Making Employee Wellbeing the Top Leadership Priority

It starts with the CEO. Studies confirm that the single most important determinant of successful workplace wellbeing programs is the active, passionate, and persistent involvement of the CEO.

The CEO is taken very seriously.  When the CEO wants something, people notice.  When the CEO is passionate about something, it gets elevated to extreme importance.  The sort of paradigm and cultural change needed to create a culture of employee wellbeing simply cannot occur without the full, passionate, focused, and persistent involvement of the CEO.  I was a CEO, and one has to have been one to understand the full implications of CEOship.  It IS different.  This is not elitism.  It’s fact.

While I was CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of RI, I made my singular focus ethics and integrity. Why? Because my predecessor became top-of-the-fold news, and our organization quickly gained a reputation for unethical behavior. We had to change that, and I made ethics and integrity part of every speech, virtually every piece of written material I sent to employees, a part of fully half of my weekly newsletters to employees, etc. And over time, it worked. No cutting corners; full compliance; a strong reporting system, etc. And we became recognized, rather quickly, for having ethics “in our DNA.”

I wish I had brought the same passion to the wellbeing of my employees. I didn’t, and now part of my mission in life is correct that by inspiring CEOs, Boards, and C-Suites to do just that.

A somewhat cynical CEO might ask: “Why is this my responsibility?”  Or, “Why can’t employees just do what they should be doing?”  Or, “Am I also supposed to cure world hunger and take on the responsibility for employees’ happiness?”  “Where does it end?”

These are understandable questions.  The short answers are, yes, this is your responsibility for many reasons, the chief of which is that it is a strategic imperative for operational success.  It’s also the right thing ethically and morally.  And no, employees often need help, and the workplace is the best venue to give and receive such help.

And no, we won’t cure world hunger, nor will we guarantee an employee’s happiness, but we can maximize the likelihood that employees will view their jobs more positively and perhaps even with greater engagement and enthusiasm, with demonstrably positive results for the organization.

In fact, rather than skepticism, a culture of wellbeing requires the passionate and persistent leadership and support of the CEO.  Without that, its importance wanes.  Employee wellbeing must be one of the organization’s two or three top strategic priorities with the required leadership.   That means the CEO has to make this personal.

In Corporate America, it is the responsibility of Boards of Directors to set strategic objectives and to hold the CEO accountable for achieving them.  Thus, a strategic change such as we here propose most likely will be generated by the CEO or by one or more Board members together with the CEO.  It is that important.

I have asked many CEOs why they have not yet made employee health and wellbeing their top strategic objective.  I get a variety of responses, most of which are tinged with skepticism or cynicism.  It won’t work.  We’ve tried that before.  That’s not my job.  You mean, I have to work out in front of my employees?

And then there’s the crisis of the day. There always is one. And the lack of employee wellbeing (even assuming that management realizes there is such a lack) just doesn’t seem like a crisis. While it’s true that wellbeing is not headline news, its essential role in achieving competitive and mission success is clear. The data definitively shows that organizations with high levels of wellbeing and engagement outperform other organizations by startling margins.

The challenges of employee healthcare coverage costs, lack of engagement and productivity, and turnover, exceed any other challenge facing American employers today. Think about what a 40% improvement in customer service might mean; or a 25% reduction in turnover; or a 30% improvement on product quality.

All of this is directly and positively impacted by improved employee wellbeing, something that is not hideously expensive and, by the way, is the right thing to do by employees.

What I truly believe is that CEOs have not given wellbeing the serious consideration it deserves.  However, once CEOs “connect the dots” and understand the direct causal relationship between employee wellbeing and operational success, they will be far more likely to viscerally and enthusiastically believe that employee wellbeing is the key to future success.

Consider these comments by two CEOs who are steeped in this area:

“The most important dial on any leader’s dashboard for the next 20 years will be well-being,” said Jim Clifton, Gallup chairman and chief executive officer.  “The money that well-being improvement means for companies—both for performance and productivity gains as well as healthcare cost reduction—is substantial.”

“Moving beyond physical health and having an informed strategy to improve well-being is the single most important thing that organizations can do to improve performance and lower health-related costs,” said Ben R. Leedle, Jr., Healthways former president and chief executive officer.

Also, witness Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, who as a result of a near-death skiing accident and resulting constant chronic pain, found yoga and mindfulness meditation to be very helpful. Believing that what worked for him might work for his employees, he offered free yoga and mindfulness classes to all Aetna employees. More than 13,000 took him up on that, and as a result, Bertolini reports that those who participated reported significant reductions of pain and stress levels, and improvement in sleep quality. They became more effective on the job, which Aetna estimates was worth $3,000 per employee per year. Estimates are just that, but it was clear that Aetna saw real operational value here. Bertolini also provided Aetna employees all-inclusive wellness centers which included doctors, exam rooms, lab work, prescriptions, and massage therapy. He also provided nutritious food cares and free fitness areas that could be used at any time during the work day.

