Organizational change can start at the bottom through individual employee behavior, but it will almost always fall short without support from the top. Employee wellbeing is an issue that CEOs must take seriously, and research is showing that they do. According to a survey from investment firm Norwest Venture Partners, which involved 200 CEOs/founders of privately held, venture- and growth equity-backed companies, 32% of CEOs work with a wellness coach. A UK study cited in CEO magazine found that 60% of UK CEOs cite mental health as their top priority.
However, even if a CEO believes in prioritizing wellbeing at work, putting that into practice can be difficult. The demands of time and energy on a CEO are high; without a plan to make it manageable, good intentions can fall short.
Employee wellbeing begins at the top
If your organization truly wants to improve wellbeing, your CEO needs to set an example for the rest of the company. Otherwise, your people may just feel like your company is "talking the talk" without "walking the walk." It's one thing for a company to tell employees that they should take a break and protect their boundaries, but it's another to build the trust necessary for employees to truly believe those actions will be accepted, rather than punished. That's why we believe CEOs need to set an example for the rest of the company.
6 ways to improve wellbeing at your company
Here we share a few ways CEOs have succeeded in improving wellbeing by making it a priority for themselves and their companies.
1. Prioritize taking time off and unplugging while away
Didier Elzinga, CEO of Culture Amp says, “For me, wellbeing is a holistic concept. It’s about your total self – physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. It’s about how you’re coping and your energy reserves. So, one of the things I’m doing for my wellbeing is to take more time off. I’m bad at taking leave, but I have taken more time off this year than I have in any year of the company's history, which has helped.”
An unlimited vacation policy will fail if employees don’t feel empowered to take time when they need it. CEOs can lead by example when it comes to unplugging during vacation. This shows employees that even the most senior person at the company takes part in a basic benefit provided to everyone.
2. Remove the taboo from taking a nap during the day
Arianna Huffington, CEO of Thrive Global, is a big proponent of getting a full night’s rest. So much so that the offices of Thrive Global all have nap rooms for employees to use when they need them. "It’s important [to have this room in the office] because the science around naps is very clear – they really work. Plus, nap rooms and nap pods are also a signal to employees that this is a workplace that prioritizes well-being instead of burnout," she says in an interview with Architecture Digest.
Giving employees a place to relax, and ensuring that they’re empowered to use it, is a great way to lead by example. While not every office has the space for a nap room, let employees know they’re supported in taking time while working from home or even taking a walk during the day to unplug.
3. Combine personal wellness experience with ROI of programs
Mark Bertolini, chairman, chief executive officer, and president at Aetna, became an even bigger champion of employee wellbeing after receiving pain-management care for a spinal injury. “Based on my personal experience, I fully supported the development of yoga and mindfulness-based programs at Aetna. However, the reason we have continued to expand these programs among our employees is that they have been extremely popular and produced results - reducing stress and improving productivity,” he shares in an interview with Corporate Wellness Magazine.
Mark adds that they track ongoing participation and overall engagement with each wellbeing program to ensure it’s supporting employees. Taking wellness programs that you’ve found success with and translating them into the workplace is another great way to demonstrate a commitment to wellbeing. As Mark explains, measuring to ensure each wellbeing program is effective is important too.
4. Offer the best healthcare plans that you can
When Todd Walter became CEO of Red Door Spa in 2006, he wanted to make wellbeing a priority. He says, “A lot of people who are passionate about healing are attracted to work in our industry. Yet we noticed lots of signs of overstress from associates providing so much caregiving to others, but not always taking care of themselves.”
So, one of the first things he did as CEO was to research and implement a leading healthcare plan to demonstrate to employees that wellbeing was a priority. “We’ve not only accomplished that strategy but have found that participation by people who are healthy has increased. We’re getting more healthy people – including children – into the health plan,” says Todd to Wisdom Works.
Along with taking vacation days, offering robust healthcare packages are essential programs that CEOs can make into realities. Along with your HR team, understand what you can offer when it comes to healthcare and ensure that employees know how to enroll and get the most out of it.
5. Be vulnerable - admit when wellbeing is a struggle
Alexis Jones, CEO of I AM THAT GIRL, an empowerment non-profit helping girls transform self-doubt into self-love, says that improving wellbeing at work starts with permitting people to make wellbeing a priority.
“And showing people you’re doing it too, plus admitting when you haven’t done so well. In the past ... I was sitting there telling people the most important thing is to take care of themselves, yet I was obviously sick and not at my best. I was sending the message that Alexis doesn’t leave work for anything, even when she’s sick. So for me, leading wellbeing is having the guts to really practice what I preach, to back my words up with actions. It means being vulnerable and admitting when my ego is driving me toward burnout. I think you build the strongest team when you can be vulnerable and take care of yourself personally,” she says in an interview with Wisdom Works.
6. Support employees when they do focus on wellbeing
In 2017, Madalyn Parker, a web developer from Olark Live Chat, emailed her team letting them know she’d be out for two days to focus on her mental health. Olark’s CEO Ben Congleton was celebrated for his response: "I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can't believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all and help cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work."
Countless news outlets, from Inc to CNN to Fast Company, covered the incident when Madalyn tweeted Ben’s response. People began sharing their good (and some frustratingly bad) stories about mental health at work. Being authentic in supporting employee wellbeing at work means applauding employees for taking advantage of wellbeing offerings like vacation and other programs. The more people see your support as CEO, the more apt they’ll be to focus on wellbeing at work.
Make wellbeing a priority at your organization