Culture is a tricky thing to define and quantify. It goes to the core of an organization or community — far deeper than a single policy or fitness program. And isolating culture from individual factors or initiatives can be difficult. Yet, it’s becoming increasingly clear that culture matters and evaluating its influence is more important than ever.

Shifting workplace demographics are in part driving this change as millennials, now the largest generational group in the workforce, frequently look beyond dollars and cents to measure job satisfaction. They seek employers who share their values and who are a good fit for their personality. Millennials also show a greater tendency than previous generations to explore new job opportunities. This makes the task of understanding the interaction between workplace culture and employee health and productivity increasingly important.

Key elements

As employers sharpen their focus on culture, we are seeing a movement that aims to support programs that address individual health behaviors and issues, along with broader workplace well-being initiatives that emphasize a healthy culture within which those programs can thrive.

In the process, researchers continue to work to quantify the impact culture has on employee health, productivity and corporate performance. The Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) has identified 24 elements that play a key role in supporting a healthy workplace culture. The latest HERO study on workplace culture was led by Jennifer Flynn and examines existing industry research to better understand how the 24 key elements contribute to a culture of health and positive workplace outcomes.

Researchers examined more than 100 published works between 1990 and 2015 and found that well-being initiatives that focused on optimal outcomes most often included the following key culture elements:

1. Training and learning

Ensure that the employees have the skills and experience to support healthy decisions.

2. Policies and procedures

Put formal policies in place to support a company's values.

3. Communication

Focus on communication methods that make everyone aware of company initiatives and what is expected of them as individuals.

4. Employee involvement and empowerment

Involve employees in decision making.

5. Supportive built environment

The built environment, or office layout and design, should support well-being.

Among other things, many of these studies showed that a physical environment that supports employee health — whether that means stocking healthy items in the vending machine, enhancing walkability, or offering good ergonomic solutions at workstations — was associated with health, safety and employee productivity outcomes. One of the reviewed studies showed that making changes to the physical environment also improved perceptions of management support for worksite health promotion, while another showed an increase in perceived social support from friends.

Three areas of policies and procedures most commonly represented in the published studies were aimed at tobacco use, physical activity and safety behaviors. Tobacco policies were associated with the greatest number of studies demonstrating health and productivity outcomes, and leadership support was often cited as a critical component to the success of safety policy and procedure efforts. Use of comprehensive communication strategies was also associated with health, productivity and safety outcomes, with leadership communications emerging as an important contributor.

Research such as this offers insights into the value of a workplace culture of health, but there is still room to grow and learn about the relationships between culture of health elements and the health and safety of employees. Meanwhile, employers who are committed to improving employee health and achieving positive outcomes are advised to intentionally design culture change initiatives and evaluate their effectiveness within their own organization. This approach will enable organizations to create the scaffolding needed to best support evidence-based programs, meet the challenges of a changing workforce, and support key business objectives while also contributing to the knowledge base to measure impact.