Michael Heinrich is not your typical “start-up company CEO” that might conjure up a “type” in some people’s minds: Late nights at the office… lots of coffee and Red Bull… a level of intensity that goes all the way to 11. Michael Heinrich doesn’t quite fit the mold. He meditates 2-3 hours a day. He eats vegetables. He sleeps And the company has grown tremendously, nearly 18% month over month since its inception. But it wasn’t always this way.
During his early career in the tech, financial services and consulting industries, Michael found himself working all the time, eating too much junk food and skipping opportunities to exercise and de-stress. And he felt terrible. This spawned an idea: What if workplaces inspired people to live their best lives, and as a result, people started bringing their best selves to work? Oh My Green was founded on this principle.
M.R. Rangaswami: What were you noticing in the corporate world that made you start Oh My Green?
Michael Heinrich: I live and work in Silicon Valley, where the business culture can be intense and the workload is non-stop. It’s not uncommon to hear people brag about pulling all-nighters at the office, working on vacation, and eating lunch at their desks. I know, because I used to be one of those people. When I was working in technology, financial services and management consulting, I fell into a bad routine: working all the time, eating junk food at the office and skipping opportunities to exercise, have fun, sleep, and de-stress. And no surprise, I felt terrible.
It got me thinking that the “work as hard as possible” ethos that seems pervasive—not just in Silicon Valley, but throughout much of the corporate world—is not just wrong, but counter-productive. Tired, stressed-out, unhealthy people are not going to perform at their best. They are not going to come to the office with focused and calm minds and creative ideas. Yet, our workplace culture tends to aggrandize workaholism and in turn, creates a culture of burnout and stress rather than a culture of inspiration and wellness. I was shocked to learn in Jeffrey Pfeffer’s recent book “Dying for a Paycheck” that the workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States! The workplace has become an unhealthy environment that can have serious consequences
This is what sparked the idea for Oh My Green. We want to bring innovation to all aspects of health and wellness in the workplace. We’ve started by focusing on healthier foods and beverages, but are also looking at how to integrate everything—from physical activity to mindfulness to better design and ergonomics—more organically into the office environment. It is the balance between body, mind, and environment that is the foundation for a culture of wellness.
Sound nutrition was ingrained in me since I was young. My grandmother is a medical doctor and she taught me that if I didn’t feel well I should eat more from the garden. It is about prevention, not treatment of ailments, and healthy food is the foundation to maintain overall wellness. This is what we want to bring to today’s modern workplace.
M.R.: Why do you believe it’s important for an organization to be aware of their health and wellness culture? How easy is it to change or add this to an organization’s culture?
Michael: Research increasingly supports the importance of health and wellness in the workplace. A culture that prioritizes employee wellbeing shouldn’t just be viewed as something that would be “nice to have,” but rather as a vital and integral part of an organization’s mission and competitive strategy. In fact, wellness must become a staple if organizations want to remain competitive in the near future. Here are a few stats to consider:
- Over the past ten years, chronic disease has increased by 25% in working-age adults, and the CDC estimates that productivity losses due to missed work costs employers $225.8 billion, or $1,685 per employee, annually.
- A recent New York Times story links poor diet to depression, the top driver of disability for Americans aged 15-44.
- The CDC has found that improvements in physical, mental and emotional health enhance stamina, concentration and focus, leading to greater work output, and the World Health Organization estimates adequate nutrition can increase productivity by an average of 20 per cent.
- According to a Bain study, inspired employees are 2.25x more productive than satisfied employees.
In response to some of these issues (and opportunities) investment in wellness programs has been on the rise in recent years—to the tune of billions of dollars. But, there’s often a disconnect between what corporations are hoping to achieve and actual results. Why? By focusing on pure educational approaches or reactive things like health screenings, weight loss and smoking cessation programs, organizations are only addressing the tip of the iceberg. Wellness is so much more than just the absence of disease and “fixing things that are wrong.” A holistic approach—that helps people live their best lives and nurtures their minds, bodies and the environment that they work in—is a far more powerful way to cultivate a culture that’s healthier, happier and more inspired.
