Why you want wellness to be a part of 9 to 5

At least once a year I have a conversation with a good friend about what it might be like to improve her health. I'll be frank, she doesn't eat the best of food and she admits from time to time that she would like to change that. One of the things I recommend to people that want to lose weight is to make slight changes to the way they eat.

It's difficult to make a drastic change overnight. Your mind will work against you. Asking someone to eat carrots instead of McDonald's is like asking a drug addict to quit cold turkey. It's just not realistic. I recommend slight course corrections. It's like driving on any icy road; you don't want to yank the wheel.

In the long haul you can adapt to small changes in your diet. And over time you can adopt many small changes. Before you know it, several small changes becomes a substantial, sustainable change.

One of the easiest changes to make is the frequency of meals, followed by decreasing the size of meals. Every year I suggest this to my friend and every year I get the same reply. "I just don't have the time during my 12 hour shift to stop and have a meal." Some of this is her stubbornness, but it's also a part of the culture.

She complains of being understaffed and overworked. And that she might wind up putting patients--she is a nurse--at risk if she took a break to eat a meal. What a precarious position to be in. I'm sure she gets breaks, but it sounds like barely enough time to inhale a candy bar. That's her perception and perception is all that matters with health.

I would love to help but her perception of reality has to change. And that's not likely if she continues to feel an obligation to sacrifice her own well-being to get the job done.

I could blame her, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the organization that allows such a mentality to perpetuate. And, blame won't fix this. At the end of the day unhealthy workers are the reality. That's a problem for business, not just the individuals.

Two thirds of Americans are overweight and one third are obese. Heart disease is the leading cause of death and diabetes is in the top ten. Anti-depressants are taken by 9% of Americans. This is just a sampling of the issues that plague individuals both physically and mentally.

Wellness isn't

Some organizations recognize this is a problem. Some of these organizations have been successful at changing the tides. They've instituted wellness programs, programs that provide incentives to individuals to improve their health.

But, health isn't a $500 reduction in yearly health care premiums for an employee. It's not reimbursement for a gym membership for scanning a gym pass ten times a month. It's not about running daily on a treadmill.

It's not being forced to give up smoking because of outrageous health premiums. It's not the organization saving 20% on health care claims. It's not fewer sick days and increased time on the clock.

Sure, many of these are side effects, and several are substantial benefits, but these observations are not the point. This isn't a matter of what's financially best for the company. It's not really about the company at all.

This isn't a matter of molding people into an ideal. This isn't about providing access to services, trainers, counselors and memberships. If this is all we do is provide access, then we're leaving success mostly to chance.

The problem

Why are we leaving success to chance? Because health, or the lack thereof, is often a symptom of a larger problem. Poor health is a side effect of an inability to set reasonable expectations for productivity.

Productivity is a measure of output given a set of inputs. It's a rather crude way to think about the work we do. Nonetheless, a business must produce to survive. The larger problem is that most businesses have no idea what productive enough means.

Instead, managers force people to work as much as possible under the assumption that the more we work the more we will produce. And the more we produce the more likely we are to be successful and to stick around to see another day.

As a result, people are treated like resources, resources that are exploited for maximum output. Of course nobody stops to ask if exploitation actually maximizes output. And whether or not there are long-term consequences to milking people in the short-term. Because only when we take a long-term view do we see that we shouldn't be squeezing out every last drop in the short-term.

Unfortunately most managers don't ask these questions. They worry about maximum short-term productivity. They obsess over effort. Which is why people are forced to punch a clock and work at least 40 hours every week. It's why we limit vacation, holiday and sick days. It's why we have neat little buckets for each type of day off. It's why we draw such a distinct boundary between work and life.

But it doesn't have to be this way. We should talk about what it means to be productive enough because there are so many other important things besides productivity for an organization. Health is just one of many things that suffer when productivity is the sole focus. Investments in future productivity, individual development, customer satisfaction and innovation are just a few of the things that suffer too.

To illustrate the distinction, I often draw a line between productivity and investment. And then ask people to consider how much time is spent on present productivity versus future productivity. The latter is investing in the future and is often neglected. Especially those that obsess over effort and maximizing hours worked per employee. In reality there is no line, but it serves as an exercise to ensure a proper balance.

Most organizations are stuck in the present and don't think about the future. Which explains why a health care organization, like the one my friend works for, is willing to sacrifice the long-term health of nurses in service of the health of patients. Something rather ironic, to say the least.

Seeing people as individuals

The first step on the road to recovery is to acknowledge there's a problem. The second step is to realize that the benefits for the organization are secondary to the benefits for the individuals. Focusing on the business won't change individuals. Nor should we focus on individual health to change the business.

Nobody would want a loved one to be overworked, stressed and overweight. Why in the world would we allow an environment to persist that's conducive to this for any individual?

Health starts with the individual. Individual health is justifiable as an end in itself. We don't need to justify it as a means to something greater. We have to value the health of individuals. And improving the health of individuals starts by valuing the health of individuals.

This isn't an after-hours issue

When we draw distinct boundaries around work and life, it's tempting to think health is the individual's responsibility. That health isn't something that is a part of work. But if we value the health of individuals, health isn't something we check at the door when we walk into the office. Health has to be a part of the entire day, both during work and after.

The workday, whether it's 9 to 5 or otherwise, is a substantial part of an individual's life. It's over half of the waking hours of every weekday. Most people don't leave work to simply go home and sit on the couch. It's not like they have all of their other waking hours to work on their fitness.

The workday is a window of opportunity, every day, to substantially impact the health of individuals. We can engineer productive enough to be much less than 40 hours per week. Why can't organizations break even in the first 20 to 30 hours of a week? Can't we design for this to happen? Because if it takes 40 hours per week out of every employee to break even, the long-term prospects are not good.

There are so many crucial investments to be made beyond short-term productivity. And one of those investments is the well-being of individuals. How can we survive if our employees don't have a bright future? Just like education, we can't expect employees to find the time after hours. Not if we expect there to be a consistent level of educational success across the organization. And the same is true if we want a consistent level of health.

Physical and mental well-being must be a part of the job. It has be something we value and hold people accountable to. We can't force them to conform to a particular style of health but we should expect them to be conscientious of their health and the health of others. And to make investments where they deem necessary for their own sake.


Making health a part of 9 to 5 means leaders must exemplify commitment to their own health. This is especially important in organizations that don't already have wellness programs. Where individuals have never been told that their health matters.

This starts with the CEO and carries down through every level of management, to every individual employee. But it has to start from the top. Imagine if fitness was part of your CEO's health aspirations. What would happen if the CEO lifted weights, ran on a track, or went to a yoga class every day? Not instead of lunch, not before work, not after work, just as a part of the workday. Perhaps at different times depending on his or her schedule. And what if the CEO invited others to join?

Employees will need reassurances

Beyond seeing fitness exemplified, employees will need reassurances that part of their job is being accountable to their health. The CEO shouldn't be staying late every day to make up for an hour of fitness. Managers shouldn't be staying late every day to make up for the hour either. And nobody should be forcing individuals to stay late either.

What if taking care of oneself was simply part of the job?

This is only possible if organizations understand what productive enough means.

Perhaps it's even necessary to shun working long hours. And I'm not talking about shunning 100 hours, 80 hours or 60 hours. What if it were frowned upon to work more than 40? Because let's be honest, productivity is not a linear function of the amount of time applied. People burn out. They burn out long before 40 hours of productivity.

In organizations that require people to punch a clock, the simplest way to reassure employees is to count time spent at the gym as part of the workday. People don't need to punch out and punch back in. Punching out to work on fitness means fitness is not a part of 9 to 5.


Even if an organization makes the decision to make fitness a part of 9 to 5, it's not enough to expect it to just happen. Someone must be held accountable to make sure the organization makes fitness a part of 9 to 5. Someone must assess and determine how to make it a reality.

What that individual measures and what that individual proposes will be unique to the organization. The important part is to make fitness a priority, that's the right thing to do. With the right thing in mind, there's no wrong way to get there.

That said, I would discourage measuring the indirect benefits for the organization. We all know the impact on the organization will be substantial; it's common sense. And any indirect measures are likely to be lagging financial indicators that can be affected by a variety of factors. And, if the indirect benefits for the organization are all that matter, you've already failed.

It's hard enough for people to improve fitness on their own, why in the world would you think they'd do it solely for the interests of an organization that works them to death. It's not like they get up every day excited about staying fit to be overworked in the future.

Focus on leading indicators. Instead of measuring sick days, put up a wall of success stories. Or, have people anonymously set goals on a quarterly basis and then have them anonymously report whether or not they achieved their goal. Count the successes as a leading indicator of future health.

