Robert Sawatzky
Oct 10, 2018

J&J preaches what it practices on holistic health

Ex-marketer leads opening of Human Performance Institute in Asia, with aim to help stressed-out workforces.

Bobby Sheikh: Sees fertile ground for the company's well-being offering among agencies.
Bobby Sheikh: Sees fertile ground for the company's well-being offering among agencies.

It’s not a stretch to say that well-being is part of Johnson & Johnson’s DNA. J&J's products after all, are designed to improve human health whether in the medical devices, pharmaceutical or consumer product divisions.

But more than that, the 132-year old brand has a long history of employee initiatives designed to encourage healthier lives, from its company gymnasium and volleyball teams dating back to the 1900s and 1910s, to its 75-year-old company credo by Robert Wood Johnson II, which makes it the company's first responsibility to serve the well-being of doctors, nurses, patients, employees and communities—all ahead of shareholders.

L to R: J&J women's volleyball team in 1907; J&J employee gymnasium in 1910; J&J occupational health clinic in 1917

Fostering a healthy workforce is a passion bordering on obsession for J&J, whose current CEO Alex Gorsky has made it a goal to house the world’s healthiest workforce by 2020. Indeed, Campaign’s recent tour of J&J’s office bears this out. Four floors of interconnected staircases and marked walkways encourage regular movement for its 1500 employees. Pantries are stocked with healthy foods and juices. A weight room, massive cardio gymnasium and full-scale fitness/dance studio allow employee workouts throughout the day and after hours. Then there’s the on-duty nurse and health services centre next door. And the relaxation room kitted with massage chairs down the hall. One quickly gets the picture: health is everything here. 

J&J's Singapore office houses a full-scale gym with cardio, weight rooms and fitness/yoga studio

Selling human performance

But like any big brand, J&J doesn’t want to keep its expertise to itself. It sees an opportunity to export its wellness specialisation more widely through its Human Performance Institute (HPI). Founded in Orlando in 1991, HPI is now running for the first time outside the US in Singapore. It's led here by former J&J marketer Bobby Sheikh, who sees fertile ground for change among Asia’s stressed-out marketing agencies.

HPI, rumoured to be the fastest acquisition in J&J’s history after its management took a course by performance trainer Jim Loehr, now applies lessons once geared toward elite athletes and special forces to external CEOs, managers and employees.

“If you think about athletes and special forces, you’re always in training,” says Sheikh, whose official job title is Asia-Pacific unit business head for HPI. “In some respects it’s such a simple life. You’re taught how to train, told what to eat, how much to sleep, when to rest. But if you think about us, it’s all on our own hands. We have to manage our time. We have to have home life, work life, family life—it’s a non-stop affair that's all self-driven. So principles of how you manage performance and energy are perhaps more relevant to the everyday person than the athlete. And that’s how this came about being offered to the broader population.”

HPI performance courses focus on holistic health and balancing four different energy levels; not simply the physical, but also emotional, mental and spiritual, to improve everything from nutrition, exercise and alertness to collaboration, strategic focus and commitment. J&J’s goal is for all of its 100,000 employees to take an HPI course, run by an internal team.

It's not just a feel-good exercise. J&J has found that those who take the class are more resilient than those who don't, showing themselves 18% more likely to receive a top-rating as employees. Graduates have proved 25% more likely to be promoted than non-graduates.

Sheikh’s job, however is to provide HPI offerings as an external-facing business, albeit a small one at the moment. For an $85 billion company, “what I’m doing here is not going to break the P&L,” he laughs. “A lot of it is about the equity in the reputation and the mission of what we’re trying to do.”


Bobby Sheikh, head of J&J's Asia-Pacific Human Performance Institute

Only six months into operations in Asia, Sheikh now runs pop-up performance programs with IPG, WPP and Omnicom, working with agencies like JWT and DDB in either one-day or two-and-a-half-day courses. He says the deadlines and stress placed on creatives and have an impact on mental health and emotional health. “The impact of this cost overall is powerful,” Sheikh says, and given “the amount of intensity agencies have to go through… as a service provider and marketer I thought this was super relevant to bring to them.”

Mental health is one part of it

Today is World Mental Health Day, and Sheikh has noticed a real change in media awareness around the issue. Mental health issues, of course, can be extremely complex, and HPI does not purport to offer solutions or treatment to specific conditions. Instead, the kind of mental health HPI deals with is about the mental focus of all employees as part of an overall program to improve general well-being. 

For HPI, mental health is one dimension of holistic health, and Sheikh has found that not everyone recognises how intertwined it can be with other health areas.

“What gets overlooked often in discussions about mental health is purpose—why you do things,” says Sheikh. If you have a personal ‘why’, he says, you’re more likely to take better care of your health, from getting a prostate exam, mammogram or cholesterol test, to making better leisure-activity choices.  

“There are also studies that show it has a physiological effect. If you can understand your ‘why’ on whether you have a purpose or not, you will have lower allostatic load on your systems,” Sheikh says.  “You put all that stuff together and that has been one of my a-ha’s in the mental health and emotional space,” he says, adding that physical, emotional and mental health can all benefit at once from finding personal purpose.

For Sheikh, watching people find the meaning in their attitudes, actions and behaviours and making some subtle changes in their outlook and habits can be extremely gratifying.

“It’s off the beaten path from a career perspective," Sheikh admits. “But for me, it’s sort of like a dream job that I get to do this.”

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