia doesn’t even have a wellness program – and yet, people are surfing at lunchtime, training for ultra-marathons, holding meetings outdoors, giving back, the list goes on.  There is so much well-being woven into the fabric of the organization, there’s no need for a program.  That’s where we ultimately need to move towards: a workplace where the culture and the environment embody health and well-being. It’s infused into everything we do.

LS: I’ve noticed that in many organizations, wellness efforts operate in silos.  One department might be responsible for engagement and leadership programs, another is looking at developing health programs and yet another is building the workplaces employees occupy.  But these groups are not connected – they are not talking to each other and working towards an overall objective, which is to increase the health and human performance of people in the organization.

LP:  Yes, there are too many stand-alone, silo-ed wellness programs. It’s no wonder why the people who are leading these efforts are exhausted! The good news is that there are bright spots.  I’ve seen and worked with large Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, schools, universities, even government entities who are doing great work.  One example is Nintendo.  Here, you have a member of the executive team, Flip Morse, who personally embraces wellness. He’s super active and likes to bike to and from work.  The Pacific Northwest, as you know, is wet and cold. This means that if you’re biking to work, your clothes are typically wet and cold when you arrive.  Then, at the end of the day, you know you are going to have to put those wet and cold clothes back on to commute home – certainly a deterrent for an active commuter!  Flip wanted to change this, so he came up with the idea of “ventilated lockers” in the bike cage which he personally designed. It’s a place where active commuters can store their bikes and hang their cycling clothes. So, at the end of the day, you’ve got a nice set of dried out biking clothes waiting for you – and a much more comfortable ride home.

Workplace Wellness

Bike storage at Nintendo headquarters office building

This is so great because 1) it’s a nudge to get people to bike to and from work, and 2) it was built by someone on the executive team. It’s not an executive standing up and saying “Everyone participate in a wellness program,” it’s an executive who is actively engaged.  I call this the “I want to see my boss in spandex” phenomenon.  I mean, employees don’t want to see their boss talking about it; they want to see him or her actually doing it.  Two other members of Nintendo’s executive team are also avid cyclists and triathletes.  Nintendo’s ventilated locker system, which spurred an innovation award from the American Heart Association, is part of a larger build-out at their headquarters in Redmond, Washington, that is LEED Gold certified and designed with environmental sustainability as well as human health in mind.  The building is filled with natural light, Wii kiosks, “Green Arrow” healthy food options in their on-site cafeteria (subsidized) and a 75,000 square foot green “part walkable” roof.

IDEO is another great organization I’ve studied. One of their traditions is to “redesign” a coworker’s workstation while they’re away on vacation.  Apparently one employee went away and when he returned, coworkers had replaced his workstation with a Volkswagen van, fully stocked with a desk, computer, and a phone.  The redesigned workspace was a huge hit, and now is a popular meeting spot in the office.  As this story demonstrates, IDEO approaches wellness in the same way it approaches work: through play and experimentation.  A lot of other companies have taken a very serious approach.  They have outside experts come in to design and deliver “evidence-based” programs that are, frankly, boring and stale. (And, then they scratch their heads and wonder why no one is participating.) But, at IDEO it’s much more playful.  People just try things out, like an employee might teach a “pop up” yoga class or might post an open-ended question on a giant chalkboard.

Companies like Patagonia, Nintendo and IDEO are examples of organizations that are integrating a way of working with a way of approaching wellness to drive a “culture of health” within the organization.  Another trend I’m starting to see – and one that I advocate – is the integration between building a culture of health and a “culture of learning.” This makes sense, as the two go hand in hand. I would say that IDEO’s approach to wellness definitely embodies this concept. Here, the focus is less on health outcomes and more on engaging employees in a learning process. In their recent book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow propose the idea that work should be a place where employees get to develop themselves and become better versions of themselves through their work. This is exactly what we need to be doing in empowering employees to adopt healthier behaviors – encouraging them to view well-being as a process, an ongoing series of opportunities to learn and grow.