Another example is Norman Brinker, who in 1983 purchased Child’s Grill and Bar, a small hamburger joint. Brinker had a vision of creating a true dining experience for customers and recognized how important the engagement, morale, and wellbeing of his employees would be in that regard. What he did was to leverage a Gallup’s Wellbeing book to achieve greater engagement by employees, who he calls “Team Members.” Chili’s created five essential elements of wellbeing: social; community; financial; physical; and career. Brinker passionately and actively led this and started with Chili’s leaders, offering yoga, hikes, budgeting classes, and community involvement. It has grown exponentially from there with 75% of employees participating, a huge percentage considering the low average age and incomes of Chili’s employees, many of whom rely on tips for income. Of course, Chili’s has grown into a nation-wide chain of restaurants which are recognized for exceptional service, and employees who are recognized for top flight service, enthusiasm, and integrity.

One of the primary reasons today’s workplace wellness programs have failed is that they are not strategic. They are what someone called “random acts of wellness.” To succeed, they must be comprehensive (whole person approach of body, mind, and spirit), and must be strategic. Employee wellbeing, to truly succeed, should be one of an organization’s three top mission-critical, strategic priorities, planned, funded, staffed, and executed with the same accountabilities as any other mission-critical priority is.

In today’s business environment, this assuredly is not happening, and thus the tepid results of today’s workplace wellness attempts are not surprising. When is the last time that a Board of Directors held its CEO accountable for measurable aspects of employee engagement and wellbeing? When is the last time a Board actually reviewed employee wellbeing results or even tried to measure them?

Wellbeing must become central to an organization’s mission statement.  The Board and the CEO must ensure that employee wellbeing is factored into all business decisions and becomes an embedded part of how they conduct business. And for that to happen, the CEO must lead employee wellbeing passionately, persistently, and personally.

Lastly, while talking about leadership, one can never ignore line management–the leaders who have direct contact with employees. Managers often resist new initiatives that take time away from hitting their numbers. Nothing can kill any well-intended initiative like middle management passive resistance.  And good managers are an important prerequisite to a culture of wellbeing, a subject of critical importance that deserves (and will get) its own blog.

Jim Purcell is the former CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of RI, and prior to that, was a healthcare and trial lawyer in Providence RI. Today, he mediates and arbitrates healthcare disputes, and is writing a book to start a national movement for employee wellbeing. See ReturnsOnWellbeing.com.

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5 replies »

  1. Very well-written. Good work culture and employee care are very important for organizations. Really good post.

  2. If you surveyed 20 CEOs at the top 20 tech companies in the country I suspect you would find that the vast majority of them – possibly as many as 90 percent – believe their companies are leaders in this era ..

    If you brought in a team from the outside researchers – not consultants mind you, but actual living breathing researchers armed with objective methods – you’d find that conditions at those companies are far, far worse than those leaders believe ..

    There is an important conversation to be had, good for you Jim for tackling it aggressively

    It would be interesting to compare conditions at those 20 companies with attitudes and conditions at twenty companies in the economy overall. I think you’d find some very revealing things.

    Lastly, you miss an opportunity here that I think you are aware of. If we look at Healthcare providers, I think we’d find that many leaders would be genuinely shocked and disappointed to discover how bad things are ..

    • Thanks John. I have a good deal of experience with law firms which are usually horrible places to work for all but the partners. I suspect hospitals are similar, despite the inspiring roles that workers can play there actually caring for people.

  3. What, then, might be a contemporary definition of HEALTH, aka Wellness? I offer the following: a person’s daily expression of life-long stable survival that is ENDOWED by the person’s innate human capabilities and its associated character of temperament and homeostasis; NURTURED by the person’s family, extended family and family neighborhood to form a Personal Survival Plan; MATURED by the Disruptive Processes of life as mitigated by Caring Relationships; and SUSTAINED by the person’s Family Traditions and their community’s Common Good until the effects of cumulative, irreversible Disruptive Processes are sufficiently prominent to end stable survival.
    You might say: a “Personal Survival Plan”, what is that?
    see https://nationalhealthusa.net/communityhealthforum/personal-survival-plan/
    Disruptive Process, aka root causes of illness?
    see https://nationalhealthusa.net/summary/mechanism-of-disease/
    By adding a definition for SOCIAL CAPITAL and a community’s COMMON GOOD, you arrive at the cumulative benefits of an employer based Wellness campaign, employer by employer, to reduce the community-wide adversities that drive the poor health of 20-30% of each community’s citizens…beginning with social isolation and obesity.

    • How to address stress in a work environment is an interesting subject. One can’t avoid it. It is by nature part of a challenging job. So, while you can reduce some aspects of stress that result from managers who are jerks, etc., for the unavoidable stress, it’s about preparing to react positively to it. Some call this resiliency. Resiliency is done better as a team than in isolation; but it can come either naturally or as an acquired skill.

      I can’t say I totally followed what you wrote above, but the idea of workplace wellbeing is to create a culture where the default is healthful living (physical, mental and emotional). That has to be strategically planned and executed, and as the article suggests, led.

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