How to Create a Healthy Workplace As A Startup

Heather Sayers Lehman February 21, 2017

Improving a company’s culture of health can be like turning the Titanic. It’s complicated because there are a lot of institutional habits and long-standing attitudes to change.

Here’s a big surprise: people don’t like change, especially if it involves giving up sugar.

When I work with startups, our goal is to reverse-engineer a healthy workplace from the outset, so no one ends up trying to shift perspectives and priorities years down the road. Early-stage businesses are lucky in that they don’t have to overcome organizational bad habits that have contributed to employees’ health struggles.

Avoid the pitfalls from the start

By consciously creating a culture of health in your new business, you can avoid painful course corrections later. Here are the six biggest challenges to healthy workplace cultures, and how new ventures can prevent them in the first place.

avoid the birthday cake habit for healthier workplaces

1. Birthday Mafia

It sounds silly, but if you’ve ever tried downsizing birthday celebrations, or started showing up for meetings without your usual sugar-filled baked goods, you understand the mutiny that can ensue.

Who knew grocery store cakes had such meaning?

Yet resentment can run rampant as a company starts to promote and encourage wellness while sabotaging employee health by providing junk food. Avoid the whole scenario by setting better norm from the start.

The Better Way: Smart Celebrations

  • Redefine rewards and treats. Move away from the focus on food and find more meaningful ways to celebrate. As the company reaches significant milestones (take time to define those), choose celebrations with health and wellness in mind. 
  • Clarify meeting parameters around snacks to encourage healthy choices. Making sure you have guidelines for healthy meetings means you’re not bringing in processed sugar bombs.
  • Remember that you’re not the “sugar police.” It’s not up to you to force your employees to give up sugar or junk food, but you can promote healthier options.

pay attention to the food options your conscious company offers

2. Foodapalooza 

From the candy dish at reception to the brownie bites in the break corner and the pizza boxes in the conference room, there is food everywhere. It’s a bit like walking into Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (minus the chocolate river). Are you helping or hindering your employees’ health by fostering an environment where people have to test their willpower all day every day?

It’s hard to say no to addictive processed foods. Most importantly, sugar kills productivity. Providing junk food in vending machines isn’t that much different than old school cigarette vending (even if you label it “healthy” junk food). The physical environment you provide demonstrates your priorities and dictate the culture.

The Better Way: Think through the physical environment

  • Create an environment in integrity with promoting a healthy lifestyle. 
  • Decide where the food lives and where it does not.
  • Consider IF you want vending and what you want to provide.

3. Sedentary Rules 

When employees are discouraged from movement, they will comply. I worked with a company that made it impossible for call center employees to participate in wellness. They were plied with sugary treats to get them to stay in their cubes. In reality, they needed a lot of encouragement and education around creating movement in small spaces. Being left out of an entire wellness movement is not lost on employees.

The Better Way: Movement-positive policies

  • Champion movement and teach the why and how within different job positions.
  • Reinforce that message to all levels.
  • Provide opportunities to learn in bite-size snippets. Don’t forget about industrial, manufacturing and field workers.

4. Workhorse Nation 

Does the hard charger who doesn’t sleep, exercise, or rest set the pace? Working through lunch and living on adrenaline creates a stressful environment. If employees think they are going to be judged (or passed up for promotion) for managing stress and creating balance in their life, they won’t do it. People gravitate towards all sorts of bad habits to soothe stress (food, booze, drugs, nicotine, etc.). 

The Better Way: Work-life balance

Make sure you are preventing burnout and abuse of ineffective coping mechanisms by setting a reasonable pace.

  • Be mindful that the most effective messaging of balance is through modeling. If upper level management are workaholics, that sends the message to the employees that they have to be too.
  • Provide stress management and education of coping skills to help employees before stress becomes overwhelming.
  • Be mindful of encouraging employees to use their vacation time and weekends to rest and rejuvenate.

One-Dimensional Employees

Starting your wellness programming around only weight loss and smoking cessation causes you to miss out on opportunities to help employees expand their wellbeing to multiple aspects of the lives. Financial, emotional, and spiritual difficulties cost them — and you — happiness as well as productivity. Creating a robust wellness program offers employees options to help them be healthier in multiple wellness dimensions. It’s also important that wellness incorporates all types of employees. There is a tendency to cater to those who can physically attend lunch-and-learns or like to do challenges. Every company has multifaceted employees, so every company needs a multifaceted approach.

The Better Way: Include all of everyone

  • Form your wellness committee with all levels of employees  with varying responsibilities and from different areas in the company.
  • Consider introvert vs. extrovert, willing vs. unwilling and self-aware vs. unaware when creating your wellness community.
  • Administer a comprehensive assessment to evaluate the wants, needs, and necessities for your unique workforce.
  • Leverage EAP and financial services programming for employees and make access easy.
  • Strive to normalize usage of all programs to overcome the stigma of seeking help for mental health challenges.

The Google-It Wellness Program

At the startup level (and beyond), “improve corporate wellness” may be tasked to someone who has zero wellness background. But how you create and position a wellness program sets the tone for employees’ attitudes toward it in the long haul. Wellness shouldn’t be invasive, boring, or focused solely on weight loss. And people who “just like to work out” are not a great fit to create programming for those who struggle. If creating wellness at work is a priority, find a trusted advisor to guide your startup before you set policies and hard-to-change precedent.

The Better Way: Get professional help

  • Look at other companies’ wellness programming and seek out professional strategy to meet the needs of all of your employees.

The bottom line of healthy workplaces

Part of conscious leadership is understanding how to create peak performance in your employees. That doesn’t come from sugar and caffeine. It is a gift to have the opportunity to carefully construct the environment from the beginning. Create an environment that is in integrity with how you want to support the health and wellbeing of your employees. Ask yourself if you’re helping or hindering as a quick and simple way to understand the role of your culture.

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