LS: Your examples are excellent and I’m sure resonate with people working in corporate organizations.  But what about hospitals, higher ed institutions, NGOs, government organizations and other places?  Do you see other glimmers of hope outside of Fortune 500 companies?

LP: I think there is this perception that everything is happening in Silicon Valley and in these high tech start-up companies.  Actually, I would argue the opposite.  I travel all across the country and I see a lot of wellness programs.  In some ways, other parts of the country are ahead of us out here in Silicon Valley, as there is a dark side to the story.  While these companies have lots of wellness perks, such as free food, these are also are a way to keep people at work for long hours, and tech companies admit it.  There is evidence to suggest that there is significant amount of stress tech employees feel as a result.

LS: You can see it in their retention rates.  I was reading that the average tenure for employees at Apple, Google, Amazon and other tech companies is between 1 and 2 years.  That seems a little insane!  That’s a tell-tale for me.

LP: In all fairness, a lot of the people who work for these tech companies are gaming the system.  They know they will work at one place for a little while and then work at another place for more money or better benefits.  There is a war for talent, and those who can take advantage of it, do.

But, let’s take a look at some real bright spots out there:

  • Oklahoma State University set out to establish itself as “America’s Healthiest Campus®” in 2013. Under the leadership of a designated Chief Wellness Officer, they’ve developed this incredible multi-dimensional well-being program that serves students, staff and faculty across all of its campuses and dispersed extension offices. Would you ever expect that OSU was the first university system to become tobacco-free or the first university to have a Chief Wellness Officer?
  • And, then one of my favorites is Sioux Empire United Way, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Several years ago, Coleen Thompson, the Finance Director decided to give up smoking, get healthy and lose weight, but she didn’t want to do it on her own. She came up with the idea of walking twice a day, every day. She mapped out an outdoor route and an indoor route (this is South Dakota after all – long winters) and each route was one mile in length. Then, she convinced her coworkers to join her on her walks. Now, fast forward to today. Thanks to her persistent (and persuasive) leadership, this organization has been walking together twice a day, everyday, for 11 years running. Best of all, it doesn’t cost any money, there’s no “expert” who’s overseeing it, and the program has endured over time. One person sparked a movement. After seeing the success of the walking program, the president Jay Powell got inspired to find additional ways to support wellness at work, and began offering sit to stand desks for any employee who wanted one.
Workplace Wellness that Works

Colleen Thompson (leader of the walking meeting movement) at left next to Jay Powell, President, and other employees on one of the Sioux Empire United Way’s daily walks

  • Schindler Elevator Corporation brought me in to develop a leadership development program that incorporates well-being. We delivered a two-day off-site program for their top-tiered managers. Rather than focusing on health per se, we encouraged the managers to consider questions like “Do I have the energy to lead well?” This one leadership program literally catalyzed a movement that spread to other parts of the organization, including safety and HR.
Laura Putnam

Snapshot from a Schindler Elevator Corporation “Safety Odyssey” workshop for top area safety managers working with Laura Putnam to explore the connection between safety and health

  • The MD Anderson Cancer Center brings the gym to where people work. They have created mini-fitness facilities called “Be Well” stations throughout the campus. These are great de-stressors. You can go and jump on the elliptical for a few minutes and then return to your work.
  • The Centers for Disease Control launched a stairwell campaign in the headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. They use music, upgraded appearance, and motivational signage to nudge employees into using the stairs more often.
  • Duke Patient Safety Center has been employing resiliency programs, including one called “Name 3 Good Things” which employees do together in groups over a six-week period. These programs have proved to be phenomenally effective in addressing issues related to burnout and stress.

LS: How can learnings from the field of education apply toward promoting health and well-being in the workforce?

