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A Healthy Company Culture Is Good for Business (and People)

It’s time we leverage the workplace as a venue to improve public health.
In this issue, writer Amanda Hurley looks at how creating a healthy work environment improves health and well-being. Certainly, creating a positive physical environment can boost worker productivity (see page 70), but there’s more to fostering a healthy workplace than just furniture and physical design. What about the health of the company itself? Roughly 156 million Americans go to work each day and spend more than half their waking hours there. And yet, when we think about public health, we don’t usually consider the workplace as an important venue for health promotion. Why not leverage the workplace as a setting for improving public health?
There are many companies throughout the United States that have built healthy company cultures with an intentional purpose of improving their workers’ health and simultaneously achieving a healthy bottom line. In fact, new research shows that companies that care about the health and safety of workers outperform the overall stock market.
So what does this look like? Imagine an environment that promotes nutritious eating, physical activity, safety, work-life balance, high levels of trust, and respect throughout the organization. Healthy food choices are available in vending machines and company cafeterias; food items are labeled with their nutritional content; and healthy items are priced lower than unhealthy ones. 
To promote physical activity, the company has made staircases more welcoming, built fitness facilities on site, and offered membership to local gyms. It allows for flexible work schedules that include walking breaks and provides bike racks and showering facilities. 
The company has a strict “no smoking” policy but also provides counseling and access to medications for employees who want to quit. A wellness committee implements state-of-the-art behavior-change programs. When employees succeed in achieving a health goal, they are recognized and rewarded. Importantly, improving employees’ health and well-being is communicated as a core value of the organization and is embedded into vision and mission statements.
This isn’t a Pollyanna list—it is actually happening around the country. With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, my team at Johns Hopkins has identified the key success factors for creating exceptional health promotion programs. To find out how companies build and sustain cultures of health, we conducted extensive interviews and site visits. Some of the organizations we visited were winners of the C. Everett Koop Award, which recognizes organizations with documented data proving that they enhanced workers’ health while saving money. Citibank, Dell, Johnson & Johnson, Lincoln Industries, LL Bean, and USAA are just a few such companies.
“New research shows that companies that care about the health and safety of workers outperform the overall stock market.”
Most important to establishing a healthy culture, we learned, is having leaders who are vocal and committed to establishing a healthy workforce across multiple dimensions that include physical, emotional, social, financial, and “purposeful” health. As one leader explained, “I want my workers to leave the company at the end of the day healthier than when they first came to work.”
Equally important is measurement and evaluation. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” is a constant refrain heard from company leaders. Valid and reliable data are needed to document program accomplishments. That may mean achieving engagement of employees and families in health-promoting activities; demonstrating behavior change and risk reduction; “bending the cost curve” on health care spending by reducing the rate of increase to manageable levels; reduced absenteeism and “presenteeism” (being physically at work but not performing at an optimal level because of health problems); and attracting and retaining top talent.
Our mission now is to disseminate what we have learned over the past two years so that more companies can replicate the successes of best practice companies. The Institute for Health and Productivity Studies website includes stories describing our site visits, along with videos from inside some of these healthy companies. The bottom line is this: Coupling public health with business health makes absolute sense—workers gain as does the economy.
portraits of Ron Z. Goetzel
Photographs by Marshall Clarke
Ron Goetzel is a senior scientist and director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, as well as vice president of consulting and applied research for Truven Health Analytics.

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