The following is a conversation between Dr. Richard Safeer, Author of A Cure for the Common Company: A Well-Being Prescription for a Happier, Healthier, and More Resilient Organization, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Do you ever wonder what you could do to make your workplace happier, healthier, and more productive? Would you be interested in a roadmap to create a culture of health on your team and in your organization that keeps your people positive and more engaged?
Well, if so, my next guest can help. He is Dr. Richard Safeer, the Chief Medical Director of Employee Health and Well-Being for Johns Hopkins Medicine, and author of A Cure for the Common Company: A Well-Being Prescription for a Happier, Healthier, and More Resilient Organization.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Rich.
Richard: Good morning, Denver. Thank you for having me.
Denver: Companies and organizations are putting a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of money into well-being, but many of these efforts are really not as effective as they had hoped. Where do you think they’re falling short?
Richard: Well, Denver, I think historically, and even presently today, most companies are putting their money and energy into prompting an individual to change, as opposed to taking responsibility for the organization’s own role in the health and well-being of their employees, as well as promoting the advancement of well-being amongst a group of employees.
So, to sum it up, Denver, they’re going to the individual approach, where I’m recommending we take a group approach.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that makes an awful lot of sense. I think sometimes they’re just discharging the responsibility and saying: “We made it available to them. We led the horse to water, and if they don’t drink, they don’t drink.” But really, the approach should be: “Is it working or not?” And if it’s not working and people aren’t availing themselves of it, they should probably rethink the approach.
Richard: Yeah, absolutely. Many of us have our own struggles with our health and well-being, and we’ve had these struggles for years and years, and we still try to make changes, thinking that we’re going to do better and get to the place where we want to be.
We really need to think differently. We really need to think about the social sciences, which will end up augmenting and making it much easier for us to reach our health goals.
“…in my opinion, culture is the shared beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes of a group of people that have something in common. And Merriam-Webster, for those of us who remember using paper dictionaries, would agree. And in the context of a well-being culture, it’s the shared behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes around well-being.”
Denver: There are a lot of terms in our world today that get thrown around in such an indiscriminate way that you don’t even know what they mean anymore. And I’m beginning to think that well-being culture is beginning to enter into that orbit.
Tell us, in your mind, what does “well-being culture” mean?
Richard: Well, Denver, I’m a little bit cynical. I am of the mindset that about a decade ago when the buzz was “workplace wellness isn’t working,” that the wellness industry started using well-being a lot more. Now, that’s not really what the history books would show you about where the word “well-being” derived from. But I agree, the word “culture” is thrown around a lot.
And in fact, when the two words “well-being culture” were thrown together repeatedly, and then used, in my opinion, inappropriately, my colleague and I wrote a letter to the editor for the Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine highlighting this problem because we didn’t want well-being culture to end up being a tarnished phrase like “workplace wellness.”
Denver, if you’ll just give me one more minute, I will tell you that in my opinion, culture is the shared beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes of a group of people that have something in common. And Merriam-Webster, for those of us who remember using paper dictionaries, would agree. And in the context of a well-being culture, it’s the shared behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes around well-being.
Denver: Yeah. No, that’s a really important clarification. And every action that every employee takes is contributing to that culture. It is just the aggregate of all those behaviors and all those actions.
Well, you developed the employee health and well-being strategy known as “Healthy at Hopkins.” Share with us some of the key steps you took.
Richard: So, Denver, when I arrived at Johns Hopkins Medicine 11 years ago, the name “Healthy at Hopkins” existed. There was a nice logo; there was an annual walk, but there really wasn’t much more to it. And well-being is not a once-a-day thing. It’s not a once-a-year walk. It’s a journey, and it goes on all day, throughout the day.
And I looked at the situation and realized that there was a lot of energy going towards caring for our patients, which makes sense, right? We’re a healthcare delivery system. But unfortunately, it was often at the expense of the healthcare workers’ own health and well-being.
So I knew that we needed to shift the mindset and the culture so that we could all recognize, as a community, that we could find ways to still deliver world-class care, and support our health and well-being throughout the day.
