It was your typical wellness program rollout, circa 2005. There was one email, maybe two, from HR telling everyone that a new wellness program was available. That was followed by a reminder email, encouraging people to sign up to get their $100 incentive. And after that? Crickets. Not surprisingly, that wellness program never really went anywhere because it wasn’t foundational — there just wasn’t the kind of top level buy-in to get it to take hold.
Of course, since then we’ve all learned that CEO involvement is critical to wellness programs. According to the American Psychological Association, “successful wellness programs must have key senior leadership involvement or they may fail.” The good news is, if your top execs do support your wellness initiatives, employees are nearly twice as likely to report improved health, according to a survey by the American Heart Association CEO roundtable. Without it, employees just see the programs as a cost-saving strategy. As an article in the Harvard Business Review put it, “Employees must trust the program and the employer’s motives, which requires visible CEO leadership.”
So, CEO support is critical. But you probably already knew that. The real challenge is, how do you get it? Like many benefits leaders, I may have limited time with my CEO, so it’s important to make the most of it. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years working at companies large and small, and in everything from traditional cultures to startups.
Step One: Become the “cheerleader in chief” of your wellness programs
Benefit leaders need to embrace the idea that we are the champion and chief cheerleader for our company’s wellness programs. This is the crucial first step. You need to be bought in, and you must understand the importance of wellness programs to your company. Then go to your CEO and champion it.
Step Two: Frame the conversation
To get CEO support for your wellness programs, figure out the best way to frame the benefits. At some companies, it will be pure ROI. At larger companies that are self insured and have incentives to make that work, you can quantify the cost savings. But for smaller companies, it may be better to position wellness programs as an added benefit that drives morale and employee retention and prevents absenteeism or “presenteeism,” where their body may be at work but their mind is far away.
Different industries will have different needs, and a lot of it depends on how you look at your employee base. In manufacturing, productivity may be paramount, so you can position wellness programs as a way to cut back on sick days or the number of people out due to injury. In industries like tech and health care, where finding and retaining talent is hard, your execs may be happy to step up their involvement in wellness programs as a way to promote an inviting culture that attracts top talent. The point is to have a strategy that matches your company’s needs.
Also consider what will resonate with your CEO personally. Are they already athletic, or devoted to healthy eating? Great, you can plug into that. If not, consider other emotional drivers. For instance, promoting wellness could be a great way to increase your CEO’s personal brand and role as a trusted leader. Just as you are framing the conversation from a corporate perspective, look for a way to tap into a core human need as well.
Step Three: Be specific
Be very clear about what you want your CEO to do, and then make it easy and routine for her to do it. For instance, if you want her to post on social media, set a schedule, suggest relevant content, and come up with a process. We recommend having a monthly list of posts, which can include workout tips, links to good articles, or news about company discounts or gym memberships. Pick a regular time to post, say once a week, which will help build her social media audience. Then figure out who will do it — this can range from the executive herself to someone in your marketing or social media teams or even her admin. And finally, be sure to make the most of your assets by repurposing them. A social post can also appear in a company newsletter or intranet, or be turned into office posters or other corporate communications. The point is to make it all frictionless for your CEO.
It’s also a good idea to tie your CEO’s activities to your larger initiatives. Let’s say you want to encourage people to walk more during the day. Ask your CEO if she would be open to doing a walk-and-talk meeting with someone, and then posting or being interviewed about it afterwards.
Step Four: Target the influencers
As critical as senior level support is, at some companies middle manager involvement is just as important as the C-suite’s. If you work at a large retailer, the store manager may be even more influential in some ways, and you’ll see employees mimic or model their approach. So find your company's top influencers and enlist their help. Maybe some of them would be interested in talking about their personal journey, so ask them to share that. “I go to the gym three times a week” or “I ride my bike on the weekends” — whatever they are passionate about.
Another idea is to set up some intramural challenges. Whose team walked the most, lost the most weight, or had the most walk-and-talk meetings in a single month? Use your wellness program as a centerpiece, which will encourage people to get involved when they might not have otherwise. It’s fun to set up some friendly competition among managers, and it encourages everyone to take part. At Rally, we create cross-organizational teams, so people get to know folks in other areas. Programs like this don’t necessarily require CEO involvement and can have a big impact. However, if the CEO can be a part of it, perhaps by congratulating the winners, then that’s even better.
Tom Perrault is Chief People Officer at Rally Health, with 20 years in the human resources field. He is also an attorney and a member of CHREATE, the Global Consortium to Reimagine HR, Employment Alternatives, Talent, and the Enterprise.