April 23, 2014

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Leading a Culture of Health: A Conversation With Dee Edington

Additional insights from Edington

View clips from a video conversation with Edington or the slides from his Union Delegates Conference presentation.

Dee Edington is director of the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center, a research scientist at the university’s School of Public Health, and author of “Zero Trends: Health as a Serious Economic Strategy.” An adviser to KP’s Healthy Workforce program, he is a national leader in the study of workplace wellness and its impact on workers and organizations. Edington spoke recently with LMP Communications. Here are highlights of his remarks.

The costs of preventable health conditions are huge to our economy and society. But the pain and suffering it causes to individuals and their families and friends is the real bottom line. That’s what makes it an issue we have to address.

Behavior change alone will not bring about large-scale, sustainable change. If you just change individual behavior and put people back in the same environment, you know what will happen—not much in the long run. Looking at population change, not just individual change, is the goal. What is it you can change to make a difference in everyone’s life?

How to lead change

Leaders at all levels of an organization have a role to play in leading change. Top leadership has to have the vision and be committed and set the tone for the organization—set the values and mission. The senior leader has to believe it and have the courage to stay with it.

But a vision alone is not enough. Things get in the way of the values of an organization. Change programs have to be systematic and systemic and sustainable.  

The top leader sets the tone, and the operational leaders have to set the culture and get the culture and environment aligned with the vision. Then you have a supportive environment.

Take personal charge of change

The real force for change is self-leadership. We have to help people understand the whole concept of change and what we are after—teach them about resilience, bouncing back from adversity, about consumerism and how to handle choices in life.

To train people for change, ask them, what is your purpose, your mission and values?

The change we are after extends beyond the employees to their families. The culture and environment at the workplace is one thing, but what do people do after work? What do they communicate at home, to their communities and faith groups?

We need to broaden our efforts around health and fitness. It starts in the workplace—with appraisals, weight loss programs, and so on. But we need programs to reach employees’ families, so people can self-lead change with their loved ones. We need to teach communication skills, so people can talk to their families about these issues, or make a pact to have dinner together at least twice a week, or walk at least twice a week. Just talking about these things is huge. Talking is also a great stress reducer.

Picturing a healthy workforce

When I go to a session with companies, whether with CEOs or with union leaders, I ask them what would people be like if you had a so-called ideal company—the best place to work, high performing, financially strong? Describe them. They say: energetic, optimistic, creative, resilient, motivated. And if I ask workers what their co-workers would be like at their best, they say: cohesive, respected, focused, helping each other out.

No one ever mentions body weight, blood pressure, exercise. Health promotion may be an intermediate step to a better, fuller life. In these conversations about people’s work lives and aspirations you get stories. That’s when you know you are building culture.

Overcoming resistance

You have to recognize that that there will be resistance to change. You never get everyone on board. But you do what you can do.

People work hard to get where we are, and before we sign on to a change, we want to understand what you are talking about. What it’s gong to mean for me? What will we have to do differently and what will be the benefit? Is this going to be a better place to work? If you get into the feelings, tell stories from your own experience and family and workplace, you’ll get change.

Change can’t be just top-down, it has to be bottom-up. Champions have to let people know what’s going on in both directions. Champions lead a cause, carry the message. They’re custodians of the culture when they come to work, they make change sustainable and systemic. They make health a value like safety and quality that is part of the culture.

Health as a business strategy

Every leader in the organization has a responsibility to improve workplace health and wellness—because organizations need to be competitive, and they only can do it with healthy, high-performing people.

Organizations have to find their own way to make it happen. It could be with flexible working hours, ergonomic evaluations, time off, a half-hour to walk or exercise, or a chance to meet and talk about how to take care of ourselves and family and help each other in or out of the workplace.

People in healthy organizations provide emotional support to one another—sharing and listening, teaching others to be good listeners, acknowledging what others do.

It is something you have to do if you are going to continue to distinguish Kaiser Permanente as a good place to work and a model for others in the community. You have to continue what you are doing and take it to another level. People look at you as leaders, and what you do makes a difference.