So, Denver, there is a well-being culture model that I follow and that I promote, and it’s actually in the book…that is like a foundation. It is not a single program. It is really both a philosophy and a strategy that any organization can follow. And when we do follow it, it makes it easier for us to feel supported, regardless of what areas of health we’re trying to pursue.
Denver: Yeah. Well-being is not an event, and I think a lot of people take it as an event.
Richard: Yeah. Right.
Denver: It just can’t be…like you said… to walk, you know?
Denver: Well-being, done. Check the box.
Richard: Well, that’s a common problem, is that employers think that they have the program at 12 o’clock on Monday, and therefore we’re giving our employees what they need.
Denver: Absolutely. Well, let’s talk about investing and focusing on those six building blocks. Why don’t you run down the six, and then we can dig into maybe two or three of them.
Richard: Okay, that sounds good, Denver. I’m going to use a phrase so that it might help our listeners remember the six building blocks. The phrase is PLaN for SuCCesS.
And the P in PLaN stands for Peer Support, and we’ll call that our first building block. The L in PLaN is for Leadership Engagement. The third building block is for the N in PLaN, and that is for Norms, the expected behaviors of a group of people.
Now we’ll skip over the word “for” and go over to the third word, SuCCesS, PLaN for SuCCesS. The first S in SuCCesS, for Shared Values, which is different than a company’s core values. Shared Values are the values that are good for both the organization and the employees.
The two Cs in SuCCesS stand for Culture Connection Points. That’s the fifth building block. These are the nudges, the influencers that we experience throughout the day that make it easier or harder for us to have a healthy and well day.
And then the sixth and final building block for the last S in SuCCesS is Social Climate. What is the general feeling on our team and in our organization? How do we feel about working with these people and in this company?
Denver: Fantastic. Well, why don’t I start with that PS in Peer Support. Now you’ve touched upon it a little bit in the opening, but I find this to be such a profound insight and so important, and I have even found this, Rich, in organizations I work with in terms of peer coaching. It is really a game changer. And sometimes we take a look at what’s being underutilized under the roof of the company– peer support is one of those things.
Tell us about it and some examples of how it can work in the well-being realm within a company or an organization.
Richard: Sure. I mean, we are all influenced by the people around us, our coworkers, our friends outside of work, people in our religious institutions, and we often don’t even realize it. But when you think about it, if someone brings in some cake into the workplace and sets it down on the break table, this is a very common event or an occurrence in a company or organization.
And then their coworkers come over, and they eat it. And that would be an example where maybe your well-being is not being supported, whereas if your coworker asks you to go for a walk at lunchtime, that’s an example of supporting our well-being.
The same thing goes with emotions. When we’re around happy people, we’re happy. And when we’re around stressed people, guess what? We’re more likely to be stressed. But most of us don’t realize it, and companies and organizations certainly don’t take this into consideration when they’re planning their well-being strategy.
And I strongly suggest they do because they can amplify the impact and the effectiveness of their resources. So Denver, you asked for a couple of examples, I’m going to give you a couple examples.
Denver: There you go.
Richard: Smoking is not as big a problem as it was 30, 40 years ago, but it still exists, and it’s an addiction; and it’s pretty hard for people to quit smoking. Most people who smoke want to quit, but they just can’t.
So while it’s great that companies might give some resources to help an individual quit, how about setting up a group so people can talk about how to support each other or making it so people can find a buddy in the workplace more easily?
Or if there’s a group of smokers who congregate outside the building in a certain place, how about approaching all of them at the same time? Because when a worker is trying to quit smoking, it’s not only about giving up their addiction; they’re about to give up their friends. These are the people they spend their breaks with. So there’s a physical example.
And Denver, for just an emotional example. When we smile, the people around us smile, so why not put a strategy in place to get people to smile more? And there’s even a company called Bupa, B-U-P-A, I think they’re a health insurance broker. They actually have their wellness program called “Smile.” That’s how important it is to them.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I just think those are wonderful insights as it relates to peers. A couple things on that I think about. I think about our teenage kids and how we kind of look and say, “Oh, my goodness, they don’t have a mind of their own. They’re just influenced by their peers and they do what their peers do.”
