Shifting the Paradigm From Wellness to Well-Being

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Chair of the Month

Charlie Grantham
Charlie Grantham
Dr. Charles Grantham is co-founder of WORK THE FUTURE! TODAY, and has a rich multi-disciplinary background, and pursues his passion for helping leaders, organizations, and communities realize their true potential for effective performance, governance, and sustainability. Dr. Grantham has served in the Special Forces and enjoyed a career in academia and as Executive Director of R&D for several multi-national technology companies. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Maryland and is the author of nine books and several dozen technical papers. Most recently, he published “ForeSight 2025,” a practical guide on how to navigate the change process to prosper in the coming decade. Dr. Grantham is a featured author of many articles on The Future of Work Place Design website.

Charlie Grantham explores why we need to change how we approach workplace design and move from cost-based measures of building performance to more human-centric behavioral measure of wellness and well-being.

Talent is becoming the most critical resource adding value to businesses – Image via Pixabay.

Why? What?

Why should a workplace design professional be concerned about people’s well-being? Moreover, how could this affect the priorities of the HR department? Let’s discuss.

In the next few years (if not already) people, workers, employees (or talent in the current vernacular), will become the most critical resource adding value to businesses. At the same time, we will be entering an era where demand for worker talent will exceed supply.

Additionally, the intrinsic motivation of talent is changing away from the traditional factor of compensation. Motivation is now shifting towards the quality of the workplace experience, and that experience has as its most direct corollary the idea of wellness.

As presently utilized, the HR function is responsible for recruiting and retaining talent for a business operation. Following my logic then, if fulfilling this mission requires improving the quality of workplace experience – as measured by wellness – there should be a close collaboration with workplace designers whose primary task is to create and foster what is now commonly referred to as the user experience.


Well-being is going to become the pivotal HR management issue for the next five years. The reason is that there is a more expansive environmental shift from the old story of command and control to the new story of collaboration and nurturance. Briefly, it looks like this.

Image by the author and WDM.

Workers in the new story are motivated by purpose, the experience of the workplace, and they measure it by evaluating their sense of well-being.

What’s the problem?

Why is the new focus on motivation over compensation such a pressing issue for HR? Because HR (as a core function) will have to shift perspective and priorities to accommodate the new story. Put in business terms we are seeing the transformation of human capital (or in the new vernacular ‘talent’) from a liability to an asset and a profit center, not a loss leader.

Image by the author and WDM.

Corresponding with this shift the value added by human capital management will also need to change, develop a sense of strategic foresight and re-focus on growing talent and be a steward of this increasing awareness that people are a precious company asset.

What does it cost us today?

A lack of wellness among employees drives costs like health care, and absenteeism and lack of motivation can yield low productivity. Before diving into what to do about this and how workplace designers can contribute to the bottom line of the new story, we returned to consult with one of the preeminent experts in the field, Rex Miller. We asked him about the findings of his mind SHIFT Wellness project.

  1. How much does a lack of wellness in the workplace cost businesses?

The costs are significant. It can be challenging to develop a complete picture because of the limited nature of data (like absenteeism) that is tracked. Although we do know that affects productivity, currently it is hard to measure the effect of that on overall financial impact accurately. Typical ROI would be helpful. Although some researchers suggest a more comprehensive “value of investment” would be better[1].

However, we can get an accounting for what is currently being paid out in the name of wellness. The best estimate is a total of 15 percent of total loaded costs per employee. That adds up to approximately $12K from the employer and another $6K burden for the employee. So, for a hypothetical company with 1,000 employees, you would see a NEGATIVE impact $18M. Furthermore, that cost, using straight-line projections of historical costs, is projected to double by 2025.

Any productivity gains (as best we can estimate) are consumed by health care costs. And it is questionable what outcome impact these wellness programs have. Of all the people Rex interviewed, none could give a reliable number. The best guess is maybe 10 percent of employee’s benefit. That translates to a 10X real impact or $180,000 per impacted employee! Suffice to say current wellness programs don’t seem to be working towards a positive bottom line impact.

