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From Gatekeeper to Multiplier: Give Managers a Role in Wellness Plans

Motivate managers to set the example for wellness program participation

A group of people doing yoga in a park.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with the Association for Talent Development (ATD) to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

Here's some good news: A growing percentage of employers now offer well-being programs to their employees. That means more companies recognize the value of helping employees be healthier and happier at work.

However, an overwhelming percentage of employees—a Rand Health research report estimates as many as 80 percent—are opting out of those programs. What employers have discovered, perhaps the hard way, is that unlike the Field of Dreams, if you build a well-being program, employees will not necessarily come. Even if you offer incentives, which most employers do, employees may not engage. In fact, a 2015 employee health and well-being survey from Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health found that employees are leaving money on the table by not taking full advantage of the incentives available to them.

If your organization has a wellness program, you may wonder, "What can I do to address lagging rates of engagement?" Talent development professionals can start by addressing workplace culture. Arguably, human beings are less creatures of habit than they are creatures of culture. That is, we tend to adapt to our surrounding cultural norms and environments. Therefore, people tend to form "clusters" of behaviors—both positive and negative.

Employers can strengthen workplace culture and overall wellness by activating middle managers to become models of well-being for their team members. Culture and wellness efforts historically have focused on promoting engagement through senior leaders, but we now know that middle managers are equally important, if not more so, in driving engagement. While senior leaders set the tone for wellness initiatives, it falls on managers to effectively give permission for team members to engage in day-to-day activities. In this way, managers can serve either as gatekeepers who prevent employees from taking part or multipliers who encourage participation.

Want proof of the extent managers influence whether employees participate in company benefits? According to a 2015 Gallup study, managers may account for up to 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement—both with their work and their well-being. A 2017 McKinsey & Co. and Lean In study points to the critical role direct managers play regarding the uptake on flex-time offerings. While more than 50 percent of U.S. organizations now offer some type of flex time, less than 12 percent of eligible employees take advantage of these offerings. What's getting in the way? According to research findings, it's managers.

The things managers do and say, and the opportunities they create, play an important role in how employees engage in well-being. That's why transforming them into multipliers of well-being can be key to unlocking benefits such as lower absenteeism and healthcare costs. Apply these strategies to activate managers in your organization.

Lay the Groundwork

A first step is to build avenues for reaching managers. One way you can do this is by teaming up with colleagues from other departments. The goal is to build an integrated, cross-departmental call to action to all managers. Then, look for ways to incorporate messages of well-being into other nonwellness programs such as leadership development, safety training, and onboarding.

In truth, these types of initiatives garner more attention from managers than wellness does. Wellness works best when it's not a stand-alone program but rather when it is embedded into the fabric of business as usual.

Create a Meaningful Experience

To really get managers on board, create a meaningful experience for them. Experiences, especially ones that are emotionally driven, move people. Facts and figures merely inform. Your goal is to activate managers to perceive themselves as agents of change, inspired to start a movement of well-being with their team members.

Recall 2014's ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a movement that prompted people to donate to the ALS Association in record numbers by getting people to simulate the experience of having the disease. You can create a similar effect by establishing face-to-face, interactive, group-based exercises. For example, you might have managers work together in small groups to create a collage of what it means to thrive, engage them in a discussion about culture using a booklet with a variety of images, or even bring them together for a walking meeting.

Make the Case

Rather than giving managers their well-being marching orders, give them a compelling reason to actively support your well-being program. Tap into the now-giant body of research demonstrating the many benefits of promoting health and wellness in the workplace.

Show how promoting wellness can make their jobs easier by reducing absenteeism, improving safety, increasing productivity, and driving retention. Consider pointing out how recent research (a 2016 Health Enhancement Research Organization study) demonstrates a correlation, or positive relationship, between companies' investment in comprehensive well-being programs and better performance on the stock market.

Simply put, prove that employee well-being is not just good for individuals but also good for the organization's bottom line and essential for building a winning team. Once you convince managers that promoting well-being at work will make their jobs easier, empower them to act. Start by helping them to hone their own pitches so they can persuade their teams, not to mention their bosses.

Clarify the Unique Role Managers Play

In addition to making the case for wellness, you'll need to show managers why they are essential players in engaging employees in health and well-being. Any wellness effort is only as good as the level of participation and, as I've discussed, managers are likely one of the most important factors in inspiring higher levels of engagement.

Help managers recognize that while there are elements in an organization that are beyond their control, they have significantly more control of their environment and teams than they may realize. When managers understand their spheres of influence, they can create an oasis of well-being within their teams that sends ripples of well-being throughout the organization. Explain that no matter what's happening in the larger organization, every manager has the capacity to create his own pocket of excellence.

Activate Managers to Lead by Example

Broadcast that the role of managers starts with leading by example. Within your company:

  • Consider talking about the example of CorePower Yoga, where Chief Marketing Officer Tess Roering intentionally works out during the workday and invites her employees to hit the yoga studio with her.
  • Or bring up Daniel Stafford, national vice president of client services at Healthstat and a newly activated "manager on the move." In addition to taking part in the Healthstat on-site boot camp, he poses with his team members for a "healthy selfie" that is shared in company presentations.
  • Tell managers how these small acts of permission-giving can make a significant difference in employee participation.

Some other examples of role-modeling activities for managers you can provide include parking farther from the building, selecting the healthy choice at the company cafeteria, or taking advantage of the well-being offerings that the organization already makes available.

Activate Managers to Speak

Managers must engage employees in well-being one conversation at time and be willing to show vulnerability. For example, Business Insider describes how in 2014 JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon famously used his experience undergoing cancer treatment to encourage his employees to focus on their own health and family connections.

Likewise, when managers share relatable examples from their own experiences, it can help make well-being seem more attainable to employees. Emphasize that their experiences don't have to be as life-changing as Dimon's. For example, after participating in a wellness management workshop, William James, head of materials development at SCHOTT North America, shared with team members his goal to reduce his intake of sugary beverages. In doing so, he revealed a vulnerability and a commitment to improving his health, and that encouraged his team members to do the same.

Activate Managers to Create

Well-being is easier when it is part of everyday life, embedded into the fabric of "business as usual." At the Sioux Empire United Way in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Coleen Thompson, director of finance, decided she was going to get healthier by walking one mile twice a day. She mapped out an outdoor route and, because this was South Dakota, an indoor route. She encouraged her co-workers to join her, and the practice is still in place 14 years later, according to Jay Powell, the organization's president.

Those kinds of cues are powerful. Small changes that make the healthy choice the easy choice can nudge people in the right direction. If someone brings cookies into the office, people will probably eat them. Similarly, if you put fruits and vegetables in the break room, people will eat those. Managers can nurture a culture of health and well-being by creating team-based systems and rituals, or cues, that usher in new cultural norms.

These small steps can produce big results. In companies where managers learn to become multipliers of well-being, team members often increase engagement, eat healthier, exercise more, take better all-around care of themselves, and are more productive. So, when mapping out your corporate health goals and strategy, be sure to consider the role day-to-day managers play in the success of that program and your long-term company culture.

Laura Putnam is CEO and founder of Motion Infusion and creator of Managers on the Move in collaboration with Pro-Change Behavior Systems.

This article is excerpted from with permission from ATD. © 2018 ATD. All rights reserved.

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