A foot-race at the Panathenaea, Greece, 800-480 BC (Source:  Encyclopædia Britannica)
Ideas for Leaders #596

How to Inspire Resistant Employees to Embrace Health and Wellness

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Key Concept

Employee health and wellness programs often suffer from low participation. Credible and consistent support and involvement from top management can make the difference. Two researchers identify the five behaviours of transformational leaders who inspire and motivate full employee participation.

Idea Summary

More and more business leaders and top managers understand that employee wellness programs help the organization succeed, through less absenteeism and greater engagement and productivity, as much as it helps individual employees to be happy and healthy. However, according to a report from two researchers involved in a multi-year study of wellness programs, many employees are not as convinced as their leaders that such programs are valuable or even necessary.

Begun in 2011 and continuing through 2016, the Sun Life-Ivey ROI Canadian Wellness ROI study is a multi-part research project exploring the financial impact of corporate wellness programs. In a recent report emerging from the study, Shivani Parihar and Michael Rouse of the Ivey Business School at Canada’s Western University share evidence of an ROI of $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness initiatives — without counting the $2.73-per-dollar ROI from a significant reduction in absenteeism. Some of the studies in Parihar and Rouse’s meta-analysis put the return on investment as high as 6:1.

There are a variety of wellness programs and initiatives that organizations can put in place to get these results, ranging from exercise classes to counselling on healthy eating habits to support groups and annual physical check-ups.

The goal of such programs, according to Parihar and Rouse’s report, is to change the behaviour of employees. Half of an individual’s health status stems from that individual’s behaviour — and as much as 75% of an individual’s health care costs can be reduced by behavioural lifestyle changes.

Unfortunately, employees are often reticent to participate in these new wellness programs. Ironically, it is the employees that could most use the programs — in other words, employees that are not already engaged in exercising and other healthy activities — who insist that they don’t have the time, don’t see the purpose of such programs, or claim they are unaware of the programs. Many of these employees are simply reluctant to change their behaviours.

Through their position, status and power, transformational leaders inspire and motivate their employees to follow the mission of the organization. Some transformational leaders, for example, engage their entire workforce in the company’s focus on the environment. Such transformational leadership is also required to focus employees on health and wellness, creating an atmosphere that encourages employees to participate and inspiring employees to overcome their resistance.

Business Application

Building on their meta-analysis of previous studies, Parihar and Rouse developed a Senior Management Involvement and Leadership (SMIL) model that identified five behaviours required of senior management to ensure maximum participation in organizational wellness programs:

  • Long-term organizational alignment and support. Senior managers must align the organization’s strategy, processes and culture to wellness initiatives. Health and wellness should be an integral part of the strategy. Processes and policies must be in place to demonstrate the full support of top management. Employees are more likely to take the time to exercise if a policy that explicitly allowed exercise time during work hours is in place.
  • Proper communication. Communicate early, often and clearly. One company launched a wellness program without warning and without a clear explanation of its motives. Participation was non-existent until outside consultants helped managers explain the company’s commitment to wellness.
  • Personal participation. Top managers must be seen to be fully participating in the wellness programs — not just talking about them. Smoking among the ranks of one military unit decreased significantly after commanding officers cut back on their own smoking.  
  • Commitment of resources. If top management is willing to commit significant funds, staff and even time to the wellness initiatives, employees understand that wellness is a top management priority — and they better pay attention.
  • Delegation of responsibilities. Top managers cannot rely solely on top-down commands and hierarchical authority to effect change. Instead, they must engage the entire organization in the programs, and this is most effectively achieved by delegating responsibility for implementation. For example, senior leaders should identify and train leaders at all levels — leaders who have the skills and ability to influence their peers and employees — to champion the wellness initiatives.

One final note emphasized by the researchers: Consistency is key. If the support or commitment from top management flags in any way, expect employee engagement in wellness programs to dissipate.

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Idea conceived

  • April 2016

Idea posted

  • April 2016

DOI number



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