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Safety and Worksite Wellness: Lurking Traps and Hidden Opportunities

BY: Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, MS

Forward-thinking businesses today are very concerned with ensuring employees have a safe workplace, both physically and psychologically. For example, members of the WELCOA community follow a strategic approach that weaves the well-being of their employees into the fabric of how they do business. On the other hand, many active workplace wellness and organizational well-being initiatives largely focus on encouraging employees to achieve health-related goals through prescribed lifestyle behavior changes. While the latter approach is well-intentioned, the nature of the approach can result in unintended consequences for employee well-being. To really understand this, we need to take a big step back.

Wellness Traps Lurk Everywhere

We all live in more than one world. Many employees spend the day in an office environment, whether virtual or physical. But they spend more time in their worlds outside of work. Health and wellness-focused goals that sound straightforward and achievable on paper quickly and easily bump up against some pretty tough challenges in off-work hours and spaces. Some of those challenges could include income disparities that make it hard to buy the recommended healthy foods or require two jobs to make ends meet, time crunches caused by caring for children and/or aging parents, unexpected scheduling changes that disrupt the plans made for fitting in physical activity. And every day, despite our best efforts, we stumble into these wellness traps: We either feel as if we have no options, or we are overwhelmed by too many options and unable to sort through them. We start the day with every intention of sticking with our wellness goals but find ourselves making the impulsive choice, sacrificing our own needs to the needs of others, or even rebelling against the goals we set for ourselves.

From this vantage point, it’s easy to see how traditional approaches to support employee health and self-care might not only result in failure to achieve set goals, but might even lead employees to feel anxiety, shame, resentment, and just plain bad about themselves.

Ironically, when we feel bad about ourselves, we may more easily give in to the temptation to ditch the meal plan; or rebel against well-intentioned programs we perceive as controlling, purposely choosing the couch over the walk to gain back some autonomy. This cognitive dissonance—a battle between two conflicting beliefs, values, or states—puts us out of sync with our core selves. This dissonance is mentally exhausting and can make it very difficult for us to think clearly, to see our real options, and to stay consistent with what we truly desire.

The bottom line is, when we feel pressure through workplace initiatives to “get healthy,” we can also feel—you guessed it—psychologically unsafe. How can you feel safe and protected when you inherently feel anxious about yourself and your ability to succeed? If we are striving and changing to meet standards for “healthy living” simply because deep down we don’t feel valuable just as we are, the very idea of these behaviors (let alone trying to follow them) can result in anxiety, stress, and shame – the very opposite of feeling psychologically safe and secure.

For the most part, a common approach to employee well-being and wellness has been guided by a singular model of behavior change. This model is prescriptive, goal-oriented, and is often one-size-fits-all. But more than that, this guiding model of behavior change has been the wellness industry’s instruction manual for creating changes in lifestyle behaviors. Unfortunately, this model is simplistic, based on outdated theories and science, and misguides many of the wellness approaches, products, apps, and services that it inspires.

Cultivating Psychological Safety through a New Story of Behavior Change

But there’s really good news: corporate wellness initiatives and programming can cultivate psychological safety—when they are guided by a new model of behavior change, one that appreciates healthy behaviors from micro and macro perspectives. On the micro-level, lifestyle change within workplace wellness initiatives considers cultural pressures, past experiences of failure, and shame within the minds and psyches of employees. On a macro-level, it competes with other necessary (and meaningful) activities we do during precious time outside of work.

The old story of behavior change tells us that when we start a change, we should focus on the future goal that it is in service of achieving—biometric changes, better health, and overall fitness. But change does not happen in the future. The new story of behavior change takes place in the context of real-life, where plans go awry and people need our help. It also takes into consideration this important truth: idealized aspiration and unrealistic plans will get blown away upon impact by the realities of daily life.

There’s a new story of behavior change in town—and this time, it has a happy ending. This new story offers organizations a genuinely new paradigm. Rather than simply prescribing and rewarding typical wellness behaviors, organizations must adopt a new mindset that specifically promotes psychological safety and well-being through their programs and messaging aiming for healthy lifestyle change.

So how where do you start?
  • Begin by recognizing the traps, barriers, disparities, and threats to the well-being of your employees and acknowledge them in the way you design your wellness initiatives and business goals at large.
  • Make room for your employees to make the perfectly imperfect choice that they need to make in order to prioritize their safety (both physical and psychological). Until they feel safe and secure, they cannot pursue any other area of wellness.
  • Focus less on prescribing a detailed map to wellness and focus firstly on creating a safe workplace, that allows employees to bring their whole selves to work, and pursue wellness with all of their unique challenges in mind.
As we transform “prescriptions” into personal purpose, positivity, and play, psychological safety and even joy can finally result. And guess what? THAT underlies changes that can last.

Michelle Segar
Michelle Segar is an award-winning researcher at the University of Michigan and health coach with almost thirty years studying how to create sustainable changes in healthy behaviors that can survive the complexity and unpredictability of the real world. Michelle translates key science into sticky concepts and consumer-friendly tools that have been adapted across health care, organizational well-being, and fitness contexts. Her forthcoming book, The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise, turns our outdated behavior-change paradigm on its head to reveal a fresh, flexible, and fun approach to creating changes in eating and exercise that can finally stick. For more information: