What it takes to build a culture of well-being, according to 8 experts

Every leader wants a thriving culture, but only select leaders know that investing in wellness can make it happen. Companies ahead of the game have already seen positive results, as research shows nine out of 10 companies that track their wellness spending see a positive ROI.

At WeWork’s 2024 Leaders’ Wellness Summit, panelists gathered to challenge what wellness means at work today and discuss what drives a prosperous culture, be it making values tangible or ensuring accessibility. The panelists sought to answer not only “What makes a culture?” but also “What makes a culture thrive?”

“A company’s brand is the promise you make to your customers; your culture is the promise you make to your employees,” says Jonathan Lowenhar, founder of Enjoy the Work and panelist at this year’s summit. If you want to make wellness part of your company’s promise, check out the following tips from our panelists. 

1. Start (and join) the conversation

Create space for employees to connect and uncover their wellness needs. “Help [your employees] communicate with each other, create a peer network, build opportunities for them to talk, and then create opportunities where their services are accessible — 24/7,” suggests Nita Stella, head of product at Caraway

Once you know why wellness is important to your people, share why it’s important to you, too. Doing so will “do way more for your team than any fluffy speech,” says Justin Mulvaney, leadership and executive coach. But be sure to clarify when new communication is happening, says Kevin Munhall, breath & somatic educator at Habit Disruption, to set expectations with employees.  

And once it’s out there, keep messaging consistent. Lowenhar puts this into perspective with a metaphor. Much like culture, building a house takes a long time. But a demo takes one day. “It can take you months, if not years, to build a sustainable culture, and if a founder or CEO makes a decision publicly, utterly inconsistent with the culture, you can ruin it in a day,” says Lowenhar.

2. Align on goals and resources  

Talk with your team about the big-picture goals and explain how each person’s goals are connected, suggests Katherine Sakovich, CMO at MIRA. When setting individual goals, Laurent Francois, co-founder & CEO of Le Botaniste, turns to a tool called “best year ever.” 

He asks team members to envision their year, what they want to accomplish, and where they want to get. Along the way, Francois and his team can point to it and say, “Look at what you’ve already accomplished, and look at what you can still accomplish.” And if a team member gets lost or stuck, they have the exercise to refer to. 

And ensure people have resources to meet their goals, wellness included. Mulvaney suggests aligning managers on how you hold wellness and ensuring they’re well-trained and have resources to implement wellness on their teams.  

3. Act on your company values 

Sofia Pinzon, founder of Avotoasty, turns to company values to activate a positive culture. One of her go-to methods is an exercise where she asks a team member, “Tell me how you impersonated these values in the last few weeks and a decision you had to take” to make values tangible

But this can’t be a one-and-done exercise. Values must be practiced constantly to keep a healthy culture beating — especially when problems arise. 

Inaction is a speedy way to kill culture,” warns Sid Pandiya, co-founder of Kona. “When you don’t act on a pronounced problem, it’ll hurt, and it’s why knowing your values and who you stand for is so important,” he adds.

4. Reexamine how you create safety  

A lack of safety thwarts a thriving culture. “You can do everything with wellness, but there’s one thing that if you get wrong, almost nothing else matters, and that’s psychological safety,” says Mulvaney. “You can have all the breathwork, all the meditation, and great working hours, but there will be no wellness at your company if people don’t feel safe.”

And safety doesn’t mean pillows and cushions, adds Munhall. “It’s…do you feel safe enough to make a mistake? To try something? To put everything into it without fear of being threatened or punished. That goes a long way toward giving people agency.”

Psychological safety can also look like boundaries. Sakovich leans into radical accountability to guard people’s boundaries. “It’s your right to decline a meeting or put a notification on Slack that you’re unavailable,” she says. Doing so shows employees it’s okay to protect their energy and personal lives.

5. Ensure accessibility and inclusivity

“Wellness might not be ‘benefits’ for everyone,” says Mulvaney. “It might look like flexibility during the day, spaces between meetings, or clear rules for when we can be off chat and email.” Redefine what benefits could look like and highlight underserved voices that might not be heard to create an aligned wellness plan that addresses what people want from wellness, not just your ideas of it, he adds.

From Stella’s perspective in healthcare, it’s also vital to recognize different levels of care and fit services around individuals. “Offering healthcare benefits and a mental health service is not enough…It must fit your employees’ needs and be holistic to make it meaningful.” 

Accessibility is key, too. Stella points out how even though 75% of Gen Z want more mental health support from their employers, only 3% access mental health tools made available to them. Ensure your people know what’s available, how to access it, and how to use it — no matter who or where they are. 

6. Find your own version of wellness  

If leaders want to take care of their people, they must take care of themselves, too. For Mulvaney, that means saving energy by working at the edge of delegation. Otherwise, “when wellness begins to slide, I start to think less clearly, I get emotionally reactive, and then I get kind of stupid.” 

For Stella, it’s getting fluent with her body’s cues and adjusting when her body tells her she needs more sleep, more food, or more movement. And for Munhall, it’s disconnecting from screens and connecting to his physical self. “We’re numb to a lot, especially because technology distracts us from ourselves,” he explains. “The more you can return to your body — whether it’s your workout, going on an hour-long walk, or breathing — the better.”

How will you know if it’s effective?

“There are always two conversations happening; one you have out loud and one in your head,” Lowenhar explains. “The closer those are to the same conversation, the healthier the cultural environment.” Measure your culture by going out, listening, and finding the gap between what you hear and what they hear. 

The smaller the gap, the better.

Get involved in the future of wellness 

These insights were brought to you from WeWork’s first-ever Leaders’ Wellness Summit. On January 30, influential speakers, start-up founders, and executives gathered in New York City and San Francisco for a half-day, bi-coastal event on cultivating wellness in the workplace and building a thriving culture. The tips featured here were just a few key learnings from the panels, but there’s far more to discover. 

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