Interview with Jennifer Pitts, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Edington Associates, LLC.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Pitts at this year’s Wellness Underground workshop. She just co-authored “Shared Values Shared Results” which is an amazing reference for all leaders who want to create positive organizational health.

Jennifer is not only a kind and caring individual but also super smart and knowledgeable about creating a win-win organizational health strategy for employees and employers. I hope you enjoy learning about her…as I know I did!

How did you find your way into the field of Worksite Health & Wellness?

Jennifer Pitts and horse
Jennifer with her favorite horse

I have always been interested in the relationship between our social connections, our attitudes, and our health. As an undergraduate student of behavioral sciences in the late ‘70’s and early 80’s, I took every course I could find that explored health, illness, or medicine, across a wide variety of disciplines. I trolled around in the anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy departments and absorbed as much as I could.

For as long as I can recall, I have also been interested in the creative process. It fascinated me that many of the greatest discoveries throughout history occurred in moments of daydream, exhaustion, even slightly altered states of consciousness.

I devoured the work of Roger Sperry, Michael Gazzaniga, and other prominent neuroscientists of the day, to try to understand better how the brain works during the creative process. I read accounts of the most creative moments of Einstein and other great minds. I found it all fascinating.

I explored both of these passions separately (creativity and health) in my graduate studies. For my masters thesis in Experimental Psychology, I conducted an EEG study of brain states during the creative process.

For my doctoral dissertation in Applied Social Psychology, I explored outcomes associated with shared decision-making between physicians and patients. For a long time it felt like I had been traveling two parallel paths. More recently it has become clearer to me how they were just different facets of a larger passion that is still unfolding for me today.

While I had done some work in the population health management arena at Pfizer Health Solutions, mostly with health care provider organizations, when I met Dee Edington, his focus on the workplace brought it all together for me.

Our jobs and our careers provide us with the opportunity to find profound meaning in our work, exercise our talents, and express our creativity. They can also be a source of deeply meaningful relationships and connections.

The right workplace conditions can not only support or undermine all of those things, they can also support or undermine our health and well-being. More and more we are finding that the creative process can also be a very healthy aspect of our lives, and the quality of our social connections throughout our lives is one of, if not the most important predictor of our long-term health.

It seems that our health, in a very broad sense, can all come together or fall apart in the workplace. The wellness field has a grand opportunity to make a difference in the lives of so many people.

You spent a lot of your career at Pfizer. Tell me a bit about your work there and how it shaped what you do today.

Pfizer Health Solutions (PHS) was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pfizer Inc, and for the majority of the time I spent there, our group was kept at arms-length from the drug side of the business. Many of us were physically located on the West Coast in Santa Monica, while Pfizer Inc is headquartered in Manhattan. Many of us had degrees in public health, psychology, sociology, and we had a large technology team.

I was originally hired as a contractor when PHS was just forming. Because I had a strong analytics and program evaluation background, I was formally hired into the Outcomes and Analytics team, and eventually ended up directing that team.

My experience at PHS profoundly shaped my outlook about work in two major ways. First, I learned how inspiring it can be to be part of a great collaborative team. I also learned first-hand how rewarding and meaningful it can be to do work that makes a positive difference.

My colleagues and I were part of many innovative projects in many, many different types of settings. We created pioneering initiatives with healthcare providers, communities, state, national, and even international governments. We worked to improve health and access to care in underserved neighborhoods. We got our hands dirty creating things from the ground up. It was challenging but incredibly exciting work.

The main things I took away from that experience were a sense of optimism about practical ways to make a difference on a large scale, and some very, very good life-long friends.

How have you seen worksite wellness change over your career?

I have been directly involved with in the worksite wellness space for about five years, but I have seen some definite changes in that time. There has been growing acceptance of the importance of organizational culture and environment for employee health.

It is not a new movement, but it does seem to be accelerating. For many years, Judd Allen, and his father Robert Allen before him, have been promoting wellness cultures. Tom Golaszewski and others (e.g., HERO, CDC, Healthlead) have been measuring and exploring the impact of workplace environments on health.

In 2009, Dee wrote Zero Trends: Health as a Serious Economic Strategy, to promote the value of healthy people and healthy workplace cultures. It is a welcome change, but changing any culture is an evolution.

The wellness field is slowing evolving its approaches to include supporting and fostering health-related culture change within organizations. But that too is an evolution.

Many “culture of health” approaches today consist mainly of pushing harder and harder on getting people to complete a health risk assessment and participate in wellness programs. It will take some time for this field to evolve the mindset and competencies that will be needed to effectively facilitate the evolution of health into the culture of organizations.

Another change I’ve seen is a return to a philosophy of health more consistent with the earlier roots of “wellness,” and more aligned with an emerging confluence of evidence from many fields of study. This is partially reflected in a growing push to change the term “wellness” to “well-being.”

