Expert Interview: Laura Putnam

February 20 2018 / by Mari Ryan

In the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Expert Series interview, my guest is Laura Putnam. In this conversation, we explore the role that managers play in supporting wellbeing in the workplace.

 Interview with Laura Putnam

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essential 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 Laura Putnam. Laura is the CEO and founder of Motion Infusion, and she is the author of Workplace Wellness that Works, this fabulous book that she has written. She is also the creator of Managers on the Move. Laura is a former urban public school teacher, an international community organizer, a dancer, a gymnast, and now a movement builder in the world of health and wellbeing. With a mission to get organizations in motion, Laura is a frequent keynote speaker and has worked with a range of organizations from Fortune 500s to government agencies, to academic institutes and non-profits. Welcome, Laura!

Laura Putnam: Thank you, Mari. It’s so nice to be on your program.

Mari Ryan: Thanks, I’m glad to have you here today. Today we’re going to talk a little bit about the role that managers play in the elements of wellbeing in the workplace. We know that in spite of the fact that human resource professionals and worksite wellness professionals are doing a great job in building programs and creating awareness for wellbeing awareness in the workplace that sometimes employees aren’t participating in these wellbeing programs at the rates that we might hope. Why do you think that is?

Laura Putnam: I think that what we all learned the hard way is that unlike the Field of Dreams, if you build it, as in a workplace wellness or wellbeing initiative, they will not necessarily come. I think that one stumbling block has been the assumption that if we put something in place that automatically people will flock to that program. I think that’s one learning for all of us.

I think another learning for a lot of companies has been to attach an incentive to [indecipherable - 0:02:19.7] that people are going to participate and not only participate, but really engage in a way that is meaningful. What the research is showing is that a) the average amount spent per employee per year on incentives alone is almost $700 per employee per year. A lot of employees are, frankly, leaving money on the table; they're not even taking advantage of the money that is available there for them. What we know from the research is that at best, incentives will get people there, but they will never keep them, and at worst, they may even crowd out or undermine intrinsic motivation, which is what the key goal is.

What the research consistently shows is the only way to sustain a behavior, and in this case a lifestyle behavior over time, is for somebody to be intrinsically engaged and intrinsically motivated.

Mari Ryan: Exactly. People will often forget how hard behavior change is until they start to look at the work that we do in the wellbeing world and understand it’s all about behavior change. Unless, of course, they have a teenage child, in which case, then they completely understand. You’ve been taking a little bit of a different approach in trying to encourage participation at the grass roots level from the employee perspective by taking an approach with managers. Let’s explore the role that managers play and how to activate managers to become multipliers of wellbeing.

Laura Putnam: It’s a great plan and since you have characterized it, it’s something I’m really looking at this piece of engagement and why is it that they are stumbling on this so much? Historically, there has been a lot of emphasis on engaging the senior leader. That’s the first step to the [indecipherable - 0:04:25.4] seven seas, which is capturing mutual support. I would argue that, yes, that is so critical for setting the tone for any kind of wellbeing initiative and that obviously, it’s also essential for that in human resources and the senior leaders are really the ones that make that determination.

Once they get beyond that, then it comes down to, are people really engaging in this on a day-to-day basis? What happens more often than not, unfortunately, is even if the leaders are engaging with it themselves, too often the managers are serving as a barricade between the larger employee base and engaging that as well. Effectively, every employee is looking to their direct boss to give them permission to engage with wellbeing. So, every manager is needing to be positioned to influence the behavior of their team members’ engagement with, not only wellbeing, but also with their work.

We know, for example, that research shows over and over again that people don’t leave their job. In seventy-five percent of the cases, they leave their boss. The same is true when it comes to wellbeing. You can have the best laid wellbeing program in the world that senior leaders are speaking about and maybe even engaging in, but if your direct boss is not supporting it, then if you want to move ahead with the context of your team then you know to do this thing. In effect, whatever behavior that manager has, it serves as a kind of mirroring.

I’ll break this down a little more; a manager who is sending emails to the team members at eleven o’clock at night on a Sunday night is conveying the message that if you want to be perceived as a high performer on my team, then you will respond to those emails at midnight. There’s some interesting research or a study that just came out where they show that for those employees who have a manager that is sending emails at eleven o’clock at night on a Sunday night, their chances of also being online, late at night, off hours, grow dramatically.

What we’ve been doing is looking at this piece, or fact, that every manager is uniquely positioned to become or they are already acting as gatekeeper by default, if they’re not supporting wellbeing, or on the positive side they have an opportunity to become, as you characterize it, a multiplier of wellbeing.

So, what does it take to become that multiplier of wellbeing? It takes engaging in three [indecipherable - 07:38.0] which are very simple, which are do you speak [indecipherable - [0:07:41.7]? If every manager were to simply do, as in lead by example, speak and engage your team members in wellbeing one conversation at a time and direct communication from them as opposed to a company email blast that comes out when you’ve got this upcoming health fair, for example. If every manager were to create systems within their team to make it as easy and normal to engage with wellbeing then the chances of their team members also engaging with wellbeing goes up dramatically.

Mari Ryan: Just one other question; why is it so important for managers to lead by example?

Laura Putnam: Again, I think that often it’s what I like to call “I want to see my boss in spandex” phenomenon. I don’t want to just hear them talk about it, I want to see them doing it with me. A great example of that; a woman, Cheryl Lewis, a senior manager at Marriot International, not only is she participating in the onsite Zumba class, she teaches that. Again, that ties to that piece of vulnerability that you are modelling for your team members, vulnerability in the process of making a change.

None of us are perfect. We look at our statistics, and what we see is that the research shows less than three percent of Americans put those three basic behaviors of eating healthy, being a non-smoker, and getting enough exercise every day and having a healthy weight, so the likelihood that any manager is perfect is less than three percent. It’s an imperfect process for any of us, and I think that the more that managers can model for their team members through an imperfect process and help people to recast this process, not as one of shame and blame, but rather one of learning.

Mari Ryan: Laura, I am so grateful that you are a trailblazer, as always, in work at the managerial level, beyond the place that we’ve heard about at the leadership level for so long, and taking it to that manager level so that we can help influence the individuals who can benefit from so much of this.

Laura Putnam: Yes, thank you.

Mari Ryan: If our audience wants to learn a little bit more about some of your work, and the work of your organization, or your Manager on the Move program, how can they find out some additional information?

Laura Putnam: Thanks so much for asking; there are two different places where people can go. One is, of course, That is the website for my company, Motion Infusion, and the second place is to go to, which is more of a speaker-author site, and to get more information about me, Laura Putnam, as speaker-author, and keeping up to date on things, where I am, working on my second book and where I am on that, and also up-to-date on things like what’s happening with workplace wellness.

Mari Ryan: Wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing those resources with us. Thanks for this conversation today. As always, it’s delightful to spend time with you, and I hope everyone appreciates all the fabulous work that you are doing to be able to create a healthier planet. Thanks so much.

Laura Putnam: Thank you, Mari, and I appreciate all the great work that you are doing as well. Thank you so much for having me.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, wellness, company leadership, ceo, c suite leadership, employee wellness, worksite well-being, productivity, benefits, managers, hr, laura putnam, motion infusion, leaders, behavior change, middle managers, intrinsic motivation

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.