Workplace Wellness: The Case For CEO Leadership

Workplace wellness
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Employee wellness programs have been proven to boost engagement, but companies won't achieve the greatest possible ROI without full-throated CEO buy-in.

To achieve real ROI from employee wellbeing efforts, CEOs have to start seeing it not as a distraction, but as an enabler of strategy.

The Centers for Disease Control states that “leadership commitment” is a top success element of wellness programs that contribute to a culture of health. Other research shows that CEO leadership of workplace wellness boosts employee participation in wellness activities, lowers job stress levels, and encourages desirable health behaviors.

Yet, despite the evidence-based role of CEO leadership in effective wellness initiatives, most CEOs do not give employee wellbeing hands-on attention. This is a mistake, given the role of workplace wellness in helping companies meet emerging human capital challenges.

This is not the case at PwC, the multinational services firm, which employs over 284,000 employees in 158 countries. PwC not only prioritizes employee wellbeing as a core business strategy, the company sees it as a CEO-level priority for boosting workforce performance, fulfillment, and engagement.

“Business leaders today have to go beyond just motivating their employees,” says Tim Ryan, the US Chair of PwC who leads PwC’s Be Well, Work Well initiative. “They have to…invest in them holistically; this means their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.”

CEO Leadership Is Key To Success

CEOs are central to making employee wellbeing a non-negotiable priority. Only CEOs can establish company-wide policies, ensure wellness is planned to advance C-Suite priorities, hold managers and others accountable, and transform organizational cultures to ensure they support employee wellbeing.

Unfortunately, many CEOs approach “employee wellness” as a program and HR function. Most do not plan or oversee wellness investments, link employee wellbeing to organizational priorities or ensure that wellness programs are accountable for achieving employee health outcomes or business returns.

This widespread lack of CEO leadership helped to inspire Return On Wellbeing Institute’s Workplace Wellness: Best Practices Study 2022 (sponsored by the Wellness Council of America). Between 2019-22, we examined best practices in workplace wellness by identifying data from recognized authorities which resulted in the following set of practices for designing and implementing effective employee wellness initiatives.

1. Strategic approach

2. Culture as a priority

3. Whole-person approach

4. Leadership support

5. Purpose as a priority

6. Returns are measured

In particular, we followed evidence that CEO leadership support can help achieve greater buy-in across an organization and cultivate a supportive work environment, and that CEOs who make “stakeholder health” a personal responsibility can drive performance, relationships, and brand.

In our interviews with directors of 18 leading wellness initiatives, we found that most received some hands-on CEO leadership, and more than half said their CEOs spoke about wellbeing in employee communications, participated in company events, and shared personal stories about their own wellbeing.

Because managers set the tone of work environments—wielding the power to make or break cultures that support employee wellbeing – we looked at how C-suites ensure managers are trained to support employee wellbeing, and include employee wellbeing in manager performance reviews and promotions.

We found that CEO leadership is key to gaining manager buy-in for wellness initiatives, given that front-line managers play a significant role in ensuring wellness programs achieve their strategic objectives.

Because employees look to CEOs to prioritize wellbeing as central to organizational culture, researchers asked participants about their wellness communications, given that employee communications are key to effective wellness programs and consistent communication helps foster an organizational commitment to employee health. In the companies we studied, most had ongoing wellness communications that included messages from CEOs in newsletters, podcasts, videos, or dedicated wellness web pages.

CEO leadership should also link wellness planning and investments to helping companies meet human capital challenges. For example, PwC’s Tim Ryan directed PwC to analyze the link between its wellbeing practices and how improved wellbeing influences employee retention, boosts teamwork and strengthens client relationships.

PwC’s Wellbeing Learning Project concluded that “employees who engaged in healthy habits reported a perception of better client relationships, a belief in improved team dynamics, lower levels of burnout, and a stronger intention to remain with the firm.”

Achieving results like these requires CEO leadership in planning, staffing, funding and executing wellness initiatives as mission-critical priorities. CEOs must also ensure that wellness leaders have a span of influence to ensure they participate in all areas that influence employee wellbeing.

Accordingly, CEOs should elevate wellness leaders to top-tier advisors, and work with CHROs to initiate sweeping changes to enhance workplace wellbeing. These changes could take many forms, such as redesigning company cultures, collaborating with customer service and working with PR to boost a company’s reputation as a great place to work.

One thing is certain: wellbeing is not about coddling employees. It’s a bottom-line imperative supported by strong data. But if employees hope to see returns from employee wellbeing, CEOs can no longer see wellbeing as a distraction, but as an enabler for addressing existing C Suite challenges.

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