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Leadership Plays Key Role in Effective Workforce Wellness Efforts

Employers with effective workforce wellness programs have their leadership to thank in driving home the importance of healthy behaviors.

Workforce wellness programs

Source: Thinkstock

By Kyle Murphy, PhD

- A new report from the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Mercer reveals just how vital leadership support is to high-quality workforce wellness initiatives.

“These findings suggest organizations that want to improve employee well-being and impact spending should consider how they can bolster organizational support and leadership involvement in day-to-day well-being activities,” Mercer Senior Total Health Management Consultant Steven Noeldner said in a public statement.

“Even if you have an established, comprehensive program,” he continued, “a perceived lack of leadership support could prevent employees from participating and benefiting from these initiatives. Leadership support costs very little to implement and can be as simple as celebrating employee efforts or sharing personal well-being goals and practices.”

Comprising responses from a thousand employers around the globe, the 2018 Progress Report found that leadership recognition of employee wellness effort led to higher participation rates.

“Such organizations report participation rates of 61% for health assessment (versus 48% when leaders do not recognize employees), 50% for biometric screenings (versus 40%) and 25% for targeted coaching programs (versus 20%),” the authors of the report state. “When leaders serve as role models by actively participating in health and well-being programs, participation rates tended to be similarly distributed.”

Leaders who participate in these programs can also have a positive effect on employees.

“Organizations whose leaders are role models for prioritizing health and work/life balance reported higher median satisfaction rates (85%) and employee agreement of organizational support (85%), compared to organizations whose leaders were not role models (75% and 73%, respectively),” the authors observe.

According to the report, leading from the front is crucial to the effectiveness of and satisfaction associated with workforce wellness programs:

These findings suggest that organizations that want to be perceived as caring about the wellbeing of their employees and having employees who are satisfied with their well-being initiatives need to enable, reinforce and encourage leaders and managers to care about the well-being of their people. Employers need to stop thinking of well-being initiatives as “plug and play” programs that check the well-being box, and, instead, consider how the culture and practices of the organization support people as people.

Similarly, leadership accountability is a key determinant of success in workforce wellness.

“Even in organizations that offer very comprehensive well-being initiatives — including health screenings, behavior change workshops, onsite gyms and others — employees’ perceived lack of leadership support might act as a barrier to their participating in and benefiting from these initiatives,” the authors claim.

The report also reveals several trends in workforce wellness:

  • There is a higher prevalence of reported health improvement in organizations that offer targeted lifestyle management services than in those that do not (29 percent vs. 9 percent). The results are similar when looking at medical cost trend (36 percent when targeted services are present vs. 10 percent when they are not).
  • When employers offer financial incentives, 72 percent of employees report satisfaction with well-being initiatives, compared to 66 percent when employers do not offer incentives.
  • 56 percent of employers have a formal, written strategic plan in place for well-being; these employers report better outcomes on health improvement and medical trend than those that do not.

Leaders aren’t the only ones exerting a positive influence over workforce wellness. Employee feedback also proved crucial to the development of workforce wellness programs.

Using employee feedback to inform decision-making about health and well-being content and program offerings is also associated with higher participation rates in health assessment (54% with employee input versus 45% without input), biometric screening (48% versus 38%) and health coaching (25% versus 13%),” the authors note.

Choice is also important to employees and their likelihood of participating in workforce wellness plans.

“When participation rates were examined based on the number of coaching choices offered, more choices were associated with higher participation rates,” the authors add.

Considering the prevalence of employer-sponsored health plans in the US, companies are uniquely positioned to improve the health of their workforces.


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