Employee Health Matters: Talking with Michael Zenn — Part 1

Employee Health Matters: Talking with Michael Zenn — Part 1

by Gretchen Schisla

Michael Zenn is the author of The Self Health Revolution. His book is now distributed beyond it's original Whole Foods availability and is printed in multiple languages reaching a world-wide audience. Zenn’s life mission and book address growing health issues we’re facing from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer — and how we can turn unhealthy eating habits into lasting good health and vitality.

Michael graciously agreed to an interview to look at how companies are supporting better eating habits and healthier practices for their employees.

Are companies setting the tone, getting involved and supporting their employees in making healthier choices?

Michael Zenn: Many companies aren’t doing very much and the tools they are using are not working as well as they could be. It begins with leadership. For example, I recently gave a seminar at a self-insured company and told the CEO, “You’re on an un-sustainable path.” Today, they are trending towards a 25–30% obesity rate. Over the next 5–10 years they’re heading towards a 50-60% obesity level, which will bankrupt their insurance funding.

I think a lot of companies put programs in place as something nice to do for their employees but in reality, it will soon be about the survival of that company. This epidemic is growing so fast that employers will not be able to pay their premiums or support the number of sick people. That doesn’t even take into consideration a loss of productivity from someone who is overweight or chronically ill — how they feel every day and the amount of work they get done. Let’s just say employees are eating poorly, even if they’re not overweight. The productivity loss there is just amazing. For example, at a typical employee meeting you’ll see coffee, donuts or pastries — all kinds of what I would call ‘dead food.’ No thought is really given to, “Oh wow. This is going to jack my employees up for about an hour and half and then they’re going to crash, so their productivity is probably not going to be very good.” No one thinks about this. There’s a lot missing in that category. What employers are doing is not effective because it doesn’t help to change their employees’ belief system.

It’s like putting a band-aid on something or trying to motivate people through financial incentive and so on. It’s not really going to dynamically change their belief system and their family’s belief system. You really need the whole family to come on board. There’s not a holistic understanding of the problem, so there’s not a holistic solution. If I were the CEO of a large company, my goal would be to change the thinking. First of all, I would realize and actualize, “We have a problem here. This is going to be dramatic over the next few years and could totally affect the future and livelihood of this company, so we’ve got to make some serious changes.”

I would start by trying to change my employees’ belief systems about food — about what it does, how food has changed, about self-health, taking control of your own health and your family’s health, and trying to wake people up. And then, providing support at work for those things that we decide we’re going to do based on this new belief.

So you’re saying it really begins with buy-in at the leadership level and then providing education? What if individuals don’t even realize they need to make the shift, and you’re talking to non-listeners?

Michael Zenn: Just like with parenting, the CEO and leadership of a company have to first have that conversion amongst themselves. If they don’t really see the need and they’re not on board with living the self health lifestyle (if you want to call it that), they’re not going to have the courage, the priority, or the influence to share that with their employees. That’s where the conversion has to take place.

Education is sort of a misnomer. My book does educate but it’s also very shocking. It’s very, “Do this or you will die. You’re going to be a statistic. You’re going to get cancer unless you do something. You’re going to be overweight and be chronically ill unless you do something about it. This is where you’re going and this is what it looks like.” It has to be something very hard-hitting to wake people up. It’s like that moment when the doctor says, “No, no, no, no, Joe. You don’t understand. You’re going to die in 6 months unless you stop eating this and start eating this. You’re going to die and Joe, it’s not to scare you. It’s a fact.”

Having those kind of conversations is different from handing someone a book or having a nice educational class about healthy eating. In the first half of my book, I slap people in the face and say, “Wake up! Look what’s happening to you! You’re being killed and so is your family. And you can do something about it!” Once you have their attention, give them a very simple solution and show them they don’t have to be a health nut to get healthy. You don’t have to become a vegan or vegetarian or be a radical. There are some simple tips that anyone can easily grasp.

Just teaching people ‘you are what you eat’ and walking them through that will dramatically change someone’s thinking and paradigm. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “You know every time I go to the grocery store, I’m thinking ‘you are what you eat’ and I’m wondering do I want to eat what this animal’s been eating? Do I want to eat what this plant’s been eating?” It alters your mind — those are the kinds of things that I don’t see really being done. There are a lot of niceties — nice little programs that do not have the power to grab people, wake them up and then give them a very simple solution that they believe they can actually do.

I hear all the time, “You know, it’s the first time I really think I can do something about it.” And that’s really important. Do they believe they can do it? Does it seem simple? I think that’s what’s missing. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding about how to help people change, really change. Some people are closed, some people aren’t teachable, but there are a lot of people who are. They just haven’t been approached in the right way, or in a way that they could understand.

I didn’t understand why people shopped at Whole Foods, I didn’t understand why people drank bottled water and ate organics, or vegans, or vegetarians. I thought they were a little crazy. I didn’t think I could ever be like that. I didn’t want to be like that. Especially men — men are very self-sufficient. They look at this stuff as being silly or, “I’m just eating what granddad ate. I’m a man. I’m a carnivore.” They don’t get it. They don’t understand that the food has changed — that when they eat a piece of steak they’re getting loaded up with female hormones. You know, a big truck driver eats a 20 oz. porterhouse and it’s loaded with estrogen. He doesn’t know that it’s making him more feminine and giving him many other things such as a 40% weight gain and even potentially cancer.

It’s a matter of talking to people in a way they can really get it on their level. I don’t think that’s happening. I think a lot of people coming into these companies and they have a nice little nutritional program and it’s just not gripping. It’s not powerful and it’s not life-changing. In my book, I try to show the relationship between what you’re doing and how you’re going to feel.

Do you know any companies that are doing it right? For example, Whole Foods has hired Rip Esselstyn to train employees with Engine 2.

Michael Zenn: That’s a great example. A couple of years ago, John Mackey made a very conscious decision to help his employees get healthy and he’s probably taken it more seriously than anybody that I know of. WF has all kinds of programs and incentives to help their employees.

I’m not sure what the stats were, but WF employees were either not eating there or eating the junk food there. They were getting obese and unhealthy. So John made a strong decision. That’s where you have a CEO who’s very convicted and really understands the necessity of helping.

There’s also Keas (Engage in Wellness), a software company that creates programs for health. One of their slogans is “skinnier bottoms make for fatter bottom lines.” Pfizer published a case study showing the roll out of the Keas program to all 35,000 U.S.-based employees. Employees connected across work sites and divisions and Pfizer found that it wasn’t just ‘health nuts’ meeting their health goals. The challenge saw a major reduction in at-risk employees. 70% of participants said Keas improved their health and 82% said Keas improved teamwork and collaboration.

Michael sums it all up:

Companies are asking, “How can we be more productive? How can we compete internationally?”One of the best ways to do this is to get healthy. Get all your folks super healthy.

That’s really going to make your company powerful and have peer pressure influence where everyone’s thinking the same way. So when someone’s not as successful health-wise, everyone else jumps in to help and encourage them, creating a team.

But the really big thing is, there’s no real attempt to get into the employee’s belief system and really make a change. Firms simply layer education on top of old beliefs.

Read Part 2 of our interview: Bring Your Self-Health to Work