And we say that in a kind of discouraging way. But then we think when we become adults, somehow we magically have outgrown that. And we haven’t– we’re all 13 years old. We’re just a little bit more sophisticated.
Richard: Yeah. Nobody wants to be the odd person out. So instead of…
Denver: No, you want to fit in.
Richard: Right. Instead of like, Hey, if I have high blood pressure, and I know that I’m not supposed to eat salty foods, guess what? If someone brings a pizza in at work, and there’s a lot of salt in the bread and often the sauce, I’m going to eat that pizza. I’m going to be part of the group. And guess what’s going to happen to my blood pressure?
“The positive outlook, the second part of this, a lot of this is set by the team boss or manager, but everybody on the team has an opportunity to see the cup half-full or see the cup half-empty. And the more people and the more often we see the cup half-full, the easier it is for us to be feeling uplifted.”
Denver: Absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit about social climate. And it was interesting, I was speaking to somebody the other day, Rich, and you know, when we think about social climate, we think about our behavior. And most of us think that our behavior is really our own agency. Maybe about 70% is pretty much: I make up my mind; I decide to do something. And maybe 30% of it is my environment.
And that’s true, except it’s exactly the opposite. It’s about 30% of my agency and 70% of the environment that I find myself in. And that is why I really want to talk to you about social climate and have you dig a little bit deeper into that… and maybe some of the things we can do to create that healthy social climate.
Richard: Yeah, so this healthy social climate, this feeling of belonging, part of the team, liking who you’re working with, I look at this in three parts. One is this sense of community. Two, having a positive outlook or being in a group with a positive outlook. And three, having a shared vision. And I’ll just explore those just a little bit.
Sense of community– everyone likes to feel like they belong. No one likes to feel like there’s inside jokes that they’re not part of. And there are ways that we can intentionally shape a sense of community.
Now, long gone are the days of the company softball team, but that doesn’t mean that teams can’t socialize and learn about each other outside of the workplace. I don’t mean physically outside of the workplace, but I mean while we’re working during the workday– getting to know who our teammates are as people and not just as another worker in the company.
The positive outlook, the second part of this, a lot of this is set by the team boss or manager, but everybody on the team has an opportunity to see the cup half-full or see the cup half-empty. And the more people and the more often we see the cup half-full, the easier it is for us to be feeling uplifted. And even when we hit a speed bump, like there’s a challenge at work, we will have an attitude like: “We can overcome this,” as opposed to, “Oh, this is awful!”
And then the shared vision piece of social climate, we all want to feel like we’re rowing together towards the same goal. So do we have a team goal that we can all rally around? Does everybody on the team know how their individual work is contributing to the team goal? That is going to help us feel like we belong.
“We all bring our childhood to work, and we all bring our home life to work. And we have to respect that and consider that in how we support each other’s well-being. Because even the happiest of people can have bad days, bad weeks, bad months, and that’s part of well-being, is supporting each other and helping each other find a happier place.”
Denver: Yeah. It comes to the positive outlook, too. I don’t know whether you agree with this or not: That, when I hired people, was one of the three major factors because I don’t think sometimes it’s easy to take people who have a penchant for being negative and turn them into positive. You can maybe neutralize them. But sometimes you’re born with it, you know?
Richard: Yeah, yeah. Well, yeah.
Denver: And let’s face it, you walk out of your office, and you’ve got to the left–the negative person, and to the right– a positive person. And you know where you’re going to go. You’re going to your right. You know what I mean?
Richard: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Denver: Somebody who’s going to give you some energy and who’s going to be upbeat and talk about how we’re overcoming some obstacles, et cetera, and not everything that’s wrong with this place, and it’s never going to get better.
Richard: Oh, right. And the science bears that out. And Denver, you bring something up important, and that is that even when we try our best to do a great job of hiring our staff, sometimes it doesn’t always work out the way you hoped, or maybe 90% of it is great, and 10% of it is not what you hoped.
