By Shawn Moore, MBA | April 19, 2018
Senior Vice President for Product Management at ActiveHealth/ETR Board Member
Everyone wants a healthy workplace, right? In a healthy workplace, workers are more productive. Missions are supported. It’s a more pleasant environment for everybody.
So why are there so many challenges to establishing a healthy workplace? Especially workplaces like health organizations, service organizations and non-profits. What’s holding us back?
I work in the worksite wellness business. I recognize this takes some effort. But becoming a healthier workplace is not an insurmountable task. It is like any culture modification—it is developed in phases and over time. I would recommend five low-to-no-cost actions you can take in your workplace right now that can noticeably boost wellness and worker satisfaction. But, first, I would like to share some high level thoughts around best practices and trends to help you get a solid footing in enhancing your culture of health.
My team helps companies and organizations bring healthier practices and stronger health values to their work settings. We start by doing a strategic analysis. We look at these three things:
Whatever the outcome of our strategic analysis, we will quickly come to the issue of stress. Individual workers experience stress. Work environments can create stress. Policies can exacerbate stress. Poor communication within a work environment means that problematic stress in individuals or teams may be missed entirely.
This is crucial. Until you can manage stress—individually or organizationally—you’ll have a difficult time being successful in anything else related to worksite wellness.
Consider: two of the most serious health challenges in our nation at present are overweight/obesity and diabetes. Stress can play a role in both.
Chronic stress has an impact on the food people choose, the amount they eat, their pattern of consumption and cravings for “comfort foods.” It also affects where fat is deposited, leading to more visceral fat (fat stored around major organs, such as the liver, pancreas and kidneys). This is a greater threat to health. Stress can also affect metabolic and endocrine processes in ways that stimulate appetite, creating reward mechanisms in the brain that are similar to those among people addicted to alcohol or other drugs.
Stress can lead to trouble sleeping. This, in turn, leads to increased appetite, less exercise, and greater prevalence of obesity. People who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to produce less insulin, raising their blood sugar levels and increasing their risk of developing diabetes.
So when I look at workplace wellness, I know that behaviors around sleep, exercise and nutrition are all wrapped up within this outer shell of stress.
This is where organizational mindfulness comes in.
Often, when people hear about mindfulness in the workplace, they think we’re taking a religious stance. We’re not. Some of the practices of mindfulness appear in Buddhism, but they’re present in many traditions, both spiritual and secular. What mindfulness is about is finding a state of being present and aware—of yourself, your surroundings, your thoughts, your sensations.
Mindfulness allows people to set aside the worries of the morning, or an hour ago, or 20 years ago, and bring their attention to what they are doing right this moment. Being in the moment and seeing oneself in the bigger picture of everything that is going on can have a powerful impact on stress.
Becoming a mindful organization is a powerful way to move a workplace along the continuum towards greater health. It’s simpler than you might imagine. Here are five low-to-no cost ways to create a culture of mindfulness, stress management and resilience.
For any culture modification to stick, you need a clear objective that identifies benefits organizational leaders can support. The American Psychological Association published a paper that outlines some of the benefits of mindfulness-based approaches. These include decreased stress and anxiety, improved cognitive capabilities and improved interpersonal relationships. What forward-thinking leader wouldn’t support such outcomes?
Consider identifying, training and supporting one or more staff to be mindfulness champions. Their job is to reinforce the process of infusing stress management and resilience techniques into the organization’s culture.
Most workplaces include people who are already developing their own personal mindfulness practice. Often, these individuals appreciate the chance to promote concepts of mindfulness within their organization. Finding mindfulness champions who have strong leadership skills will go a long way towards creating a culture of well-being.
Reinforce a practice of mindfulness and stress management within the organization by starting meetings with a “mindfulness moment.” How? A meeting facilitator takes 60 seconds at the start of a meeting to encourage participants to let go of whatever thoughts or distractions preceded the meeting. This helps people focus on the present moment and the tasks at hand.
The facilitator might ask people to sit up straight with their feet flat on the floor, take one or two deep breaths, close their eyes if they’re comfortable doing so, then notice some things they’re aware of through their senses—perhaps the experience of their feet on the ground or their thighs against the chair, the sensation of their own breath as they inhale and exhale, the temperature in the room, the sounds around them. After a minute, the facilitator can ask them to take one or two more deep breaths, open their eyes, and bring their awareness back to the room.
This process helps individuals develop a practice of purposely focusing attention on the present moment, leaving aside the distracting demands of past or future moments.
Create a culture of mindfulness, stress management and resilience with a communication platform that regularly shares tips and information for developing and improving mindfulness skills. Sites such as the non-profit Mindful are great resources for information from practitioners who understand the value of a science-based approach to mindfulness skill-building.
Implement a “mindfulness challenge” to kick-start the practice within your organization. For 30 days, ask challenge participants to focus on a different skill-building exercise each day. Look for activities that are easy for beginners to complete, but illuminating for those who are more expert as well. Examples include creating a short gratitude list at the end of the day, drinking a mindful cup of tea, or listening to a favorite piece of music without doing anything else at all.
This can get the whole organization involved in and talking about the benefits of mindfulness. You can get ideas for your list of 30 activities from a number of different books or websites. One of my favorites is the list created by HeadSpace founder Andy Puddicombe, which he shared on this episode of the Today Show.
You could provide some incentives along the way—badges or mentions on the organization’s in-house network, or raffles among participants. At occasional intervals over the month, raffle off a package of calming herbal tea, some gently scented candles, stress squeeze balls, a relaxing eye-mask, soothing lotion, a fidget spinner, a coffee shop gift card. At the end of the 30-day challenge, you might raffle off a massage or spa day coupon.
I have done this kind of work with dozens of organizations. I understand the resistance that sometimes arises and the concerns leadership has before embarking on this path.
I have also seen the outcomes when leadership takes this course. These steps can and do transform organizations. I hope you’ll consider giving it a try in your own setting.
Shawn Moore, MBA, is Senior Vice President for Product Management at ActiveHealth. She is also a member of ETR’s Board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.