Why CEOs Must Prioritise Health and Lead By Example

Annie Button, professional content writer and branding aficionado, discusses the importance of business leaders prioritising health.

The last few years have clearly demonstrated that anything can happen. Businesses who are able to adapt to challenging and changing circumstances not only stand a much better chance of weathering the storm, they are also best placed to forge ahead when normality returns. Employees are a company’s most valuable asset, so this is where your priorities should be directed.

There’s been a lot of talk about how to boost employee engagement and create a positive company culture in which everyone feels valued and supported to perform to the best of their abilities. But it all starts with the wellbeing of your staff. “Being mentally and physically healthy gives our employees the mental stamina to adjust to the new environment we’re all living in. And to deliver the resources employees genuinely need to be at their best, leaders need to meet and connect with them where they are,” says Rob Butler, CEO of Wondr Health: A new brand for a new world

Recent research certainly shows that many other business leaders are now taking employee wellbeing very seriously indeed. In one survey carried out in 2020, 93% of CEOs cited the health and safety of their workforce as their top priority. This is all very well but how does it translate into action on the ground? And, given that the culture and ethos of an organisation emanate from the top, what are C-suite executives doing to demonstrate that they walk the talk? Here are some suggestions to consider.

Comprehensive healthcare packages

An obvious place to start, but providing a robust healthcare package to your employees is a clear demonstration that you are taking the health and wellbeing of your team seriously. Work with your HR team to identify what exactly the business is capable of offering when it comes to healthcare, and make sure that your workforce knows how to access it and get the most out of it. Whether health benefits form part of the employment contract or are offered as part of a wider-ranging Employee Assistance Programme, it sends a strong signal that you are committed to supporting your team members to look after themselves.

Physical and mental first aid support

The Health & Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 stipulate that employers must provide adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and designated personnel to carry out emergency first aid for injuries and illnesses at work. Here is just one example of the many certification training courses available for First Aid at Work (FAW) and Emergency First Aid at Work (EFAW) – but don’t forget that mental first aid provision is as important as physical first aid. While there are currently no legal requirements for allocated mental health first aiders, in the wake of COVID-19, it has never been more critical for business and HR leaders to address the mental wellbeing of their teams head-on.

Initiatives led by CEOs’ personal experience

Sometimes, what starts as a personal wellness journey can be rolled out for the benefit of the entire team, as was the case with Mark Bertolini, former CEO and Chairman of Aetna, who turned to alternative therapies to heal a back injury from a skiing accident: “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 explains.

Rejection of the ‘superhuman’ work ethic

Give up the delusion that burnout is the inevitable cost of success” is a well-known quote by Arianna Huffington, Co-Founder of The Huffington Post and CEO of Thrive Global. Business leaders are used to working in high-pressure, fast-paced commercial environments with scant regard for a work-life balance. But if the boss is never ill or unavailable, what example does this set for the rest of the team, never mind the long-term health implications for the CEO? Making wellbeing a personal priority requires an acceptance that vulnerabilities are normal, not weaknesses, and the permission to reframe mental health issues into positive actions to restore wellbeing.

Importance of uninterrupted downtime

One example that every leading business executive should set is to observe the key practice of taking time off work to rest and recharge. Rather than accepting and perpetuating the all too familiar blurring of boundaries between work life and personal life – always being contactable by phone or email, taking the laptop on holiday, etc – the expectation should be that downtime means being offline and not available for work. Given the nature of their position, CEOs may find it difficult to be credible role models when it comes to unplugging during vacations – many have discovered that a serious hobby can help – but it’s a key skill to master.

Direct communication to support individuals

Supporting employee wellbeing at work can take many forms, but there’s nothing quite like a direct endorsement from the top to empower individual team members. When Olark’s CEO and Founder, Ben Congleton, gave his heartfelt personal support to an employee who chose to take two days’ mental health leave, his response went viral. He said: “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 organisations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work.”

A survey carried out by Norwest Venture Partners concludes that when CEOs focus on their own wellness, they are not only better able to reach higher productivity levels for themselves, they also set a positive example for the whole business. Clearly, CEOs have an important role to play when it comes to tackling employees’ health and wellbeing. Rather than taking the ‘one size fits all’ approach favoured by many HR departments, CEOs can go further, showing their employees directly that the leadership cares.

The mental and physical health of employees can only be prioritised if its importance is embedded in the business ethos and ingrained into the company’s success. A culture where employees are fully supported with flexible options to address their individual health and wellbeing needs must start at the top of the organisation.

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