There is growing uptake on programs that align with a broader kind of health (stress management, mindfulness, yoga, resilience training, and so on). But to the degree this movement is a superficial renaming in an attempt to distance ourselves from vocal industry critics, it will likely not help our efforts flourish.

To the degree it represents a true evolution toward better understanding and supporting a far broader kind of health than purely physical (for example, emotional/mental, social, spiritual, intellectual, financial, occupational, environmental), we will succeed.

What’s wrong with the wellness industry today? What’s right with it?

I prefer to start with what is right with the industry and then discuss our opportunities to grow and improve. I think one of the industry’s greatest strengths is its people. In my interactions with individuals throughout the wellness field, I have met very few, if any, who were purely motivated by greed. This field is full of individuals who truly want to make a positive difference in the lives of others. It is a field full of caring and empathetic people who are consistently striving to better understand how to help heal others; physically, mentally, and spiritually.

On the other hand, I think we have too much ignored the voice of the employee – the end-user – when designing our approaches. Dee and I have been talking and writing about systems-thinking and design-thinking for several years now, and we have grounded our thinking and approaches in principles and practices from both.

Sometimes there’s a disconnect between research and how it’s applied (or what actually happens in the workplace). How can we better apply research to worksite wellness?

I think one of the biggest disconnects is in our tendency to focus too narrowly on evidence and research findings from disciplines within our traditional comfort zone.  As your question suggests, much often gets lost in translation from research to practice. This field is truly in its infancy, as is the research that examines its effectiveness.

I think we can also better innovate while respecting the best of what we know.

We can look to other disciplines to help organizations and individuals understand their own “why” related to health and well-being. We can provide content and development opportunities informed by psychology in its many forms (social, organizational, positive, cognitive, etc.), leadership development, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, and so on.

People don’t want to change in order to have more years on the far end of their life. We are far more interested in improving the experiences we have today.

We can look to other bodies of knowledge and practice to better understand the impact of “what” we do and “how” we do it. We can learn a tremendous amount from anthropology, sociology, public health, implementation science, economics, architecture, and design-thinking. We can become better systems-thinkers and explore the root causes and upstream influences on our health and well-being.

We can better evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our approaches. Quasi-experimental designs have their issues with threats to validity, but randomized controlled trials are not the gold standard for evaluating complex social initiatives. We can benefit as an industry by using more appropriate evaluation methods from social and behavioral sciences; theory driven evaluation, realistic evaluation, ethnographic methods, and so forth.

I’ve heard wellness professionals tell me they can’t influence other areas of HR, such as organizational development. How can worksite wellness practitioners bridge the gap between a traditional wellness program and organizational health?

I believe that wellness practitioners can become better facilitators of connections within organizations, and help others become connection builders as well. We don’t have to get degrees in OD, or some new type of certification. We don’t have to be given permission.

Connecting people with valuable resources, connecting people with other people, and connecting people with better versions of themselves is in our DNA. Embrace it. Use that in your efforts to connect your efforts with the work of others in your organization.

Ask for help from your OD, quality, and safety colleagues. Start small…ask for a conversation, ask for words of wisdom. Keep it positive. Help them see how helping you will further the quality of their work.

People want to have meaning in their work. So help bring more meaning into the work of your OD and safety colleagues – and others. It might be informal at first, but many great collaborations begin with a small exchange of ideas.

Help them see how working with you can be a source of success for themselves and everyone else in the organization. Be sure to share the recognition for any successes with those who have helped you.

Think bigger – Rather than having a singular focus on pushing people to participate in wellness programs, develop practices that help people create healthier conditions for themselves in their workplaces.

And think smaller – Consider involving people in creating small home-grown initiatives that nurture health – Build a richer network of grass-roots approaches and initiatives that foster health and well-being.

In our book, Dee and I talk about approaches that both organizations and employees can take to evolve the environment and culture on both a macro and micro-level. Job crafting, choice architecture, incorporate insights from evolutionary psychology, create a rich set of development resources for leaders, managers and all employees.

We don’t need to throw away our commercial programs, but we should offer them in a way that respects the autonomy and purpose of employees, and surround them with as many other healthy rituals and practices as possible.

Like any other deep change in organizations, building these relationships may take some time…it will be an evolution. But these collaborations are crucial for evolving healthier cultures.

What can an HR person or lone wellness professional do if their senior leadership is not focused on organizational well-being?

Be optimistic and surround yourself with a core group of trusted colleagues who share your vision. Engage as many different groups of stakeholders in the process as you can.

We talk about the power of design teams in our book. We also talk about ways to shape the environment, culture, and climate in small ways that don’t necessarily require permission from anyone above you in the organization.

Start with something that 1) concerns you (and others), and 2) that you can influence (tip of the hat to Steven Covey’s circle of concern-circle of influence). Start small, succeed (or fail) and then try again. Grow your successes, and learn from your failures.

