My recent interview with Suzy Harrington, Chief Wellness Officer for Oklahoma State University, was particularly special. OSU is my alma mater; I received a B.S. in exercise science there almost thirty years ago, jump-starting the path to building wellbeing leaders that I’m still walking on today. To show clear commitment behind its claim as America’s Healthiest Campus, OSU is also the first among universities to appoint a Chief Wellness Officer, a fact intriguing enough to make me want to know the person behind the title. So I’m delighted to showcase Suzy in our Face of Wellbeing Leadership series.
Me: What does it mean to lead wellbeing?
Suzy: To me leading wellbeing means two things. It means role-modeling wellbeing personally so that I can be at my best physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and professionally. But it also means leading a change throughout the country. I have the wonderful opportunity to be in a job where I can help do that. My main scope is enhancing wellbeing in the state of Oklahoma through the Oklahoma State University system. We have five OSU campuses, four A & M campuses, and 77 county extension service offices (one in every single county in the state) so we have an incredible potential to harness and spread wellness through Oklahoma communities. Our state usually ranks in the lower 10% on various health and wellness indicators; if we can enrich the lives our students and our employees then, through them, we can really help improve the health and wellness of Oklahoma’s citizens.
Me: It sounds as though you see your wellbeing leadership role as much broader than OSU?
Suzy: Yes, absolutely. Think of our students. They come from their homes within towns across the state and beyond. They’ll graduate from OSU with the potential to be successful graduates, employees, parents, and community members. We want them to feel healthy, happy, and engaged, no matter what they choose. In fact, we believe their wellbeing is essential to their success. So wellness at OSU is about enriching our lives and empowering all of us – students and staff – to be the best we can be.
Me: What is one of the more difficult challenges about your work as Chief Wellness Officer?
Suzy: Ironically, the word wellness itself is a big challenge. I use it interchangeably with the word wellbeing. When I say wellness, however, people usually think of diet and exercise. And those are “four letter words,” things people don’t necessarily want to change. So at OSU I’m nudging the word wellness to mean overall wellbeing, focused on who we are as human beings, not what we do.
For example, recently I was invited to talk to the assistant dean of one of our schools. When I arrived, he said, “Okay, I know you’re here to talk about diet and exercise … all the things we’re supposed to do right.” I said, “Actually, I’m not.” I shared OSU’s approach to being the best we can be, harmonizing the dimensions of our lives to experience greater wellbeing, and the activities OSU is implementing to support us. When I finished, you could feel relief wash over him.
When people think “wellness,” they immediately think diet and exercise, reducing stress, or stopping smoking. In our society, these are all ways we already judge ourselves. So our job at OSU is to help people build a new model of personal wellness that they are inspired to live – not be judged by.
Me: How receptive are people to redefining wellness in this way?
Suzy: People love it. They are motivated by it. They use it to make decisions in their lives and work. It’s working for our broader culture at OSU as well. In fact, our wellness strategy was touted as one of the new innovative models by the Art, Science & Health Promotion organization. Why? In part, because our approach is about striving for personal and organizational excellence, not perfection.
To get this point across simply, I often share with people a video of a New York traffic cop, an energetic African American woman who directs traffic by dancing. She could consider herself in a horrible job; most of us wouldn’t want to be standing in the middle of New York traffic! And is she a perfect BMI? No. But does she have a strong sense of wellbeing? My guess is yes. And she makes other people smile while doing her job. She is an invitation to the wellbeing of others.
So for us at OSU, true wellness is really about being the best we can be.
Me: The World Health Organization defined health as the “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” back in 1946. This was already an expansive way of defining wellbeing in life and work. How did we get off track?
Suzy: In Western society I think we became too enamored with our medical model, health insurance, and the drive for volume over value. In most cases, our systems are designed for quantity over quality, and they reinforce reactive treatments verses proactive health behavior. Let’s face it: doctors don’t yet get reimbursed for wellness education and the patients they don’t see. They get reimbursed for how many pills they give and patient quotas. So we’re in the middle of in a complex, whole systems challenge when it comes to health and wellness; we’ve focused on treating disease instead of supporting the whole person.
In workplaces, I say kudos to those organizations interested in genuine wellness rather than just giving out fitness memberships. Like OSU, they are striving for value on investment instead of traditional return on investment. And they’re looking not just at how many dollars are saved through their wellness strategy but how that strategy can help them keep the most engaged, productive, successful, and thriving employees. It’s transformational and challenging work to do, and organizations that commit to it are true leaders advancing wellbeing across our world.