  1. What are the five most important indicators of a lack of wellness for people?

This one is more straight forward. One of the premier companies operating in this space, the Cleveland Clinic uses five baseline measure which are directly correlated with mortality.

  • Blood Pressure (Heart disease, stroke and kidney function)
  • Cholesterol levels (LDL) (Circulatory function)
  • Body Mass Index (Height/weight ratio)
  • Blood Sugar (Type II diabetes)
  • Nicotine (Respiratory Cancers)

It would stand to reason than that perhaps workplaces need to have spaces where these outcome measures can be collected and archived for review by the employees themselves as direct, immediate feedback and by wellness professional staff. With today’s technology, we could conceivably monitor these critical indicators as part of the workplace experience.

If you want to learn more, make sure to check out Rex’s new book, The Healthy Workplace Nudge, which will examine the definitive story upon release in May 2018.

The Healthy Workplace Nudge explains the findings of research on 100 large organizations that have tackled the problems of employee health costs and disengagement in four fresh ways:

  1. Happiness leads to health and performance
  2. Behavioral economics to nudge healthy employee behavior
  3. Healthy culture
  4. Healthy buildings

What’s the current state of the practice?

“Well-being” seems to be a new buzzword in corporate circles. It has often been referenced as a design output. All well and good, but I am suggesting a more fundamental approach aligned with the shift to the new story as the underlying, driving narrative which is emerging. For input on this aspect of well-being in the workplace, I turned to a subject matter guru Mim Senft, President/CEO of Motivity Partnerships and Co-Founder of Global Women 4 Wellbeing to find out just how well-being initiatives are being integrated into workplace planning and design today. As one of the go-to resources on workplace wellness, we also asked about what she envisions in the future.

A living wall is just one of the ways that Trend Micro’s Austin offices promote wellness. Image courtesy of Casey Dunn.
  1. How do you see this changing in the next five years?

The success of traditional wellness programs depends upon upper management support. Not just talk, but visible and transparent action. Mim believes that the key going forward will be more collaborative competition across siloed functions such as HR, IT, and Facilities Management all aimed at creating an experience brand of well-being for employees. For example, when one department spends money to improve the workplace, the dollar benefit may only accrue (in financial accounting terms) to another department. Perhaps the classic example here was with SCAN Health Care in Southern California where all costs and benefits were reduced to dollar equivalents with an overall return on investment of 40![2]

  1. What can HR professionals do to help make wellness a priority going forward?

Focus on being a member of a team which includes as equal partners HR, facilities management, and IT. The interesting one here is IT. The reason is that wellness programs will increasingly rely on using data about behaviors as a basis for program development and evaluation. Again, a shift from viewing employees as a loss/liability to one of profit/asset.

What is being suggested here is that there should be a design team including all significant stakeholders. HR, Information Technology, Facilities Management and Business line leaders who are all focused on wellness and well-being output for the entire company. This is the process that was used for SCAN Healthcare which was naturally attuned to wellness, but it can be applied in other industry segments. What Mim is finding is that over the next five years leadership of this process must be jointly owned by HR and workplace design professionals. Lack of collaboration based on shared purpose leads to sub-optimal designs.

The last point she offered is that this is a cultural shift, not yet another program which will fade away after a budget cycle or so. That means a changing change in thinking for everyone from tactical to strategic. Brevity prohibits extensive detail here, however, “Creating Workplace Well-Being” is an excellent overview of the research. For those interested, there are two essential resources. The Global Wellness Institute for unbiased research and information and Global Women 4 Wellness for general information but also a unique source for gender equity issues.

Moreover, this is where the paradigm shift is needed. HR can lead the way in developing the most effective metrics, and that feeds the workplace design process which can optimize these outcome wellness metrics. So, where are we today?

And, so?