We all bring our childhood to work, and we all bring our home life to work. And we have to respect that and consider that in how we support each other’s well-being. Because even the happiest of people can have bad days, bad weeks, bad months, and that’s part of well-being, is supporting each other and helping each other find a happier place.
So I’m with you, Denver. I’m attracted to people who make me laugh, and yet, I try to be my best person and support those who aren’t laughing so much.
Denver: Yeah. I think supporting people actually is one of the best ways to promote well-being. There was a study that was done at the University of Michigan among MS patients, and one group received a call from somebody, every single week for a year, in terms of seeing if they were okay and really concerned about them.
And the other group who had MS as well, didn’t receive the call; they made the call. And at the end of the year, the group that made the call was 8x feeling better about themselves and had a positive outlook. So sometimes I think so much of it is just not receiving it. If we do it, it can actually be exponential.
And to your point of supporting teammates, it’s not just really lifting them up; it lifts us up, you know?
Richard: Right, right.
Denver: It’s the old axiom of: It’s better to give than receive. And you kind of thought that was just a slogan, but I guess, it turns out: it’s really true.
Richard: Well, Denver, I talk about volunteering in the social climate chapter, in the sense of community section. And that’s the same thing that you’re saying. When we volunteer, yeah, we’re doing some good for the world, and it’s going to make us feel better. And when teams volunteer together, it enhances that sense of belonging and that feeling like you’re part of a community.
Denver: Yeah. And coincidentally, volunteerism in this country is way, way down, which may be somewhat a causation of our angst…
Richard: Yeah. Wow.
Denver: …that we’re all feeling. So that’s what’s been going on.
Time for one more of these building blocks …and let’s talk about leadership’s role in the culture of well-being.
Richard: Yeah. Too often, leaders say, “Yes, we support well-being.” And that’s a nice start, but it is far from you being done with your role. There are many things that leaders can do and need to do in order for organizations to truly build a well-being culture.
Foremost, they are responsible for every one of these six building blocks, but they do have specific responsibilities. And I don’t even know where to start, Denver, because I don’t want our listeners to think that the first thing out of my mouth is the most important thing, but I will start with role modeling.
It is not enough to say that it’s important for us to be healthy and well. If leaders are emailing at night, if leaders are sitting in meetings all day and not walking at all, this is not sending the right message.
So I would ask leaders to consider how they can be visibly engaged in their own health and well-being throughout the workday. And if they can’t, to have their marketing and communications team be sure to highlight what they do to take care of themselves.
Second, I would ask leaders to put well-being on the agenda. This is a sign that well-being is important and that it needs to be addressed just like quality assurance and finances and all the other business elements of running an organization.
So, put well-being on the agenda so that every week at a standing meeting, the leader has to think ahead: Okay, what is it that we’re going to do today to address the well-being of our workforce? Or what are the statistics coming in?
If it’s not on the agenda, it’s not going to be addressed. Denver, I’ll stop there even though I could go on for another hour. But I just want our listeners to know there’s a list of things that our leaders can do to be engaged and effective.
Denver: Yeah, a very effective list as well. There was a guy I know who was a CEO, and his daughter played softball, and her games were at four o’clock. And he told me that when he left the office around 3:30 to go watch her game, he shouted it from the highest desk.
Richard: That’s great.
Denver: He let everybody know: I am leaving now to see my daughter.
Richard: That is great.
Denver: Whereas most of us would sort of, or a lot of us would slither out and have people think you’re going to a meeting or something like that. He really did try to model it along those lines.
Richard: That’s great.
Denver: Hey, what has this remote workforce done to well-being, both in terms of the impact that it’s had on individuals, working hybrid/remote? And also maybe on some of those existing well-being programs when everybody is not together the way they once were?
Richard: Yeah. There’s no one answer for remote working or hybrid working because every organization is different and every person is different, and every team is different.
So it’s truly a balance between the individual’s need for balancing what’s happening outside of their life. So the CEO whose example you just shared, maybe at one point his daughter was in preschool, and someone had to do the pickup. Well, that can be a very stressful start to the day, or a very stressful end of the day.
