Sponsor content: To truly drive employee wellbeing, look to company culture

The definition of employee wellbeing in 2024 is worlds different than it was a decade ago—even just five years ago—as the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated HR and business leaders’ understanding of the true breadth of wellness, and its impact on the workplace. What was once considered an HR focus aimed at helping employees maintain physical health has significantly broadened to acknowledge that wellness includes financial, mental, social and other aspects. And that improving employee wellbeing isn’t possible through a one-off program or check-the-box exercise; instead, experts say, it needs to be embedded in and supported by company culture.

A recent survey by HRE of senior HR leaders found that they largely recognize the power of culture in driving business success: Improving company culture ranked second among the list of top HR challenges, only after recruiting and retaining top talent. However, the emphasis on wellbeing isn’t as sharp: Employee wellbeing came in fifth in terms of where HR professionals surveyed are spending most of their time.

As organizations move further away from traditional definitions of employee wellness as being habit-focused, now is the time to marry this work with culture, says Laura Putnam, wellbeing expert and author of Workplace Wellbeing That Works.

Laura Putnam
Laura Putnam, author of Workplace Wellness That Works

“The assumption was that we are ‘creatures of habit’—so wellbeing work focused on individual issues like mindset and motivation and individual practices,” Putnam says. “But what the evidence really suggests is that we as humans are arguably more ‘creatures of culture’.”

Putnam points to the world’s “blue zones”—areas where lifespan is longer than average. It’s not that those residents are all better equipped than others to individually maintain healthy habits; rather, they were lucky enough to be born into communities that prize and foster good health.

“I liken it to the analogy of the water we’re swimming in: Is it pushing you toward better health or doing the opposite?” Putnam says. “Our focus needs to be much more directed toward optimizing environments and cultures—focusing less on the fish, per se, and more on the water that surrounds those fish.”

Moving employees ‘toward their better selves’

How can employers shift the wellness focus from employees to culture?

Ultimately, Putnam says, leadership has to be intentional about every aspect of how work gets done—considering the impact on employee wellbeing at every turn.

This includes obvious triggers of stress like heavy workloads and workplace incivility but also more nuanced influences, like how meetings are run, the degree of belonging and fairness people feel at work and how performance reviews are conducted, Putnam says.

Another opportunity to tie wellbeing and culture exists in employee recognition. A recent study by Workhuman and Gallup, for instance, found that an effective recognition strategy can have a measurable impact on employee wellbeing.

wellbeingIn particular, researchers found, employees recognized for work and life events are 3x as likely to feel connected to culture and 3x as likely to say their company cares about their wellbeing.

“Employee recognition programs contribute to a virtuous cycle, where a culture of wellbeing encourages greater recognition, and greater recognition reinforces a culture of wellbeing,” Workhuman researchers wrote in a recent white paper.

“It’s the systems, the broader organizational culture and how teams work together that can uplift people and move them closer toward being their better selves,” adds Putnam.

4 steps to embed wellbeing in culture

When wellbeing programs are treated as standalone, individual interventions, employees may feel barraged by “wellness to-dos,” Putnam says. Instead, by infusing wellness into “deeply entrenched working practices that inadvertently undermine people’s sense of wellbeing,” companies can more meaningfully move their workforces toward better health.

Putnam suggests a four-point framework to help guide HR leaders as they seek to marry culture and wellness:

  • Study the currents of the organization: Engage with employees about what their daily experience is like at work—and whether they’re healthier and happier because of work, or less so because of work. Conversations can include everything from burnout and pessimism to perceptions on fairness and workload.
  • Confront deep, structural issues: When listening strategies identify potential pain points, Putnam says, leadership needs to get to the root causes and create alternate ways of working that center wellness. “Easier said than done,” Putnam acknowledges.
  • Empower leaders and managers: In a wellness-centric culture, they should become “everyday heroes” for the people they lead, Putnam says. Employee wellbeing should be considered as managers and leaders refine their leadership style and it must be a focal point of any leadership training and mentoring.
  • Engage teams, not individuals: Social connection in the workplace can be a primary driver of employee wellbeing, so leadership should provide opportunities, such as through volunteering, to feed employees’ natural need to engage with others.

“If we understand that the way we’ve been doing wellbeing isn’t really working, let’s not ditch the idea of wellbeing at work,” Putnam advises, “but instead start doing it in a way that actually works.”

To learn more about the role of employee wellbeing in company culture, and gain three ways to support a continuous culture of wellbeing at your organization, read Workhuman’s recent white paper, Integrating Culture and Wellbeing in the Workplace.