Wellness IS a significant issue today and will increase in importance if for no other reason the cost factor. Where integrated successfully into workplace design and planning, it becomes more than just another pesky HR project. It is cultural, it is collaborative, and it is strategic. The open question is who is going to step up and take charge? I have suggested that the HR function is well positioned to do this – but in a collaborative fashion which encompasses the design professionals and technology experts.

Given this scenario, then what design competencies and resources should the HR (let’s start calling it talent management) professional need? A top priority should be to forge strong alliances with other workplace design professionals to get a seat at the table. In fact, they could become a catalyst in driving the company to make well-being a significant component of workplace design.

Many CEOs readily state that their people are their greatest asset. As said at the beginning of the article, the competition for talent will only increase, and smart companies are working hard to implement robust workplace strategies where key consideration is given to the well-being, “healthy workplace” components.

That implies that to be profitable and increase value and wealth smart businesses will need to provide work environments (the crucible of creativity) which impart a sense of empathy, social connections and, perhaps even a little touch of Zen. The workplace gurus have spoken:

In other words, the place is a space in which social interaction occurs and where each person knows that they belong in that place. A place is where space takes on personal meaning. It’s about taking meaning from direct and sometimes indirect experiences. – Charlie Grantham

Open, collaborative workspace at 2U’s HQ. Image courtesy of 2U, Inc.

Recently, people who build the spaces we live in have come to realize that the physical characteristics of space do indeed shape our thoughts, emotions, and even our actions which can be measured by a small set of critical variables which have been validated through research.

The basic principle that links our places and (emotional) states is simple: a good or bad environment promotes good or bad memories, which inspire a good or bad mood, which inclines us toward good or bad behavior. We needn’t even be consciously aware of a pleasant or unpleasant environmental stimulus for it to shape our states. -Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place

We take meaning, that is in our experience, from the spaces we occupy and by interacting with others in these spaces. Our purpose is in influenced by our ideas, beliefs, and attitudes towards those spaces.

Attitudes + Behavior + Space = Place

The task, of talent management professionals, is to help translate the elements of well-being and social psychology into actionable concepts. These concepts can be implemented by workplace design professionals and can have a direct effect on strategic business performance.

We need to shift the paradigm of our thinking. We need to move from wellness seen as a set systemic input (i.e., weight loss, steps taken, calories consumed) to a more systemic output paradigm I like to call well-being. What do leaders need to do to get there? To paraphrase Rex Miller once again, we need to be guided by principles of:

  • Conviction – well-being as a business priority goal
  • Commitment – across business cycles
  • Congruence – in behavior leaders ‘walk the talk’

In conclusion, well-being is a person’s core purpose. What we talk about here, is how that relates to the places we work and to share ideas to help inform how talent management and workplace designers collaborate to make workplaces that are not only functional and aesthetically pleasing but truly enhance the entire workplace experience where well-being can thrive.

This will require a paradigm shift in how the HR function views itself and its contribution to the business. It will also require changes in how we approach workplace design and move from cost-based measures of building performance to more human-centric behavioral measures of wellness and well-being.

Above all, we can provide a workplace ecosystem designed to support all efforts to enhance the “user experience” and transcend the traditional siloed, functional boundaries that may be inhibiting the best options for workplace design.


[1] Jessica Grossmeier, “Communicating the Value of Your Wellness Program” WELCOA

[2] Cut It Out, (with Shad Arnold et. al.) International Facilities Management Association Foundation, Houston, TX (September 2009)

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  1. Thank you sharing valuable information

    Evexia’s Corporate Wellness is a dynamic, comprehensive, flexible and tested program, based on a foundation of measurement and communication, offered through a single access highly customizable portal with its own administrative back end. The built-in health risk assessment, call to action challenges, personalized meal planner and rich resources, with the interactive scheduler, confidential coaching, rewards and social media platforms and ability to align programs with employee needs, boost engagement and participation. The result is healthier, more productive employees with lower costs; a win-win for companies large and small.


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