But at the same time, working alone remotely can be stressful. We know that when people are isolated and feeling lonely, that increases stress and decreases well-being. So trying to find those opportunities to interact with your co-workers is really important. And whether that’s done virtually or in person, again, needs to be measured for the circumstances.
Now, I am of the mindset that we need to give flexibility. And in order to be a successful team… and when I say successful, I don’t mean just hitting your goals and following the mission; I mean successful as in everybody enjoying working with the team. You need to be in person periodically to connect as individuals. Otherwise, it can become a shallow experience, and I don’t think that’s sustainable.
“…some of this is about the leadership team really appreciating the complexity of well-being. And I don’t think, Denver, that many leaders understand that this goes well beyond eating apples and walking.
It is quite a complex and broad conversation, but well-being is hugely important. And when employees don’t feel as if their employer cares for them or recognizes their role in well-being, they will leave. And this is a business strategy. This is not just a nice thing to do. This is a matter of your business surviving and striving.”
Denver: Yeah. No, I think you’re right. I sometimes refer to it as social snacking, that we have a lot of contact with all our colleagues, but it really is pretty thin, and you need that immersive in-person experience, maybe even for a couple days, to really get that deep connection again that will keep it going.
Rich, have you seen any generational differences in terms of what people expect from the company as it relates to well-being, with the Boomers about gone? But you got the Xs and you got the Millennials, and you got the Gen Zs. Is there any dynamic there?
Richard: There are differences, and they’re real. The younger generation, they actually suffer more from loneliness, and they also expect more in terms of flexibility. And so trying to meet their needs, and also working with the generation who might just be a little bit older than me, which may have a more traditional mindset of being in the workplace physically and not using work time for this idea of well-being, there’s a real gap there.
And so, I think it’s being bridged in many organizations, but some of this is about the leadership team really appreciating the complexity of well-being. And I don’t think, Denver, that many leaders understand that this goes well beyond eating apples and walking.
It is quite a complex and broad conversation, but well-being is hugely important. And when employees don’t feel as if their employer cares for them or recognizes their role in well-being, they will leave. And this is a business strategy. This is not just a nice thing to do. This is a matter of your business surviving and striving.
Denver: Is there a way that companies and organizations are going about in terms of measuring the ROI and impact of their well-being programs?
Richard: There’s all types of measurements going on. I would ask leaders who are thinking about ROI to reconsider that.
Richard: Their employees are resources. We don’t measure the ROI on the computers we give our employees. We don’t measure the ROI on the chairs we give our employees. These are tools our employees need to do their job. If your employees are not healthy and well, they will not be able to do their job the way you want them to do. So think about measurement in different ways.
So you could even be looking at your retention statistics because if your employees are leaving, a huge reason why is because they don’t feel supported, and their health and well-being is suffering under your roof. And that alone is like the canary in the coal mine. Denver, another topic, measurements, it’s a full chapter in the book, and it’s a full day’s worth of discussion.
Denver: Well, as I always ask, a day’s worth of discussion-type questions, this is one of my fortes.
Denver: Hey, could this be a wave? Look, well-being is at the top of everybody’s list right now, or at least near the top of everybody’s list, and I always sometimes wonder: Is it going to remain there? Or could this be one of those things that maybe in five or 10 years… it will always be on the list, but will not be quite the priority? Or do you think it’s going to go the other way?
Richard: Denver, I’ve been doing this work for about 25 years, and I have seen a gradual increase in interest and resources. And it really accelerated during the pandemic. Barring an economic downturn, I don’t think we’re going to turn back to pre-pandemic ways.
I think that the health and well-being of our leaders has been impacted, and they are recognizing it personally. And because younger generations value their health and well-being more than generations before us, they will soon be the leaders. And we will see a sustained, increased interest and effort in this area. I’m encouraged.
Denver: Yeah, I think that makes absolutely perfect sense. What do you think about the four-day workweek? Do you think it’s going to catch fire? I don’t know… this is not research here. This is an opinion.
