HR Executive Cover Story: Walking the Talk

(Story by Andrew R. McIlvaine originally appeared in HR Executive)

Increasingly, employers are recognizing the importance of having their executives lead the way in corporate wellness. HR’s role in this is key.

Like many Americans these days, Shannon Huggins spends a lot of time sitting while at work. During one typical morning, she had meetings scheduled one after the other, from 8 a.m. until noon, with much of that time spent seated in a chair.

“I’m probably sitting for up to 10 hours a day,” says the vice president for managed care at Dallas-based Methodist Health System.

Although Huggins says she’s fairly active — she runs about 10 miles a week — she was concerned about the amount of sedentary time at work, and rightfully so: A study published earlier this year in the Annals of Internal Medicine finds that prolonged sitting is closely correlated with increased risks of dying from cancer and cardiovascular disease. People who sit for prolonged periods are also at much greater risk of getting Type 2 diabetes, the study finds.

Although exercise can mitigate these risks, the study’s authors note, it does not completely counteract them. The best approach to limiting the damage caused by prolonged sitting, experts say, is for workers to try and incorporate movement into their routines whenever possible.

So when Huggins came across a flyer from Methodist Health’s wellness department this spring urging employees to participate in the 7,000-employee organization’s “Get Your Plank On!” challenge, she was all in.

“I’d been looking at information online about planking, and when we got the flier about the fitness challenge from the company, I said to myself ‘I’m going to do this!’ ” she says.

Huggins also encouraged other employees on her floor of Methodist Health’s headquarters building to participate in the challenge. And so, for the entire month of May — National Fitness Month, by the way — Huggins and her colleagues devoted a few minutes of each work day to getting down on the floor and “planking,” a strenuous exercise similar to a push-up that’s designed to strengthen the body’s core muscles.

“The reaction from others was, ‘Sure, I’ll try it,’ ” says Huggins. “I didn’t have anyone turn their noses up at it.”

Her efforts to encourage movement while at work don’t stop there: Huggins regularly conducts “walking meetings” with her staff, walking to the lobby and then outside and around the perimeter of Methodist Health’s headquarters.

When it comes to wellness, she says, executives need to be at the forefront.

“If you, as a leader, are going to ask other people to do something, then you’ve got to do it yourself, too,” says Huggins. “You don’t need to be the expert, but participating is important. And if you have healthy employees and a healthy organization, the productivity is so much better.”

Companies may spend a lot of time and money on promoting their wellness programs — offering subsidies, coming up with fliers and fun events, etc. — but if executives aren’t fully engaged in visibly promoting it, all the other efforts may be for naught, say experts.

“Employees really do look to leaders to set the tone, and if they’re not on board, that can really squash the program,” says Betsy Woods Brooks, leader of Buck Consultants’ health-communications practice in Stamford, Conn.

“It’s important for executives to recognize the power they have by their actions, versus their words,” says Carrie Camin, Methodist Health’s associate vice president for wellness. “People really pay attention to what you do, versus what you say.”

Fighting Reluctance

 Although one’s health has traditionally been thought of as a personal issue, a recent survey finds that younger employees, in particular, tend to be receptive to having their managers engage with them on health-related issues. More than half (53 percent) of millennials said they’re open to this, compared to 47 percent of Generation X employees and 41 percent of baby boomers, according to Aon Hewitt’s 2014 Consumer Health Mindset, conducted in partnership with the National Business Group on Health and The Futures Co.

Regardless of age, however, employees — in general — are more likely to take health initiatives seriously, and to participate in them, when they see their company’s executives taking an active part.

“When leaders take time out during the day to engage in activities that will help them stay healthy or get healthier, it gives permission to employees to do the same thing,” says Brooks.

Consider, for instance, what happened at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. After implementing a wellness program in 2009, officials there struggled to get employees engaged in it.

“Our employees are so focused on taking care of their patients that they’re often not taking proper care of themselves,” Tom Cantwell, the hospital’s vice president of benefits, said during a session at the 2015 Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas this spring.

A number of senior managers simply weren’t stepping up, he said.

“Some executives don’t feel that the workplace is ideal for addressing wellness,” said Cantwell. “We had executives who’d ride their bikes hundreds of miles a week, yet they didn’t want to get involved.”

Cantwell said he told them that “employees focus on your actions, not your words. Leaders who aren’t engaged [on wellness] are, in effect, telling their employees that it’s OK to not be engaged.”

Since executives at CCH became more involved in promoting wellness in the years since the program was launched, however, employee engagement with the program has noticeably risen, he says.

