Employee wellness has become a hot topic, as more companies strive to encourage proactive health. But the latest research on employee-wellness programs shows mixed results. While employees who participate in wellness programs self-report healthier behaviors, gains in health vary by company and employee group.

I have a theory on this variation, one that I’ve formed while leading HR-transformation efforts over the years: Simply instituting a wellness program isn’t enough. Employees need leaders who create a culture of wellness, and managers who support it, for sustainable behavior change. Whether mental, emotional or physical health, we set the tone.

Put another way: Providing standing desks, meditation cushions, healthy snacks and multiple health-plan options is not sufficient. The healthiest companies create a culture in which people not only have permission to take care of themselves, but where doing so becomes the norm. How many of us schedule early-morning or after-dinner meetings, eating up time where we could be exercising, getting extra sleep or spending time with our loved ones before school and work? I know I am guilty of that myself. Sometimes we do not have a choice, but other times we do.

It’s up to us as leaders to lean in as models of good health. And then to ensure our managers not only allow—but encourage—healthy habits for themselves and their teams.

Leading by Example

I admire Arianna Huffington’s crusade for employee wellness. She founded her company, Thrive Global, after she collapsed from exhaustion. Arianna wanted to create a company that would help organizations foster cultures of wellness as well as help individual consumers.

Arianna has said that humans don’t function like machines. Eliminating downtime makes us less productive, not more. Yet many corporate cultures seek to maximize productivity by doing that very thing. She cited the cost of that approach in an interview with the editor of Time, saying 75% of healthcare costs are stress-related. Thrive works with large companies to create cultures in which employees thrive, emphasizing wellness of body, mind and spirit. Thrive’s programs focus on microsteps—small, daily changes that add up to big impacts on employee wellness, productivity and overall happiness.

The good news is an increasing number of companies are making strides toward employee wellness. Intuit reimburses employees for meditation and mindfulness classes. Microsoft offers free personal and family counseling. Asana offers organic produce from local farms in its dining room, as well as provides nap rooms for employees. Draper offers employees Zumba and weight-management classes, antidotes to sitting at a desk all day.

At my current company, Accenture, with the help of Thrive Global, we look at the health and wellness of our workforce through the lens of being “truly human”—recognizing that each person is unique and requires support to nourish his or her heart, mind, body and spirit. From inclusion to mental health, a supportive culture matters.

Thrive Global is helping multiple global companies get it right. JPMorgan Chase Chief Marketing Officer Kristin Lemkau put it well in her Medium piece: “When I look back on mistakes I’ve made … they all have one thing in common: I was tired.” We all know that feeling, right? Kristin was the first of JPMorgan Chase’s 240,000 employees to sign up for Thrive’s 28-day challenge. She chose two of four areas—sleep, unplugging from technology, mindfulness and gratitude—and aimed for microsteps that would improve her wellbeing. Imagine the sea change if C-suites across the globe began to model this and support employees in making similar healthy choices.

Hilton has also done good things for its employees, with Thrive toolkits downloaded more than 20,000 times—covering topics like how to recognize you’re burning out before you crash or the importance of wonder. And here’s the part I love: The program’s impetus was proactive. Laura Fuentes, Hilton senior vice president of talent and rewards, said: “Thrive@Hilton was born not out of a place of crisis, but because we wanted to enable sustainable high performance.”

No matter how it’s created, a corporate culture of wellness gives teams the tools they need to incorporate health into the workplace, and the permission to take the time when needed. It starts with us—with leaders. I have made three commitments to my own health:

Sleep. You know the numbers: Seven to nine hours a night, every night. I can’t say that I succeed every night, but I have to draw limits on early-morning and late-night meetings.

Movement. Sitting is the new smoking. I tend to think less about working out and more about moving around. Simply walking between meetings or during meetings adds up. When I have more time, I take a Pilates class.

Social connections. When we get busy, it’s so easy to lose connection, yet social connections are critical to health. My husband and daughter are my priority, and I make sure that we have quality time together regularly.

I am by no means perfect. Some days, I do not get enough sleep and movement. Other days, I am on phone calls from sunup to sundown. But each day, I seek to strike the right balance. And I ask my team to hold me accountable for healthy habits.

Putting the Whole in Holistic

With most of us spending at least a quarter of our adult lives at work, employer-fostered wellness is taking center stage. I often look for opportunities not just to do good work, but to do good—this area presents us with both.

As HR leaders, I think we need to ask ourselves if we are truly advocating for our employees’ holistic health. I see so many good intentions take the form of piecemeal programs, but holistic wellness for any workforce requires systems change—an integrated strategy that marries body, mind and spirit.

I wish I could share all of the success stories I’ve seen—from the employee who was supported in taking time off to care for his dying father to call-center workers who collectively have lost hundreds of pounds together through diet and exercise classes. And of course, in each case, their employer benefited from workers who were able to more fully engage.

Sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded we hold the power to create real systems change for our people.

Here’s to good work while doing good. Be well.

Originally published on Human Resource Executive.

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