Make sure impediments are removed. If a manager is still demanding a 60-hour workweek, put a stop to it. If people are asked to punch out for fitness, get rid of the time clocks. Find what inhibits progress and remove the obstacles.

This investment must be made both in good times and in bad times. It's even more important in bad times, if the organization hopes to pull through, for people to remain healthy.

Health comes in many different varieties

Health is about a physical and mental state of wellbeing. That's the desired, individual outcome. No two individuals will share the same goal. One person may want to lose weight. Another may want peace of mind. Therefore, no two individuals will follow the same plan.

You can't force people to lose weight, to reach a desired BMI. You can't force people to reduce stress. You can't force people to stop smoking. You can't force people to improve their cardiovascular health. You can't force people to address depression; you likely won't even know it exists. You can't force people to take yoga, to lift weights, to run, to walk, to get on a bike, to swim, to meditate, or to volunteer to build homes for those in need.

You will see people doing all of these things of their own volition. But specific activities cannot be mandated. If you try, even if individuals comply, you're likely doing damage to another aspect of their health. You have to give people the time to create and execute their own plan to improve their own fitness.

Technology doesn't matter

Most wellness programs focus on the how and not the why. They obsess over incentives for compliance, passing out pedometers, diet logs and bribing people to take part in regular assessments.

Technology plays a role in fitness; leave that role up to the individual. Most people don't need a pedometer to know they aren't walking enough. They simply have to take the time to think about it and they'll know. If they aren't given the time and encouragement to reflect, they won't take the time to look at a pedometer either, much less religiously carry it in their pocket.

With the general level of incompetence in information security these days, don't expect employees to freely turn over health information. Think of the recent Sony disaster.

You do not need to capture assessments and produce reports. If you need reports to determine progress, you've already failed. This is akin to stepping on a scale to measure weight loss when a mirror is all you need. Let individuals make their own assessments.

You can make technology available to people upon request. Just don't make it your primary focus; it's at best a minor detail.

Existing counter-incentives

You may also need to watch out for existing perks that are counter-productive. Lots of companies figured out that keeping food around the office keeps people around the office longer. Other companies altruistically leave food around the office to keep people happy.

Don't get rid of it, but perhaps consider how visible it is. I've been to many organizations that literally have a wall of candy in the break room or along a wall that people frequently pass. This would be like having a wall of alcohol in the hallway on the way to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Don't get rid of the perks unless people don't want them around. Put the candy in a drawer and have high quality, healthy alternatives.


Get creative in making fitness accessible during the workday. You could invite a yoga instructor to the office. You could secure memberships at nearby gyms and fitness facilities. Make sure people have access to resuming work.

Eliminate costs for employees. Membership fees and long commutes are barriers to entry.

Cycle of health

If someone isn't convinced that the benefits are common sense, here's how it breaks down. Stressed, overworked employees tend to eat poorly. They'll binge excessively as they cram down lunch at their desk. They probably skip breakfast in the rush to get to work most days. And when they get home at night they turn to comfort food and alcoholic beverages.

This cycle leads to obesity; it's just a matter of time. It's depressing. It takes a substantial toll. Even if individuals decide they want to do something about it, they often don't have the support to stay the course. That support could be from 9 to 5.

When individuals have the support and are able to prioritize health, they tend to have less stress and can easily lose unwanted weight. But it's not just physical well-being. It's mental too.

If someone takes part of every day to work out, the result is similar to meditation. They can clear stress and anxiety from their mind and return to work refreshed. They could also take a meditation or yoga class to achieve the same effect.

All of these activities do wonders for mental health. Who is more likely to treat a frustrated customer with respect? Someone that is overworked or someone that spends a day a month volunteering to build homes for those in need?

Health leads to confidence. Individuals are likely to take more prudent risks, both in life and for the organization. That's good for business.

Other people in the office will notice and seek to replicate the successes for themselves, in their own way. This will start a positive feedback loop that only further compounds successes.

And of course, if people lose unwanted weight, reduce stress and otherwise improve physical and mental health, there are going to be substantial monetary savings. Consider these icing on the cake.

Health doesn't stop at the office door; it has to be a part of 9 to 5. Organizations must know the difference between productive enough and unproductively overworked. Once productive enough is accomplished, it's time to invest in other things like the well-being of employees. Why in the world would we want people to be unhealthy?