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Expert Interview: Sara Johnson, Ph.D. (Part 2)

August 21 2018 / by Mari Ryan

Sara Johnson, Ph.D. , as Co-president and CEO, leads the Business Development and Strategy Initiatives for Pro-Change Behavior Systems. Sara brings to her role over twenty years of experience in developing behavior change solutions in a variety of domains, including weight management, smoking cessation, medication adherence, and medical education. She has been the principal investigator on over $6 million dollars of research in National Institute of Health grants to examine the effectiveness of trans-theoretical model-based interventions. She is currently leading new research initiative to integrate individual and culture-level interventions to enhance well-being, increase engagement with evidence-based mobile apps that promote behavior change, and to develop interventions for pain self-management, sleep, and financial well-being.

Interview with Sara Johnson


Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Well-being 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 well-being. My guest today is Sara Johnson. Sara, as Co-president and CEO, leads the Business Development and Strategy Initiatives for Pro-Change Behavior Systems. Sara brings to her role over twenty years of experience in developing behavior change solutions in a variety of domains, including weight management, smoking cessation, medication adherence, and medical education. She has been the principal investigator on over $6 million dollars of research in National Institute of Health grants to examine the effectiveness of trans-theoretical model-based interventions. She is currently leading new research initiative to integrate individual and culture-level interventions to enhance well-being, increase engagement with evidence-based mobile apps that promote behavior change, and to develop interventions for pain self-management, sleep, and financial well-being. Dr. Johnson also serves as the co-editor of The Art of Health Promotion in the American Journal of Health Promotion. She received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rhode Island, and is currently an adjunct faculty member to the Psychology Department. She has nearly forty publications, including refereed research publications, book chapters, and published reports. Sara, I’m so excited to have you here as my guest today.

Mari Ryan: To what extent can we marry that individual level behavior change that we’re talking about, and that goes to the culture that might be affiliated with programs that are targeted to managers and that whole organizational cultural piece?

Sara Johnson: That’s a great question, and something that we’ve been thinking a lot about. For example, we’re working with Laura Putnam on an initiative titled Managers on the Move, in which we are activating managers as agents of change within the organization. Gallup suggests that when managers account for as much as 70% of the variance of employee engagement. So, if we can help managers recognize their role as a gatekeeper, or their potential role as a multiplier of well-being, we can in fact activate them as agents of change within the organization. Laura, for example, has this one-day workshop where she really walks managers through the potential role that they could have in the organization of promoting the well-being of their team members, even if the culture isn’t supportive overall organizationally, and we have been systematically evaluating that workshop and have demonstrated some nice impacts on the productivity, engagement and well-being of both managers and their participating team members who aren’t even in the room. So, activating those managers really does have a downstream impact on their team members.

The other initiative that I think is relevant to your question is we’re beginning to evaluate the extent to which employers can create that supportive cultural well-being, and are developing an employee-facing audit of the extent to which employers are creating a culture that is supportive and really promotes engagement and well-being, and for now at least, we’re offering on a pilot-basis to organizations who are interested in getting some feedback about steps they could take to improve the culture within their organization and in exchange for their participation in the assessment, which will help us refine it further, we’re giving them those recommendations, and we’re marrying that feedback to their scores on the HERO scorecard about the extent to which they’re using best practices within their organization to design their health and well-being programs.

So, I think it will be an interesting initiative and maybe in a year or so we’ll come back to you and give you the results.

Mari Ryan: Well, I’d love to hear about that. I’m delighted to hear that you’re doing this type of work and certainly, partnering with Laura. She’s been one of our guests on this series, previously. It’s been interesting to think about behavior change and the impact that the organization, what goes on around you, the norms, the culture, how that influences everything that we do, and how it can either support it, or diminish our well-being.

Sara Johnson: There’s no question. Regardless of the angle at which you look at this problem – if you look at Michael O’Donnell’s awareness, motivation skills and opportunity model, or if you look at the HERO data from the scorecard, to the extent to which organizations, who are using best practices to create a supportive culture, or the data that WELCOA has on their seven benchmarks, I think there’s a real consensus now that we can’t offer these things in isolation if they need to work together.

Mari Ryan: So much so, I totally agree. I’m curious as to what extent do we need to intervene on topics that aren’t traditionally seen as wellness programs, and what might be areas for these interventions?

Sara Johnson: I think there is a huge impetus right now to expand our definition of what has traditionally been considered in the purview of wellness programs. I think we need to be thinking holistically about well-being, and I think employers have made a lot of strides in this direction. Increasingly you’re hearing about employers addressing financial well-being, and sleep, which is fantastic, but there are still so many things that employers are not yet addressing that are critical topics for overall well-being. For example, we are about to send to press a special issue of the Art of Health Promotion on social connection. Increasingly, the data are clear; social connection is a critical component of well-being. If you think about it in regard to the potential impact that social disconnection has on the increased risk of chronic disease, and even premature mortality, people are now saying it’s on par with smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, or being obese, in regard to premature mortality risk. There is no question that is a critical topic for us to be addressing, and that employers can play a key role by taking really simple steps, even with something as simple as on boarding to help employees create meaningful social connections with one another and create that supportive environment.

Mari Ryan: That whole sense of belonging is so core and we hear about this loneliness epidemic and not feeling they belong in an organization. There are a lot of different approaches that employers can take around some of those things. I totally agree and I’m really glad to hear that the science is there and the thinking is becoming much broader, because certainly connection is one of the core elements of the framework that we use, along with community, purpose, the energy or physical well-being and the financial piece that I know you were also doing some work in.

Sara Johnson: We could not agree more, and I think social connection plays a role in other issues, huge issues now for employers. For example, the mental health crisis, the opiate crisis, even caregiver burden. We’ve been seeing a lot in Employee Benefit News, and The New York Times about the expense associated with caregiver burden because of, for example, lost productivity in the workplace, in addition to the reduced well-being of the caregiver, and social isolation is huge component of the burden that a caregiver faces. I think it’s going to end up being a critical component of a lot of the other pressing topics that we need to adjust in the field.

Mari Ryan: I totally agree. You’re doing some fabulous research; if our audience want to learn a little bit more about the work you are doing, or how to find out about the instrument that you – that assessment that you mentioned, where can they found out more information?

Sara Johnson: They can always go to our website, prochange.com, or email me.

Mari Ryan: Wonderful, thank you so much! Such a fabulous topic, such great work that you are doing, and so important for the way that programs are designed and implemented in worksite settings. Thanks for being here today, Sara.

Sara Johnson: It was my pleasure. Thanks so much, Mari.

[End of audio]

Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, behavioral science, wellness, employee wellness, worksite well-being, hr, behavior change, wellness strategy, wellness program, behavior science, organizational culture

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.