How (and Why) to Lead a Health-Centric Workplace

A Global Concern

Public health issues once thought to be individual and separate from the workplace now pose a global threat to organizational bottom lines, family functioning and individual wellbeing. An 11-hour increase in the typical work week paired with a decline in vacation hours taken over the last four decades (Schulte, Connolly and Ung, 2017), means less time spent enjoying social relationships and family time and more hours at work, where task overload and packed schedules threaten stress levels and positive health behaviors like a proper diet and exercise. Because our work is negatively impacting our health, we help companies to become public health heroes.

The data from global giants like the World Health Organization and World Economic Forum, in addition to work from up-and-comers like Ideas42, is alarming. Recent studies show a relationship between work-family conflict and unhealthy eating habits, obesity, elevated cholesterol levels, and hypertension (Moen, Kelly, Tranby & Wong, 2011). According to research by Towers Watson (2015), a workforce provided with effective health and productivity strategies can reduce costs by more than $1,600 per employee in reduced sick days. A meta analysis of 228 studies in Behavioral Science and Policy examined effects of workplace stress and health outcomes, finding that job demands increased physician-diagnosed illness by 35% and long work hours increased mortality by 20%. In addition to the benefits of creating a workplace where employee health is positioned to improve, we can also expect extrapolated benefits of a health-centric workplace through what we call "behavioral cusps". 

A behavioral cusp is “a behavior that has sudden and dramatic consequences that extend well beyond the idiosyncratic change itself because it exposes the person to new environments, reinforcers, contingencies, responses, and stimulus controls” (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2006). An addition from wikipedia notes, “It affects the people around the learner, and these people agree to the behavior change and support its development after the intervention is removed”. This means that learning new, small skills leads to a wider variety of bigger changes, which can lead to culture change, which can lead to global impact. The small changes we help organizations experience a profound ripple effect.

As scientists, we offer up unique and valuable perspectives to other disciplines interested in behavior change. A strong, comprehensive analysis of a workplace can aid in understanding the ways in which our work contributes to illness and unhealthy behavior by identifying the variables that influence us. Through collaborative efforts we can take data, collect biofeedback, develop behavioral and environmental change programs and ensure sustainability. We can use Organizational Behavior Management strategies to help answer questions like, “Does investing in my employees’ health provide me with positive business outcomes?” Interestingly, organizations are beginning to turn the tides and invest in their employees like never before. Google, Aetna, General Mills and Target have joined the corporate giants in pioneering mindfulness programs for employee benefit packages, with significant financial returns as a result. Amazon, JP Morgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway are hatching a plan to disrupt the healthcare industry by starting an innovative, cost-effective and transparent healthcare company for their combined 1.1 million employees. This is the influence leadership has on culture. If poor leadership has the power to take a company down- and it does- then modern, health-centric leadership has the power to improve the workplace in measures beyond bottom lines.

These 4 preliminary steps to leading a health-centric workplace are offered in an effort to create change in ourselves, so that we access firsthand the benefits of prioritizing health as an organizational value. Leaders can then take charge and evoke health-related work behavior in employees, backing it up with rewards that lock in a more modern culture and updated values.

Make time for data. Set aside 30 minutes a day for 3-5 days and observe the culture surrounding health in your workplace. How big is the gap between what is said to be valued and what is actually valued as demonstrated by contingencies at play? Give extra attention to those small to moderate tasks over which you have control. 

Be honest. What do you love most about your workday? What do you loathe? Marcus Buckingham (Gallup, StrengthsFinder) conducts this exercise with his clients to support them in evaluating their workday activities. In other words, what tasks give you energy? What tasks leave you feeling exhausted? Honesty is important, as the accuracy of your results is critical for effective change. If you’re loathing tasks, chances are others are, too. These tasks are your starting point. 

Check Yourself. After gaining some insight into your work tasks, take stock of your energy levels throughout the day. What times of day are you the most energized? The most tired? This will help you check your previous (and subjective) thinking which can neglect confounding variables. If you find yourself exhausted by (i.e., loathing) Monday afternoon meetings- nodding off, feeling irritable, losing your attention- is that solely during Monday meetings or could it be the time of day? Or does it depend on meeting content? Or your exercise history that day? Taking some supplemental data is a decent check for otherwise private behavior that is sometimes difficult to measure objectively. Our brains are wired to create quick, convenient explanations for why we feel certain ways, which can lead to a confirmation bias, which then becomes a false rule on which we direct our future behavior (i.e., “I get tired during meetings because I am bored so I avoid them whenever possible” Are you sure?). 

Be a boss- What tasks do you control for yourself and your staff throughout your day? Of those tasks, what can be modified so that you or your staff find them more enjoyable and in line with healthy behavior? If meetings with your boss are your (or your staff’s) number one “loathe”, take responsibility. We know that there is very little we have absolutely zero control over, especially if we understand the full scope of the variables involved. If your meeting time occurs when you’re generally tired anyway, can you change it? If meeting in person and making a long drive leaves you irritable, consider moving to a phone meeting or taking a walk beforehand. If the problem is hearing (or giving) constant negative feedback that leaves you wanting to crawl in a hole and die, that’s a good sign this situation is 1) significantly wearing on your health and 2) an opportunity to advocate for healthier, more productive, more enjoyable solutions.

To make this more motivating, I can offer readers some comfort here. Good leaders do not prefer to be in the dark on how their employees feel; they are open-minded and most likely want the feedback, especially if it’s affecting your productivity, engagement and/or health. Stuck with a boss who is uninterested in your feedback or health? It may be time to find one who invests in you.  

This opportunity for behavior science, stacked with social impact and meaningful change, has never been more within our scope of practice. We think big and we think differently. Healthier snacks in the office or starting the day with meditation is progress. Lowering blood pressure by building health-centric cultures, reducing stress by crafting better performance feedback processes and integrating healthy behavior with OBM strategies to improve employee and organizational health is changing the game.


1) Caver, K., Davenport, T.O., Nyce, S. (2015) Capturing the Value of Health and Productivity Programs. Organizational Health and Wellness, v.38 (1)

2) Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., and Heward, W.L. (2006). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd edl). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

3) Goh, J., Pfe er, J., & Zenios, S. A. (2015). Workplace stressors & health outcomes: Health policy for the workplace. Behavioral Science & Policy, 1(1), pp. 43–52. 

4) Moen, P., Kelly, E.L., Tranby, E., & Huang, Q, (2011). Changing Work, Changing Health: Can Real Work-Time Flexibility Promote Health Behaviors and Well-Being? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 52(4), 404-429.

5) Schulte, B., Connolly, D., and Ung, U. (2017). Better Work Toolkit. Can be found at