Richard: No. Well, I’ll give you an opinion. I mean, I think it might work in some industries, but it’s not like we’re going to close the hospital on Thursday night and say, “Hey, everybody, we’re not open on Friday.” So I think it’s very industry-dependent. Obviously, it’s going to help some types of workers and not others. Just like remote working, I think, individual organizations need to figure it out themselves.
I get a little concerned, Denver, about our communities because I continue to see a shift or a rift in the haves and the have-nots. And while I’m an expert in employee health and well-being, I fully recognize that the health and well-being of our communities is impacting people who are showing up in the workplace.
We can’t ignore it, and it almost feels like some days, we are. And this four-day workweek may be good for some people, but I just have the sense that those who are unable to have that luxury: it’s just one more thing that is going to make them feel like they’re not getting a fair shake in life.
Denver: Yeah, I would agree with you. I mean, the divide, you don’t even think of how it could get any much wider than it is right now, but the four-day workweek could be a contributor to that, just the way white-collar workers were able to work at home and others had to show up at a really precarious time when everybody was worried about their health, even more than now, because of COVID.
You’re the Chief Medical Director of Employee Health and Well-Being. That’s a title I didn’t ever hear of when I was younger, and I was just wondering: What do you think the future is going to bring? And I mean, are we going to have mental health professionals on staff? Do you see companies and organizations really creating new positions and new jobs around the importance of well-being?
Richard: Yes. And depending on the size of the organization, depends on to what extent. I mean, there’s clearly an increase in numbers of chief wellness officer positions coming about at some of these larger organizations. I feel really fortunate, and I think that Johns Hopkins Medicine is really fortunate that we actually have someone on our team who is a licensed clinical social worker and a certified mindfulness teacher/instructor.
And so we provide mindfulness resources live, in person, as well as virtual, for our Johns Hopkins Medicine community. I share that with you, Denver, because you asked about mental health professionals on-site and that is existing. But we’re not the first company to provide mindfulness resources onsite.
I think the first might have been under, I think it’s Mark Bertolini…
Denver: Yeah, right.
Richard: …about 20 years ago or so, after he had a terrible ski accident. And so, we are probably not the last organization either to bring mindfulness into the workplace. I actually think that’s an area of huge growth and huge opportunity.
Denver: Finally, Rich, you did an extraordinary amount of research for this book, and that is why everything is so well-documented and in detail. In doing that, did you come across anything that surprised you? Or did you come across anything that you were just so taken by, you’ve actually instituted it at Hopkins?
Richard: Hmm. Well, I’ll say that I’ve always looked at these lists of best companies to work for. I’ve always been interested in how they were put together, and who’s on the list. But while writing the book, actually a light bulb went off in my head that the elements that are used to determine which companies are best to work for, really kind of overlap with the building blocks that are in the well-being culture model that I share in the book.
And so I think it’s reasonable for a company to strive to be a great place to work because in doing so, they will be supporting the health and well-being of their workforce. Now, I use that phrase, Denver, “great place to work” on purpose. It is a registered name of an organization, Great Place To Work.
And I was fortunate to receive an endorsement by Michael Bush, the CEO of Great Place To Work, because he believed that the book brought true value to organizations and leaders. So that was one of the things that I came to appreciate while writing the book. And we’ve always measured how our… I shouldn’t say always..For seven years, we’ve measured the perception of our employees and how they feel we’re doing with these six culture building blocks.
And did we start anything new? Did I put anything new in place at Hopkins? No, except that our culture survey used to be six questions, and now it’s 12. And so I would just say I enhanced it because I became even more convinced at the value of getting our employees’ input into how we’re supporting their health and well-being.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, I’ll give my endorsement and say, It’s a great book to read. And the title of that book is A Cure for the Common Company: A Well-Being Prescription for a Happier, Healthier, and More Resilient Organization. One of the more healthy things you can do is go out and pick yourself up a copy.
Thanks, Rich, for being here today. It was an absolute pleasure to have you on the show.
Richard: Thanks, Denver. This has been a great conversation.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.