“Depending on the company and the culture, it can be very challenging to get engagement from [executives],” says Mike Tinney, founder and CEO of FIX, an Atlanta-based builder of interactive platforms designed to encourage better health and daily activity. “But in my opinion, it’s worth the effort.”

One of the more effective messages HR can lead with is that executives should want to get the most out of their wellness investment, says Tinney. “If you can help leaders understand that they are one of the driving forces for engagement with wellness, then I think CEOs understand and appreciate that message.”

One tactic for HR leaders who want executives to play a bigger role in promoting wellness is to play up the business benefits, says Woods.

There are plenty of reasons that leaders don’t participate: Time is often a factor, as is the fact that — like everyone else — they’re stressed and busy. In some cases, they may regard wellness as — at best — a distraction from what they consider to be far more important matters.

“It’s incumbent upon HR to make them understand that wellness isn’t just a nice-to-have, but a tool for driving their business,” says Brooks.

The role for HR is to help leaders connect the dots, she says.

In a retail or hospitality setting, “show the linkage between wellness and exceptional service,” she says. “Show how wellness can support a safe environment in a manufacturing setting. Making the connection between the organization’s mission and values, and the wellness program can really help executives support it.”

There’s plenty of evidence available for HR leaders to cite connecting wellness to the bottom line.

Since 2008, Franklin, Tenn.-based health-management firm Healthways has partnered with research firm Gallup Inc. on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which collects and assesses data from all 50 U.S. states to shed light on what contributes to peoples’ ability to be productive and have low medical-claims costs. The WBI data reveals that people who score well in areas such as social well-being and financial security are more likely to be healthy and productive than those who do not.

A study titled “Comparing the Contributions of Well-Being and Disease Status to Employee Productivity,” co-authored by Healthways’ chief science officer and published last year in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, finds that employees’ well-being is a “more important contributor to on-the-job productivity than their chronic disease status.”

At Healthways itself, “We’re not just focused on physical well-being, but also on social, community, purpose, financial — all the elements of an individual’s well-being,” says Ross Scott, the 2,000-employee company’s CHRO.

Like a growing number of companies these days, Healthways takes a “whole person” approach to wellness, stressing the importance of financial, spiritual, community, social and purposefulness, as well as physical well-being, says Scott. Executives have the opportunity to attend a two-day workshop on leading well-being, in which they focus on defining how they’re going to exhibit well-being in their own lives and how they’ll demonstrate it as leaders. Each leader writes a “personal statement” on how they’re going to set an example at the organization.

“My own personal statement . . . is to create a smaller world here, so we can do bigger things,” says Scott. For him, living this statement takes the form of introducing disparate colleagues to one another to encourage greater camaraderie in the workplace. “This type of thing is second nature for me,” he says.

Another way Scott tries to walk the talk is by wearing workout clothes — including shorts — on Healthways’ “Workout Wednesdays.”

“Me in my workout gear, it not only sends a signal to our colleagues and other executives here that it’s OK to dress like this, but it also holds me accountable: If I’m going to dress this way, I’ll make myself work out this morning,” he says.

“It’s not a walk in the park to convince all our execs to adopt some of these more overt components of well-being,” he admits.

Sales executives, for example, feel that customers may not react very well to seeing them in gym clothes, says Scott. Nevertheless, he believes he’s having an impact.

“This morning we had an important meeting and, as I looked around the room, I noticed more people than ever dressed in active wear,” says Scott. “It does feel like these subtle nudges eventually do take effect.”

Executives are also encouraged to hold walking meetings, or “moais,” as they’re called at Healthways. “They’re just as productive, if not more so, as sit-down meetings, says Scott.

Approximately 90 percent of Healthways employees completed their well-being assessments within the first 30 days. “That’s nearly unheard of,” says Scott.

The company has seen a 20-percent decrease, per member per month, in spending on its benefits program during the past five years, says Scott.

Making It Personal

“I think there are a number of ways to engage executives,” says Brooks. “Some will be very passionate about wellness, or they may have their own journey they can share that will be very powerful for employees.”

At one client, says Brooks, the senior global benefits leader shared his story of quitting tobacco via a video testimonial in which he discussed how this led to a focus on better nutrition and, from there, on to greater physical activity. “We videotaped him and then morphed that into an animated whiteboard video to get more engagement from employees.”

However, there will always be executives who are uncomfortable with this level of sharing, she says.

“Advocacy doesn’t necessarily have to mean being front and center,” says Brooks.

For such executives, an ideal way to show support is to hold walking meetings, or insist that only healthy foods be served during long meetings or corporate events, she says.


Another important way to show advocacy is to simply avoid judgment and negativity toward the wellness program, says Brooks.

