Here’s something you don’t see every day: a book slamming wellness written by someone in charge of wellness at their organization.
In this case, it’s Dr. Richard Safeer, who is the Chief Medical Director, Employee Health and Well-Being for Johns Hopkins Medicine and its 60,000+ (formerly) soda-loving employees.
Eschewing and verily even dissing (“it’s a band-aid”) the old “pry, poke and prod” wellness model breathlessly promoted by fellow Hopkins employee Ron Goetzel before his own heart attack slowed him down, Dr. Safeer writes of his continuing and generally successful quest to create not just a culture of health at Johns Hopkins, but actually a healthy culture. The latter includes the former but goes much farther. You can have the healthiest employees in the country but if your culture is unhealthy, that won’t do you any good. And a poisonous culture will also impact the actual health of even the healthiest employees. (That happened to me three times in my earlier days.)
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know what it’s like in the trenches, trying to nudge a (very) large organization into healthier habits. It’s not remotely as easy as all those smiling faces on wellness vendor websites would have you believe. As the person in charge of wellness, you have to do your job almost totally by the strength of your ideas and persuasion, since less than 0.1% of those employees report to you, and in any event you can’t force people to be healthy. (Although there is a saying: “Wellness programs will make employees happy whether they like it or not.”)
As with most of these books although more so due to his first-hand experience and observations, the strength is in the storytelling. Starting with his first week on the job, when he noticed a big red fire truck outside the ER. Only it wasn’t a fire truck. It was a soda truck, doing quite the robust business. (He also noticed that on campus, soda cost less than water. Reversing that was an early success.) And, later, there was a fundraiser for the American Diabetes Association – in the form of a bake sale.
It’s not just about the broccoli: It’s the “building blocks.”
Those are examples of nudging Hopkins towards healthier eating, building awareness of the perils of added sugar among people who should know better already. But two-thirds of the book is about the far more important task of creating a healthy culture through building blocks. This is a dramatically different approach than the typical flavor-of-the-month “challenges,” like who can crash-diet the fastest or drink the most water.
Quite the opposite, there is some behavior change science that when applied intentionally and methodically – and slowly enough to avoid pushback while building consensus – will be far more impactful in the long run. Pursuing wellbeing in the workplace is less about what an individual is doing for themselves (“challenges”) and more about what the organization, leaders and co-workers are doing together so that everyone feels supported and everyone benefits. Many of the stories and lessons in these chapters are about cultures, “sub-cultures,” peer cultures and “culture-killers.”
Some of the stories in these chapters are very relatable, at least for me, particularly the last. Three times I’ve fired people who were “culture killers,” as Dr. Safeer calls them – and three times the output from the remaining staff increased immediately. One of those people was so poisonous that when I prepared to fire him over the phone, I bought one of those recording apps and drove to Rhode Island, since I thought he might threaten me over the phone, and recording calls is illegal in Massachusetts. It took half a day to make a five-minute call. (On the other hand, the surf was up, so the other half-day was well-spent.)
His reaction was the opposite – that he was expecting the call. And that brings me to my own observation about culture and hiring and firing. HIring is like a civil trial–the weight of the evidence. Firing is like a criminal trial–beyond a reasonable doubt. We often wait too long to fire people who are disrupting the culture.
The overall message of A Cure for the Common Company: If we were each able to improve our own habits and maintain a positive outlook on our own, we would have done that by now. Yet it’s 2023 and our workplaces are still taking the same approach of telling the employee this is your problem because you weigh too much etc. A diametically different approach is needed, particular in an era when employees have so many choices of where to work…and that’s what’s laid out in these pages.