Laura Putnam, Author of Workplace Wellness that Works, is the CEO and founder of Motion Infusion, a leading well-being provider based in San Francisco. Her work has been covered by MSNBC, ABC News, The New York Times, USA Today, FOX News, US News & World Report, Entrepreneur and NPR. Through keynotes, workshops, online content and consulting, she infuses well-being and vitality into the workplace to help employees, teams and organizations thrive. She has spoken to audiences across the US and around the world in countries like Kuwait, UAE, Ghana, Israel, India, Chile, Ethiopia, Colombia, Guatemala and South Africa. Past and current clients include a range from Fortune 500s like Visa, Gilead, Wells Fargo, Apple and ADP to government agencies like USAID, state, county and city governments to academic institutes like Texas A&M University and University of Wisconsin-Madison to nonprofits like the American Heart Association, North Carolina Medical Society, Business Group on Health and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Through her unique leadership-meets-well-being training program called Managers on the Move, she has activated over 10,000 managers and leaders around the world.
Laura is a member of the Google Vitality Lab, serves on the Everside Strategic Advisory Committee and is a contributor to the Journal of Compensation and Benefits. In addition, she teaches at Stanford University, is the recipient of the American Heart Association’s “2020 Impact” award as well as the National Wellness Institute’s “Circle of Leadership” award. A graduate of Brown University (where she holds a Master’s degree in Education), as well as Stanford University (where she holds an undergraduate degree in International Relations), Laura lives in San Francisco with her fiancé and unruly cat.
Tell us about yourself.
I call myself a former gymnast, professional dancer, public high school teacher, international community organizer and public policy advocate turned “movement builder” in the world of workplace health and well-being. From competing on the Stanford Women’s Gymnastics team to working on the U.S. Senate Antitrust subcommittee to researching the measles epidemic at a children’s hospital in Mexico City to building a daycare center in Ghana to dancing professionally in New York City to teaching in some of our nation’s most challenging schools, I have taken inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci, building a multidisciplinary career path that now informs my work as well-being author, speaker and entrepreneur.
All of these experiences, especially my work as an urban public high school teacher, have given me the tools to build movements driven by powerful learning experiences. That’s what I do today, although my “classroom” is now the workplace.
What is your WHY?
My mission is to transform every workplace and every team into an oasis of well-being, whereby people are healthier, happier, more able to be their best selves because of where they work and because of the team they’re on (and because of the boss who manages them) – rather than being so in spite of these. As we all know, the workplace wellness industry is infamously problematic, with most efforts amounting to little more than superficial Band-Aids. We can do better – and this is what drives me.
Zooming out a bit further, what I see is a profound “knowing and doing” gap when it our health and well-being. I mean, come on, who doesn’t know that it’s a good idea to eat healthy, get enough exercise and avoid smoking, right? Yet, less than 3% of Americans do. And, how is it possible that the wellness and personal growth industry has exploded, now a $4.2 trillion industry, and yet we are less well? Even before the pandemic, we were already seeing a decline in life expectancy, due to so-called “deaths of despair,” or deaths by suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism. Moreover, it’s estimated that our children will live 5 years less than we will, due to lifestyle-related illnesses and conditions. Why is all of this happening, and how can we give those 5 years back?
I ask this question over and over again in my keynotes and workshops and even in everyday conversations, and the answers I get are things like lack of motivation, lack of a plan, inability to prioritize, or insufficient mindset. In other words, all kinds of things that the individual should be doing differently. But what the evidence suggests is that our declining health and well-being has less to do with the individual and more to do with the larger environment and culture. Think about it: We are born to move, but we are told to sit. We are designed to take breaks, but we are driven to always be on. We need whole foods, but we are surrounded by “supersized” fast-food environments.
To complicate matters further, we know that some of us are imbued with more Wellness Privilege than others, a term that I coined in partnership with DEI expert Karen Catlin, author of Better Allies. Wellness Privilege, defined, is an unearned benefit or advantage enjoyed by some individuals or groups, due to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, geographical location, ability, religion and more. So many of the wellness tips that we hear, like “get out into nature,” “pursue your passion,” “take breaks during the workday,” or “eat whole foods,” all assume privilege.
All of this amounts to my WHY, which is to change the conversation. We have got to shift the conversation from the outdated “Take personal responsibility for your health and well-being,” to one that is rooted in reality. It’s our environments, our cultures and our societal infrastructures that are the key drivers of poor health. Moreover, the systems within these, are enabling better health and well-being for some and disabling it for others. It is these forces that need to be reckoned with, and the only we can is through collective action.
There are a lot of women in the health/wellbeing space. Do you think women are uniquely positioned to drive wellness/wellbeing? Why?
Hmmm. Perhaps women have been socialized to be more attuned to well-being, but what I’ve seen in the workplace is that it is the manager who drives wellness and well-being. They are the ones who are uniquely positioned to either persuade or dissuade their team members from engaging with their well-being. For example, we know that most employees don’t leave their job, they leave their boss. But did you know that when it comes to the health of your heart, your boss matters more than your doctor does, according to a frightening Swedish study? So, when we hear people joke about how their boss “is killing them,” well, they actually kind of mean it. Or, did you know that for every hour that a manager engages in after-hours email time roughly translates into an added 20 minutes of after-hours email time for their team members?
This is why I have been so focused on activating managers to become what I call Multipliers of Well-Being for their teams. It has been so rewarding to witness how, as a result of our signature Managers on the Move program, manager-driven movements of well-being across organizations like Schindler Elevator Corporation, SCHOTT Glass Manufacturing Company, USAID, City of Sioux Falls, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota and many more.
What advice (health, wellness, purpose, career, other) would you give a younger version of yourself?
I think that my biggest piece of advice to my younger self would be “Go for it!”. Like so many women, I have battled against feelings of inadequacy and not being enough. And, then, when I look back on my younger self, I see exactly the opposite. I see that I was enough – and that the only ingredient that was missing was my seeing that (and acting on it). Fortunately, there have been times when I have been able to overcome my inner demons, pushing through my need to be perfect. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this was when I wrote my book, which I describe in a recent blog post “On Writing My First Book.” “Lean into those experiences.” is what would tell my younger self, and this is what I continue to tell my current self.
Is there a woman who has been influential in your life/path?
I have to say my mom. She is now 82, and let me tell you, she makes 82 look great. She is a leader in her community, she is a leader in our family and she inspires me to keep making a difference. She is being the change, as I describe in a recent post – and she pushes me to do the same.
Read about the other Influential Women in Wellness on our 2022 list!