An 8 Stage Plan for Creating an Organizational Culture of Health

By Michael Puck, SPHR on September 1, 2010

Putting together a wellness initiative for your business is hard work. However, in comparison to creating a culture of health for your entire organization, it is a walk in the park.

Even companies cited as the role models of corporate wellness – companies that have won national awards for their health improvement efforts – are struggling when it comes to creating a lasting culture of health for their employees.

Creating lasting change in any situation is a challenge. Harvard Professor John P. Kotter published “Leading Change” in 1996. The book introduces the reader to an eight-stage process designed to create lasting change.

Kotter’s basic premise is that major change will not happen easily because, as human beings, we are subject to deeply rooted illogical behaviors. His eight stages take that into account and were designed to work around and realign those behaviors so we can achieve change.

I have shamelessly adopted that same eight-stage process in order to tackle the problem of creating a culture of health for your company.

This article is a digested form of that same process and is presented with special consideration given to specific problems you may face when trying to institute a lasting culture of health and well-being among your employees.

  1. Establish a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency is required to kick start any sort of positive change. To make this otherwise generic threat more applicable to your business, forecast your own company’s health care costs for the next 10 years using current trends, including the additional cost of complying with the health care reform. The shocking results of this forecast will definitely light a fire that few business leaders would dare to ignore.
  2. Create a guiding coalition. Many companies have conveniently misinterpreted this second stage to mean a wellness council or similar group. While a wellness council certainly plays a vital role in operating a wellness program, a guiding coalition is a group comprised of the most senior leaders and executive champions acting as trailblazers within the organization. Countless companies have at first struggled and eventually failed with their change initiatives because the CEO was not on-board or had failed to bring senior management into alignment with the initiative.
  3. Develop a vision and strategy. A strong and compelling vision is essential to cut through the changes that affect every single person in your organization (including your employees’ dependents) and to create a mental picture of the future. To get started, ask yourself what your organization should look like after you’ve implemented a culture of health. Here are a few sample questions:
    • How have your employees’ behaviors changed?
    • What foods are being offered in the canteen and in nearby restaurants?
    • Are coworkers meeting over lunch to exercise?
    • How has the changed work environment impacted you personally?
    • Do you more effectively manage your own biometric values?
    • How do employees use the benefits provided by the company and where do they find the best medical service at the lowest cost?
    • Who is in charge of your health and well-being now?
  4. Communicate the change vision. Once you have developed a compelling change vision, you need to communicate it to your employees and stakeholders. An effective vision has power to align the efforts of thousands of individuals in a remarkably efficient way – but only if those potential converts and supporters know of it.
  5. Empower broad-based action. The previous four stages lay the foundation on which individuals must build to accomplish the change. In stage five, a broad base of individuals must be empowered to take action by removing as many barriers to the implementation of the change vision as possible. Think of this stage as preemptive streamlining. What could be possible barriers? One barrier that can effectively prevent a culture of health from developing is the lack of a strong business incentive.In most for-profit organizations, the business leader’s immediate concern is the financial numbers for the next quarter, and an increase in health and wellness activities such as health risks assessments, visits to the on-site health clinic or even workouts over lunch could initially be seen as productivity and monetary losses.

    You must break through that short-term thinking that hobbles most businesses. This short-sightedness is contrary to the long-term benefits of a change initiative.

  6. Generate short-term wins. Creating a culture of health cannot be achieved overnight or even within a 12-month period.To create a culture of health, you must address and modify deep- rooted behavioral patterns developed over decades. With a goal so far into the future, it’s important that short-term successes are measurable.
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change. Businesses can no longer rely on linear processes and thinking to maintain profitability and growth. To stay competitive, they must deploy highly interdependent systems.Although creating a culture of health has a relatively narrow and well-defined scope, be prepared that it might act as a catalyst for change throughout your organization because of the many inter-dependencies that exist in today’s companies.
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture. Even if the first seven stages have been executed perfectly, the culture change is not complete until the new practices have grown deep roots and cultural conflicts have been eliminated.As Kotter notes, shallow roots require constant watering, and all is well only as long as the project team and other change agents keep up with the garden hose.Long-term success can only be accomplished if the change in culture becomes self-sustaining as an integral part of the company’s core values.

    It is tempting to skip the first four stages and jump immediately to the action phase or declare victory long before stage eight, but these shortcuts will not lead to the desired outcome. At best they will deliver only the temporary perception of change.

    A true measure of the creation of a culture of health is when the majority of the workforce is maintaining healthy lifestyle choices even in the absence of any company initiatives or incentives.

Contributing Editor Michael Puck, SPHR, is the benefits innovation leader for a global defense, security and aerospace company, author of “The High Road – Total Health Care Transformation Program.”

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