LP: My experience as a dancer turned teacher inspired me to start my company Motion Infusion in 2008.  As a former dancer, I was really interested in finding new ways to bring movement into the classroom.  I wanted to explore how movement might increase engagement and enhance the learning process.  So, I started trying out simple things, like just getting students to stand up, go to the wall to write something in response to a question on butcher paper. What I saw was that even these little episodes of movement really increased their engagement.  In a more extreme experiment, we conducted a week-long program where we taught students about the progression of movement from swing dance to Lindy Hop to hip hop.  Students learned about the history of these dance forms, got to actually practice them, and at the end, delivered a performance.  It was incredible. Through these experiences, I discovered how learning can be transformed just by getting up on your feet. Motion Infusion is based on the premise that when we move, we get healthier, we get happier and we even get smarter.  Now of course there is all sorts of research showing how movement positively impacts not only our bodies but our brains.

So, getting back to your question, what I often see is a lot of health experts who are trying to share more and more information about the perfect diet or the perfect way to exercise. But, the truth of the matter is that health promotion is really about getting people to adopt very basic lifestyle practices. By and large, everybody already knows what to do already.  You would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know that smoking is bad for them, or that it’s a good idea to eat fruits and vegetables or to move. The real question is, how do we help people to close the “knowing” and “doing” gap?  And this is where a background in education can be really helpful.

A first step in applying best practices from education toward health promotion is to recall the Latin root word for “education,” educare, which means “to draw forth that which is already there.” So how do we, as wellness providers and leaders facilitate a learning process – rather than just deliver information and dump data?  One way is to put learners in the driver’s seat.  We need to spend less time providing information and more time allowing learners to interact together.  To do that, we have to think about things like “how to build safety” within a group to encourage participation and engagement.  You can’t just start with asking questions to a large group.  You have to do things like pair individuals up or discuss in small groups before they can feel safe sharing with a bigger audience.

A second best practice, and one that any teacher knows, is that emotions rule. There is cognitive learning, but also affective learning (the manner in which we deal with things emotionally, such as feelings, values, appreciation, enthusiasms, motivations, and attitudes).

At the end of the day, our work comes down to the question: “How do we create the conditions in which individuals are more likely to motivate themselves?” This brings us to a third best practice from education, which is a deep understanding of motivation. Any teacher can tell you that you can have all of the incentives in the world, but if people are not motivated, they will not sustain change and they will not be authentically engaged. Meanwhile, research shows that the average health incentive is now a whopping $693 per employee – which is almost four times the amount that is directed toward the programs themselves. It’s no wonder that employees are checking the box to collect on their incentive, or in many cases, are actually leaving money on the table!

As a field, we need to do a much better job of tapping into intrinsic motivators. One of the ways we can do this is to design wellness programs that focus on the here and now, i.e. what is front and center for people. For most people, it’s not about disease prevention (that’s a long way off). Instead, it’s more about how they can be the best mom or dad, or how they can be more effective in their job or how they can have more energy every day. Interestingly, research from people like Michelle Segar, a behavioral sustainability scientist and author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring a Lifetime of Fitness, have found that people who exercise for energy compared with those who exercise for a health outcome like weight loss are more likely to sustain it.

Intrinsic motivation really is about connecting with our deepest human needs, things like the need for mastery, autonomy, purpose, social connections and the like. Fortunately, more and more people are starting to realize that the wellness profession needs to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach to change behaviors and make a difference.

LS: Not to get off on a rant, but as you’re talking, I can’t help think that government officials leading our country would be well served by having more educators as advisors. But I digress. This is really important stuff!

LP: So much of the field of corporate wellness has been historically based in fear. “Do this, or else you will gain weight, and if you gain weight, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of diabetes and heart disease!” But instilling fear to drive change just doesn’t work. You would think, for example, that having a heart attack would be enough to “scare” someone into being healthy for the rest of their life, but research shows that after a year, only 10% of post cardiac patients are still putting into practice healthy lifestyle changes. Often their well-meaning cardiac surgeon will tell them after surgery, “Put these healthy practices into place or else you will die!” But people don’t respond to that. The approach that seems to work better is one where the health care providers encourage the patients to “embrace life” and they foster a non-judgmental, learning approach to making change.

LS: Thank you so much for your insights, Laura. Your advice is super practical, researched and insightful! For all of you interested in learning more about Laura, her practice or her book Workplace Wellness that Works, you can find links to everything here: