Expert Interview: Craig Becker, Ph. D.

December 11 2018 / by Mari Ryan

Craig is a professor in the Department of Health, Education and Promotion at East Carolina University. He earned his BS in accounting and business from Purdue University, his Masters in Wellness Management from Ball State University, and his Ph.D. from Arizona State University.

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan explores if we want a better tomorrow, can we create more good and not just do less bad.

 Craig Becker YT


Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan, I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It's my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview, where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Craig Becker.

Craig is a professor in the Department of Health, Education and Promotion at East Carolina University. He earned his BS in accounting and business from Purdue University, his Masters in Wellness Management from Ball State University, and his Ph.D. from Arizona State University – you’ve got a lot of states covered there, Craig. He is passionate about the origins of health, rather than look at health as preventing bad health by avoiding those things – pollution, accidents and diseases that cause bad health -- he looks at embracing those things that promote good health.

His research areas include positive health, health measurement, and health professional competencies. His desire is to help everyone expand his or her thoughts about health, from recovery or healing, a bad situation, to one that focuses on moving all toward health optimization.

When not teaching or researching, Craig can be found spending time with his college-aged daughters. Craig, welcome. Delighted to have you here today.

Craig Becker: Thank you for having me.

Mari Ryan: Today we’re going to talk a little bit about if we want a better tomorrow, can we create more good and not just do less bad? As we think about the traditional model of workplace health promotion, or wellness, that has focused on reducing risks. We measure risk factors, we count them, we look at ways to reduce them. In essence, you can think about this as trying to fix something that’s broken, or is a bad behavior, but when we think about this from the people perspective, you might think about this from obesity, tobacco use, unhealthy eating, when we want to have some thoughts on this from a potentially different way to think about this.

Mari Ryan: How do we go on the offensive with this, not just approaching this from a defensive position, thinking about how do we fix something that is broken?

Craig Becker: Thank you, Mari. The approach is a little different. When you think about going on offense, I think it’s what most of us want to do, that is when we do something, we want to cause something to happen. You go on offense, and it helps that you can see it cause good things to happen. If you liken it to sports, if you think about it, the only time you can ever score or do something good is when you are on offense. When you’re on defense, nothing – so you can’t ever score in football – you can only score if something bad happens, like a fumble or interception, but basically you can never score on defense. On offense, we’re moving forward to cause something good to happen.

You can take an example from my life. When I was seventeen, I was living a good life, I was an athlete, I was doing well in school, good friends, good sports network. Then, unfortunately, I was driving home with friends from a football game and we collided head-on with another car. The driver and the other two passengers were killed, I suffered a brain contusion and lapsed into a coma for a week. When I woke up from the coma, everything I had ever known was gone. I had to relearn how to walk, talk, everything all over again. The doctors even said to my parents, don’t send him to college. He probably won’t make it. My dad signed my acceptance letter to Purdue while I was in a coma. He thought, he’ll be okay, he can do it. And, I did. I went to college to prove the doctors wrong and to graduate on time.

I graduated on time, did good, but then I said, I don’t want to be an accountant. I worked as an accountant and realized I was sure I didn’t want to be an accountant. My parents were supportive and said what do you want to do? All during this time, of course, I’d been improving my life because I had been in a coma and was paralyzed, had brain damage. I was improving myself so I’m on my own little wellness path. They said there was this wellness program at Ball State. I went to Ball State, talked to the director, and I can’t remember if I said it out loud or to myself, but I thought, I’ll bet there’s something I can add to this field from what I’ve been through personally.

When we think about health, we want to go on offense so it can cause what it is we desire to happen. On defense, which you can think about as prevention, it’s unlikely we’re going to cause the good thing to happen. So, if we’re going on offense, we’re thinking about what do we want to create, what do we want to move towards, and how can we cause that to happen.

Mari Ryan: First off, thank you for sharing your personal experience, and certainly for the courage you’ve had to stay on offense for so long. It’s an amazing story and we’re so glad that you are here today to be able to share what you learned and how your life experiences are shaping the work you are doing. Thank you for that.

Craig Becker: Thanks. People always say that, and I always wonder what was my option? The option was I either stay a mess, or I get better. I think that’s the only choice we have is we either get better or we don’t. If we want to get better we need to go on offense.

Mari Ryan: That’s a perfect way to think about how important it is to have purpose, and you had purpose in your life. We think about purpose in a wellbeing model; your purpose was to prove that doctor wrong and to show everybody that you could do this. That certainly must have carried you through.

Craig Becker: Thankfully, it transformed into how we are all connected and moving everybody forward, not just me. I certainly didn’t just want to prove the doctors wrong; I wanted to make contributions to improving the life of myself and other.

Mari Ryan: You are doing that, and we’re so grateful for that. I’m curious, if you could give us an example of what would this look like that you’re describing, this idealized approach in the context of an employee wellbeing program.

Craig Becker: I think that could be generalized for almost anything. When we’re thinking about the idealized outcomes, we want to think how are we going to make a contribution, how is it going to move forward? The most important thing, I think, is that we have to have a starting point. The starting point for doing this is going to be where do we want to go, what are we going to create, what are we going to move towards.

Interface International is an example of a company that – it was an international carpet company and Ray Anderson in the early 2000s said I’m destroying my grandchildren’s future. Instead, he set out and said we’re going to make this a better company, so instead of destroying the future, we are actually going to restore the future. They completely turned the company around and so they were a restorative company, rather than a damaging company. It completely changed employee morale because they realized they were contributing to making the world a better place.

Similar things are found for Toyota; when they were working on the Prius, the people who were working on the Prius felt they were making a contribution. So, back when you talked about purpose, having a purpose, and the purpose is how is it connected to the overall wellbeing of improving everyone. Employee wellbeing is directly related to what they are able to contribute and improve. I think by making a connection to what they’re doing to everyone else, it’s the best way for thinking about employee wellbeing. Does that answer your question?

Mari Ryan: It did. It sounds like what we’re talking about here is having a connection for the workforce in the examples that you’ve described to something that’s bigger than just what the individual’s job is, and how that job connects to the purpose or the mission of the organization that is making a contribution to a better world as a whole.

Craig Becker: I hope that’s what all of us are thinking about, especially as health promotion professionals are always thinking, how am I improving, how am I helping everybody move forward? I don’t think any of us want to help one person by hurting another. We can never raise someone up by pushing someone else down. We have to try and lift everyone up.

Mari Ryan: I totally agree with that. Is there some sort of a process – can you describe what this optimized health promotion process might look like?

Craig Becker: Sure, I have a bunch of models out there for the health promotion process, and look at seven dimensions as the seven things that we can do. I have also [indecipherable - 0:10:29.2] model. When you think about it, we have to have … first you realize this is going to be a challenge. Our society is set up in a way that sometimes it’s discouraging to try and be healthy because you have to go against the tide. To accept the challenge, you have to realize you are going to need courage to take on these status quo things and do something differently that other people are going to do. It is absolutely going to take a commitment. We’re going to say, you know what? I’m going to be committed to this, this is what I’m about, this is what I do, and it’s what I’m going to have.

Along the way, you are going to have to continually develop confidence. Continuing education is no longer a nice add-on, it’s a requirement for life. Keep learning, keep understanding, keep seeing the connections between everyone and everything. As we do that, probably one of the best ways for us to help as professionals is to figure, who do we connect with so we can use our competencies somewhere that’s going to allow us to fulfill our mission, help other organizations, and so that together we’re better than we are individually. Then we want to be able to, through those connections, be able to generate some contributions to ourselves, to our friends, to our family, and to society, so then we can, hopefully, build upon those consequences [sic] that are going to continually improve and make for a better life.

Now, with the process – let me give you an example. We’re thinking about process, we’re thinking about what do we do in the process that can lead to that offensive or best outcome. I was at a – and I hope this is clear – I was at a presentation by Chancellor, and both my colleague and I were watching. I was like, wow, this is an amazing presentation. He’s rattling off statistics, he’s never looking at his notes. He was just fantastic. He is very competent, very smooth, well-done. Then, I noticed in the back there was a teleprompter. [laughs] You could see all the words right there. My thought was oh, so, those are the tools he needs to be successful to create the best possible presentation.

My colleague looked at it, and he also noticed it. But, what he did – I was just enjoying the presentation, getting all the things out of it, and thinking, wow, what a great job – he looked at it, he was reading the words and listening to him, and seeing when he made a mistake. He missed the whole presentation because he was focused on where are the problems. I was thinking, wow, this is great. What else can we do to enhance and power this message forward?

The process is about how do we move, how do we make it the most impactful and best process possible, rather than where are the hang-ups, where are the difficulties, where are the problems we have to overcome?

Mari Ryan: So, it really sounds like it’s a mindset approach, having a positive mindset, looking for the good, looking for the opportunities and not just looking at where are the faults or where are the mistakes.

Craig Becker: Like I said, you can look for the problems, which I guarantee you will find, but we can look for, well, this is where it’s great, and you generally, I mean, we can never avoid every problem. Problems are going to happen. I don’t care what happens, we will have difficulties. The stronger our physical, mental, and social wellbeing is, the more likely we are to overcome that, or maybe, never have a problem because of it. It’s like my car accident; I was able to overcome that. I certainly couldn’t have planned for that, but I was able to overcome it from what happened.

If we are stronger physically, mentally and socially, that’s probably – another thing is, don’t they say the best defense is a good offense? Our offense, a really strong offense, we can overcome almost anything. I think that by the process that builds more on the good things that we find, how they will be even stronger, we are likely to be able to overcome those difficulties.

Mari Ryan: I’m all about that positive approach and that mindset. I’m curious, how do we move to a place where we are making gains, and where we are making more gains, not just removing problems or tolerating, or returning to the status quo?

Craig Becker: That goes back to the commitment. The idea is you’ve got to make sure they have this idealized outcome that’s far beyond, it’s like a long-term goal that we continually move towards. What I always want people to look at is progress. They call it “plotting progress.” Every time you take a step forward, document that it moved you in the right direction. We understand from research the most powerful, the highest life satisfaction we ever have is not when we achieve our goals because once we get that, we realize, all right, so, what’s next? The time we feel the best is when we make progress. Wellness is experiencing progress. Once we get progress, we realize, yeah, I’m doing good, and then you want to think how can I build upon that so I can continually improve and move forward. We’ve got to document the good things we’re doing, and think how do we build upon those and keep them moving forward so we can plot our progress and continually map our way as we are moving toward that idealized outcome, and thus adapt as we move along.

Mari Ryan: So, it’s important to have ways for us to be able to measure that, and to show that there is a result for all of the efforts that are taking place.

Craig Becker: Absolutely. Again, we have to make sure what we are measuring is progress, not problems. As I said, my colleague looked for all the problems, and he found them, where I found progress. Which are we going to choose? Every one of us has the potential for disease and the potential for health. The question is, which are we going to manifest? When we manifest health, we actually go on offense and are moving forward. Then, when we do have problems, which will happen, we are more likely to be able to overcome them, we have the connections, we have the ability, and the resources to use to move forward – and keep moving forward.

Mari Ryan: It sounds like courage, commitment, connections are all essential parts of the model that you are describing to get to this idealized outcome.

Mari Ryan: If our audience wants to learn a little bit more about you and the work that you are doing, where can they find you?

Craig Becker: There are a lot of ways to reach me. Probably the easiest is at East Carolina University, there’s a webpage, it’s If you want to read a bunch of my things, you can go to my webpage, which is I got a bunch about different research, video. I also have a YouTube channel, which is Be Well on the YouTube channel, but they are also connected on my webpage.

Mari Ryan: Fabulous.

Craig Becker: So, I look forward to hearing from you, I love to work with you, so let’s see what we can do to move forward – by going on the offense, of course.

Mari Ryan: Thank you so much for being here, Craig. Appreciate your insights, your experience, and your wisdom, and your courage.

Craig Becker: Thank you.

[End of audio]

Topics: wellness, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, Worksite Wellness, employee wellness, worksite well-being, Wellbeing, hr, employee well-being, corporate wellness, well-being model

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.