September 2009

When you think about the culture of your organization, what comes to mind? Do people come to work with spring in their step? Do they socialize regularly? Is there shared vision for what the team is attempting to accomplish?

An organization’s culture is the social norms that shape behavior and beliefs. These norms are established through a variety of both formal and informal mechanisms, including reward systems, training, modeling, and communication.

Why is an organization’s culture important to health of employees? If we think about it from a formal perspective, there are concrete policies that define the workplace such as a drug-free and smoke-free workplace policy. Those policies are clearly defined, everyone knows what they mean and understands the consequences of violating the policy.

When attempting a behavior change, people are more likely to be successful if they are supported by the people they spend time with – be it co-workers or family members, and have a supportive environment in which to practice skills developed when making the change. A health focused work culture makes it easier for people to maintain healthy lifestyles.

The Human Resource Institute created a model of the enabling factors of culture change based on research performed in a number of worksites. The model, shown in the figure below, addresses key elements that create a work climate that supports change.
Culture Model
A sense of community fosters a sense of belonging, creates trust, caring and mutual understanding. Worksite wellness programs can play an important role in this.

A shared vision is having a clear definition of success. People understand what their role is in this success and have a stake in achieving it.

A positive culture creates an environment of optimism and enthusiasm. Helping people achieve a personal health milestone and see concrete results supported by those with whom they work, will provide continued motivation.

A worksite wellness program can foster a culture of health by creating an environment that is positive, caring and supportive.


Allen RF, Allen JR, A sense of community, a shared vision and a positive culture; core enabling factors in successful culture based health promotion. American Journal of Health Promotion, (1987) 1:3 40-46

Allen, JR, Achieving a culture of health: the business case. White Paper. Health Enhancement Systems,

When I tell people I meet about the work I do in worksite wellness, I often get the question “What is a worksite wellness program?”.
A worksite wellness program is ‘an organized set of activities or programs that encourage employees and their family members to voluntarily adopt behaviors that help improve their health and enhance their performance.” (Chapman, Small Employers: Options for Implementing Wellness, 2006).

If you have ever worked in a large company (public or private), chances are that you have seen or participated in a worksite wellness program. When I was 19, I went to work for a life insurance company in Hartford, CT. The company had all sorts ‘benefits’ available to the 1,800 home office employees. These benefits included a bowling alley and two squash courts in the basement, summer volleyball league, a workout room and locker rooms with showers. The company was progressive in encouraging healthy lifestyles for their customers (this was in the mid-70’s). They offered a national promotional program called “Run for your Life”. It was a program that encouraged running as a way to improve and maintain your health. Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic Gold Medal marathoner, was the program spokesperson. The program offered an opportunity to learn to run. Yes, there are things you need to know to ‘learn to run’.  I had never run before, but this was an opportunity to learn to run, meet people in the company I would not normally meet, and to get some exercise. This program has many of the elements that are typically involved in a worksite wellness program. This program offered the opportunity to build skills (learn to run), have social support (co-workers to run with), and personal health benefits (exercise). I came to appreciate the ‘benefits’ that this employer offered and the role they played in encouraging healthy lifestyles for their employees.

Worksite wellness programs take all shapes and sizes. It isn’t just a gym in the office (but that is a great start). A worksite wellness program should create awareness, provide education and skill development, and influence individual behavior change. Policies in the work place, such as drug-free work place, smoking policies, seat belt policy in company vehicles, and food policies can create awareness for employees. Education may take the form of self-care books, brochures, or lunch-and-learn programs on health topics. In many cases, these can facilitate skill development, such as learning to set goals. Behavior change programs such as smoking cessation directly address the behavior that limits good health.