Your company’s culture of health: Are people swimming, floating or sinking?

Blog – January 11, 2018

Mary Marzec

Mary Marzec

When thinking about an organization’s culture of health, you may find the following analogy useful.

Culture exerts a powerful influence on our thinking and behavior. But what is culture? Essentially, culture comprises influences from the physical environment along with social interactions and norms of expected behaviors. Workplace culture surrounds us so ubiquitously, we are often unaware of its influence—much like the proverbial water surrounding a fish.

Imagine swimming in a river. How strong is the current? How hard do you have to “swim” to be healthy? For employers observing the physical and social environment, how hard do people have to work to be healthy? The influence of culture is no more complicated than that.


Swimming: People maintain their habits with some constant effort, like bringing their own food or exercising on weekends.

Floating: Access to healthy food plus physical activity and positive social interactions encourage health and healthy choices.

Sinking: The social and physical environment actively impede people’s efforts to be healthy.


How do you know if your culture is making people sink or helping them swim? Do managers encourage people to take lunch breaks? Are healthy food options accessible and affordable? Do people talk about health goals and offer suggestions or support? Or is it taboo to discuss anything but work at work?

A strong well-being initiative—if well designed—is a great practice to help people float. Offering many ways to engage (online activity tracking, easy-to-use apps, digital and live coaching, for example) helps ensure there is something for everyone. Cooperative challenges can bring out social support and help set new norms.


Watch out for riptidesQuote_Graphic_RedBrickHealth

Free food is akin to the rip current that can “suck us out to sea,” off course from our goals. Free food is psychologically hard to resist and is often accompanied by social pressure. It can lead to an emotional downward spiral when a spike of insulin leads to inevitable afternoon energy crash.

The power of culture is that it can work against us and derail us from our goals, or support our efforts so that we almost float along, maintaining and improving our health.

The key to creating a culture of health is making it visible and incorporating social support. Here are some steps to improve the culture and help people float when it comes to health:

  • Post signs with safe stretches to do in break rooms and bathrooms.
  • Begin meetings with a mindfulness exercise, or end with a few minutes of stretching.
  • Encourage standing during meetings (it keeps people from multi-tasking too).
  • Create activity zones with resistance bands and exercises for people to do while waiting for food to warm up.
  • Provide blank cards in the break room (or on an online bulletin board or Slack channel) for people to post healthy lunch, snack or dinner ideas or pictures.
  • Create a “what am I grateful for” board in break rooms or meeting rooms.


Check in with yourself

How is your week going? Are you swimming, floating or sinking? A week with travel, intense meetings, work demands and/or hectic schedules might have you underwater, when it comes to your health. Remember that all it takes is a few strokes—a salad here, a 10-minute power walk there, simple stretches before meetings, a gratefulness exercise—to get your swimming with the tide. Try a walking meeting with a co-worker, or simply a walking break. Make a point to keep the conversation positive. For example, ask what things are going well for them or what they are grateful for.

Keep calm and swim on!


To learn more about building a successful Culture of Health, and how RedBrick Health Culture Check can help, see our research here.