What influenced you to co-author your new book “Shared Values – Shared Results”?

Dee’s 2009 book, Zero Trends was a tremendous success. As we worked to help organizations implement the principles from the book, we were gathering valuable lessons from the field. There was also a tremendous confluence of emerging knowledge and wisdom from many non-traditional disciplines.

We realized that to effectively evolve health into the culture of an organization would take expanding the thinking and practices outlined in Zero Trends. So with the five Zero Trends pillars as our grounding, and an expanded conceptual framework, we set out to outline the concepts, principles, and emerging practices that would help the field go beyond.

I love the quote in your book by Albert Einstein “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” What do we (as wellness professionals) need to do differently to redesign the way worksite wellness is done?

I think that much of what I mentioned above (and below), reflects the principles and practices that Dee and I outline in our book. We can’t just push harder on old “solutions.”

We hope they will help people start thinking differently with respect to the true nature of health (to the degree we can know it today), and acting differently with respect to how we can help positively support health and thriving in individuals and organizations.

What do you see as the future of worksite wellness?

Many of the issues we face as an industry today are a result of narrow, non-systemic thinking.

In our experience with employer organizations over the past five years, it is clear that there is still a fixation on quick hit “programs” that can be implemented easily and show a quick return.

But I think the wellness field is growing its capacity to serve as facilitators of relationships. We are becoming better enablers of healthy processes and initiatives, in addition to commercial wellness programs. We are becoming better systems-thinkers, and better design thinkers. We are improving our capacity to help organizations evolve health into the fabric of their environments, cultures, and climates.

How do you develop yourself professionally?

I pour through information from many disciplines we don’t often think of when setting out to learn about health; art, poetry, natural sciences, behavioral and social sciences, philosophy, physics, spirituality, religion.

For example, I just listened to a podcast interview of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American botanist (www.onbeing.com). Her views on botany and her work with mosses have tremendous relevance for our health and well-being as individuals, and as a society.

Last week I talked with Leigh Stringer, an architect who is helping create healthier built workplace environments (http://www.leighstringer.com/articles/).

I am also smitten by the gratefulness work of the Benedictine Monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast (www.gratefulness.org), and I am a faithful follower of www.BrainPickings.com, Maria Popova’s incredibly insightful curation of wisdom from authors, poets, artists, designers, scientists, philosophers, mystics, etc.).

I have been following Rick Hanson’ work on the neuroscience of well-being for many years (http://www.wisebrain.org/tools/wise-brain-bulletin). I have also become enamored with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). These examples reflect just a tiny sliver of what is available to us when we open our minds to it.

To quote Robert Louis Stevenson, “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” Never before have we had so much open access to resources that can help us be the best possible versions of ourselves.

Do you have any habits you feel contribute to your success?

If you can say that I am successful, I think it might be in spite of some not so good habits. Primarily, I have been a workaholic for too many years. But I am trying to pause and reflect more these days, and have more gratefulness for the opportunities I have in my life every day.

I am also working to reconnect in a more meaningful way with my friends and family. I have family members who were born and grew to adulthood while I focused almost exclusively on my work. I have lost track of wonderful childhood friends.

Connecting, and reconnecting with people is among my greatest joys in life right now. To quote Stevenson again, “to miss the joy is to miss all.” Building deep social connections is one of the greatest joys, and one of the most positive things we can do to be “successful.”

What do you do for fun (when you’re not working)?

Since I was a small girl I was crazy about horses. I still have a horse who is the son of a mare that I got when I was 12 years old. He is very old now, but such a blessing. He and my two other horses live at home with me now, and they keep me smiling and active.

Jennifer's horse in action
Jennifer’s horse in action

I am also a wannabe artist of sorts. I love to work with my hands. If my hands are active, my mind is active. I mostly draw and work with clay – mostly porcelain.

I also dabble in gardening – although much of my “gardening” consists of embracing the volunteer plants that crop up far from where I planted the seeds. But most every gardener has had the experience of creating nice neat rows in the soil, planting our seeds, and tending our gardens with love and anticipation.

Then some rogue tomato plant pushes up outside the boundaries of our garden, grows like crazy, and produces sweeter fruit than anything we’ve been trying to engineer in our plot. It doesn’t always happen the way we intended, but we have even better tomatoes in the end.

I am currently embracing a volunteer patch of arugula that is thriving exactly where it wants to be, but nowhere near where I intended. It’s beautiful! Even the things I do for fun provide lessons for my work.

Parting thoughts/words of wisdom?

For anyone wanting to make a positive difference in their organization, in partner organizations, or in the emerging field of wellness, start with what is already working well and build on that.

Build positive connections, collaborate, and co-create (I’m finding many of the most effective practices start with the prefix “co”). Tend the soil and water your garden, but also embrace your “volunteers.”