The question is, where to start? One of the reasons that we founded our wellness service on foods and beverages is that nutrition is the single most important driver of overall health and preventing disease in the first place. Turning things around after people are sick is much harder. A recent study published in the British journal The Lancet and reported in the New York Times found that “one-fifth of deaths around the world were associated with poor diets—defined as those short on fresh vegetables, seeds and nuts, but heavy in sugar, salt and trans fats.” This makes unhealthy eating responsible for more deaths than smoking and high blood pressure. And unfortunately, the foods people typically get at work—sugary sodas and ultra-processed snacks—often fall into the unhealthy category.
But, here’s the good news: this represents a significant untapped opportunity to really make an impact. And yes, sometimes it can be challenging to change ingrained habits—people get accustomed to their 3 p.m. soda or their processed snacks—but we have found that habits will change over time when people are consistently offered better options (especially when healthy snacks are free or subsidized as a benefit). Very often it’s ease and convenience that keeps people in their ruts, and they are more apt to choose healthier when their employer makes the healthy choice easy. Thoughtful choice architecture, whereby you organize the context in which people make decisions, can lead to meaningful behavioral changes. We apply this to the designs of our kitchens and break rooms. Positioning healthy products at eye level, for instance, can help nudge people in the right direction. So these are a few ways to improve healthy eating at the office.
At Oh My Green, we practice what we preach. Beyond nutrition, we emphasize mindfulness within our own organization through twice a day meditation for 20 minutes. We also constantly offer opportunities for people to be active, find work/life balance and live healthier and happier lives at work, whether through walking meetings, thoughtful office design, or free healthy snacks and drinks. When wellness practices can be incorporated organically into your culture, it becomes part of the way you do things.
How has your leadership grown and changed over the course of founding Oh My Green? What tips do you have for other leaders of companies in the valley?
I’ve learned a lot since founding Oh My Green, the most important lesson being that the common concept of what it takes to “succeed in the startup world”—long hours, little sleep, never leaving the office—are not just wrong, but counter-productive. In fact, it creates a culture of burnout, bad decisions and behavior. At Oh My Green, we’ve prioritized building an organizational culture that values health, wellbeing, purpose, and happiness as much as output. And guess what? Not only has this resulted in a workforce that’s more motivated and engaged, but it’s also translated into productivity. We’ve realized nearly 18% growth, month over month, since the company’s inception and are currently at around 400 employees. Most importantly, our team hasn’t had to burn or stress themselves out to achieve this success.
Personally, I’m especially passionate about the power of meditation as a productivity enhancer. The two times I spend on transcendental meditation each day actually make me more focused, calm and creative during the time I spend working and it plays a key role in my ability to be an effective leader. My advice for today’s leaders would include the following:
- Define your culture and mission on day 1. If you don’t truly care about what you are creating, it’s going to be really hard to summon the passion you need to succeed. In turn, it will be hard to inspire your team and recruit value aligned people.
- Eat healthy, get restful sleep, spend time with family and friends, exercise, meditate. When one is tired, stressed or sick, bad (and often difficult to reverse) decisions follow. I have learned that rest is the basis of activity and that there shouldn’t have to be a choice between being successful and being well.
- Build meaningful relationships with your team and spend meaningful time with them. Leverage lots of humor and levity in your interactions to create a low stress / low threat environment. A successful company is more than its leader. Co-create objectives with your team and then trust them to execute and achieve results (you likely spent lots of time recruiting amazing people in the first place). Praise and appreciate often.
- Focus: Figure out the thing that is most important in any given day and do that—everything else can wait. Outsource all chores and scheduling. EAs are wonderful; but there are also affordable virtual assistants or other services that help make time for things that matter.
In many cases “doing less” and finding balance in your life will actually lead you to accomplish more.