The Grassroots Approach to Employee Wellbeing—And Why it Works

October 11, 2017

The ideal version of employee wellbeing looks something like this: You have an engaged, enthusiastic workforce where employees are excited to come to work and have plenty of strategies to maintain their physical and mental health. And most of us have launched employee wellbeing programs with that very expectation.

Unfortunately, we often find that reality is a stark contrast to our idealized vision. We don’t get the enrollment or engagement we’d hoped for, and we see our employees revert back to their old behaviors after trying but failing to make lasting changes.

In a recent webinar, I spoke about how to build a culture of wellbeing at your company. In this post, I’ll focus on one aspect of this discussion: the grassroots approach to employee wellbeing. Read on to learn why the grassroots approach is so effective and what this could mean for your own employee wellbeing program.

The challenge

As an employer, HR person, or people manager, you face some pretty big issues: low productivity, disengagement, and burnout. When your employees aren’t feeling their best, their performance at work suffers—and so do your business outcomes.

Many wellbeing programs claim that they will remedy these issues. That’s why we begin them with such high hopes and expectations. But if they fail to deliver, the business outcomes tied to employee performance will also fall short.

The objectives

There are numerous reasons for investing in workplace wellbeing, but they generally fall into three main categories: employee engagement, productivity, and healthcare costs.

The employee engagement category includes things like job satisfaction, retention, recruiting power, and “above and beyond rate” (when people feel motivated to go beyond their job expectations).

The productivity category includes work performance, sick day rate, disability rate, and presenteeism.

And finally healthcare costs include catastrophic claims, medication claims, mental health, and workers’ comp.


In order to enjoy benefits in all three categories, you’ll need to create a wellbeing program that promotes long-term behavior change. If your program only impacts employee behavior in the short term, you may see some positive impact on employee engagement and productivity, but this will not drive down healthcare costs. If cost is a consideration for you (and it is for most of us!), think of it this way: The most expensive program you can offer is the one that doesn’t achieve the business goals it was designed to address.

The grassroots approach

Creating a successful wellbeing program may seem daunting, but there is some good news. High enrollment, high engagement, long-term programs can work with large populations. This approach is known in the public health community as “grassroots health.”

The grassroots approach means having people take full ownership of the behavior change process so it comes from within.

Let’s take a look at some of the key elements of grassroots health initiatives.

Grassroots health initiatives are employee-designed.

In order to accurately predict someone’s likelihood of making a long-term behavior change, it’s helpful to understand the science of motivation. According to self-determination theory, people are most likely to engage in a specific behavior when they are intrinsically motivated to do it. This means that any sort of behavior that’s imposed from the outside (whether it’s a group challenge, competition, or reward) is unlikely to be sustained over the long term.

This is why it’s so crucial for employees to design their own wellbeing programs. If they make use of their own intrinsic motivation, choosing a behavior or habit that is personally meaningful to them, they are much more likely to succeed in sustaining this behavior.

Grassroots health initiatives lead to a tipping point.

Letting employees design their own wellbeing program isn’t just an effective way to promote lasting behavior change. Because they’re participating in an activity that is personally meaningful and finding success with those efforts, it has the added benefit of extending beyond the individual to the company as a whole.

According to the social ecological model of health, we are influenced by our group, community, environment, and culture. And when you get the majority of your employees excited about pursuing their wellbeing goals, you begin to influence employees’ community and environment. This creates a mutually beneficial relationship: When the majority of your employees participate in health behaviors, it becomes the norm at your company, which then means that employees feel validated and supported to pursue their wellbeing goals at work.

The grassroots health approach presents an exciting opportunity to bridge the world of public health and corporate wellbeing. If you’d like to learn more about the grassroots approach and how it ties in to your employee wellbeing program, check out the on-demand webinar. You can access the recording here.

Watch the webinar now

Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash
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