“A negative role model is when leaders eat lunch at their desks every day, or add to stress by not letting someone else take the time they need for a walk during lunch,” she says.

At Jamba Juice, the Emeryville, Calif.-based manufacturer and retailer of specialty juices, the wellness program has three pillars: fitness, nutrition and community service. Its annual six-weeks-long Jamba Olympics, held each summer, are a celebration of this, says Vice President of Human Resources Kathy Wright.

“Our CFO is a great example — she wasn’t a runner initially, but started training with all the other people here who’d never been runners either and it became really inspiring to see her out there,” says Wright. “Since then, she’s completed a number of half-marathons.”

Executives’ busy schedules can make it a challenge, Wright acknowledges. It’s made easier, however, by finding out what they like to do and designing challenges that take that into account.

“Find out what their interests and passions are, whether it’s nutrition, biking or hiking,” she says. “Identify something they’re already doing and showcase that to their team and the broader company.”

Not everyone is a marathoner, of course, but simply talking about what they’re doing to stay fit and what their goals are in that area during small meetings can help, she says.

Wright creates challenges via an online platform from Bellevue, Wash.-based Limeade and uses Yammer as a social-media platform for spreading the word about the challenges.

“Our CEO talks about what his fitness goals are, what inspires him, personally, and how he faces the same challenges that everyone else does in terms of finding the time and so on,” says Wright. “We do stories on him each quarter, on where he is in his fitness journey.”

All executives participate in the Jamba Olympics each summer.

“We started it several years ago — we were inspired by the Winter Olympics in Vancouver,” says Wright. “The challenge is to push people outside their comfort zones [to] try things they’ve never done before.”

When employees see the company’s executives “putting themselves out there,” she says, it can inspire them to participate more in wellness activities and have fun doing it. 

At Bloodworks Northwest, the Seattle-based health-services organization encourages its executives to sponsor “challenges” in areas such as weight loss, exercising, healthy eating, walking and financial wellness in which participants can earn points.

Its chief financial officer, for example, is sponsoring a challenge called “Flex Your Fiscal Muscles with Bob,” which focuses on personal finance and “fiscal literacy.” The organization’s operations officer, a cancer survivor, is leading a campaign to encourage employees to undergo preventive cancer screenings. Bloodworks’ chief information officer, an avid bicyclist, sponsored a series of events during May Bike Month.

“We used a really cute caricature of him with a biking helmet on,” says Karlyn Byham, the organization’s benefits administrator.

“One of the things that was really important to us was to step away from the traditional health-risk assessment as the only avenue to pursue wellness, and instead engage the people who are very active while still appealing to people who are just taking baby steps in this area,” says Byham.

The organization enjoyed a double-digit decrease in the renewal rate for its medical plan last year, even though it did not alter its plan design or deductibles.

“I do my homework in trying to find challenges that will resonate with the individual executives,” says Byham. “If you want support from the C-suite, make it easy for them — offer something that resonates with them and that they would naturally support, so you won’t have to try and twist their arms.”

Cathy Kenworthy, CEO of Chicago-based benefits-consulting firm Interactive Health, says she’s “never seen a wellness program that enjoyed strong executive support in which that support is not rooted somewhere in a powerful personal dimension: something that happened to that person or their loved one or another executive.” Having a catalyst that’s part of the person’s life “is extremely powerful,” she says.

“I think there are just so many ways that people can tell their story,” says Kenworthy. “There is always a path that can be comfortable.”

And in some cases, leaders are even willing to put themselves in less-than-comfortable situations for the sake of spreading the wellness message. Allen Buechel, the county executive for Fond du Lac County, Wis., was even willing to make a video of himself doing a Buddy Holly imitation in support of the county government’s wellness program. It was worth it — for reasons both selfish and altruistic, he says. 

“Better health positively affects absenteeism and productivity — that’s the selfish side of it,” says Buechel. “The other side is, this really helps employees in their personal lives — they’re going to live longer, healthier and happier lives. It’s not just the bottom line.”

The county government, which has approximately 800 employees and is a client of Interactive Health, was named to the firm’s list of the “Healthiest Companies in America” last year for the fourth time in a row.

Buechel has talked with employees about his own struggles with diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which eventually led him to undergo bariatric weight-loss surgery a couple of years ago.

“I wanted them to know I was losing weight for a solid reason, not because I was sick, and anyone interested in what I had to say could come and talk to me,” he says.

For Buechel, being an advocate for wellness means more than simply talking about numbers. It’s important to find a way of framing the subject in a manner that resonates with employees, he says. “If you’re only talking about the financial impact of wellness programs, and that’s your only message, it’s not going to be as successful as simply making it clear to your employees that you care about them.”