Employee Wellness: Responsibilities Of Front-Line Managers
By Laura Putnam & Jim Purcell
Well-being programs will not achieve their full potential without support from front-line managers. Front-line managers are keys to activating enthusiastic employee participation and play a dominant role in reinforcing cultures of well-being.
Laura Putnam, Founder and CEO of Motion Infusion, and an international speaker and author of Workplace Wellness That Works, discusses how front-line managers can maximize the success of workplace wellbeing programs.
Jim Purcell: How important are front-line managers in employees’ overall health and well-being?
Laura Putnam: Front-line managers play a central role in determining employee health, happiness, and engagement. Gallup found that managers can account for 70 percent of employee engagement levels, and other research shows most people leave jobs because they don’t like their bosses.
Managers are the lynchpin for company-organized employee well-being efforts. Senior leaders set the tone and allocate resources for wellness initiatives, but line managers ultimately give (or deny) permission to direct reports to take part in these efforts.
Managers also play a role in supporting (or hindering) employee health. The Karolinska Institute analyzed data from almost 20,000 employees in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Poland, and Italy and showed that bosses play an important role in their employees’ heart health.
The implication is those good managers can do a lot to promote better health and well-being at work, whereas bad managers can lead to enormous physical, mental, and emotional harm that increases turnover, reduces employee engagement and hurts customer service.
Jim Purcell: In your experience, what are managers doing, or not doing, to support organizational well-being initiatives?
Laura Putnam: I see managers landing on a spectrum somewhere between “gatekeepers” and “multipliers.”
A gatekeeper communicates a disregard for wellness. This can manifest in a manager taking lunch at their desk, sending late-night emails, rarely checking to see how team members are doing and investing little time into their own self-care.
A gatekeeper likely perceives “wellness” as being something outside of their scope, something HR should handle, and sees wellness as a private pursuit, as opposed to a group endeavor led by managers.
A multiplier attempts to engage with their own well-being. This type of manager exhibits compassion toward team members and leads the team in practices that promote wellbeing, such as mindfulness exercises.
Mike Carlson, Director of Employer Consulting and Wellness Services at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota (BCBSND), exemplifies the multiplier approach. Carlson encourages team members to get out and move, regularly talks about well-being (including his own), takes part in company wellness events, shows empathy and makes work fun with games and contests.
As a result, his team members are healthier, happier and have a better quality of life because of having Carlson as their manager.
From my experience, problems arise when managers resist wellness efforts because they think they detract from their core performance metrics (i.e., “hitting their numbers”). Managers may passively resist well-being initiatives by skipping wellness initiatives, verbally downplaying the importance of well-being or glorifying an always on 24/7 workplace culture.
Managers can sabotage employee well-being efforts by creating barriers to well-being. For example, a Microsoft Workplace Analytics survey found that every hour a manager sends late-night emails (a source of employee stress) translates into 20 minutes of after-hours email time for their team members.
Jim Purcell: Given that many front-line managers are not fully supporting wellness initiatives, what should companies do to ensure they play a more supportive role in executing wellness programs?
Laura Putnam: Senior leaders need to help managers understand why well-being is good for people, good for the organization and essential for building high-performing teams and explain how studies show that companies that invest in comprehensive well-being perform better on the stock market.
Managers need to understand how using team-based practices like walking meetings can embed well-being into the fabric of business-as-usual.
Crockett Dale, CEO of Healthstat, holds monthly, company-wide town halls and stresses self-care and getting in motion. This creates a cascading effect across the organization and encourages leaders like Travis Smith, Regional Director of Client Services at Healthstat, to regularly lead his team in stretching exercises.
Senior leaders reinforce well-being with frequent communication. For example, Dan Conrad, CEO of BCBSND, sends out a “Message from Dan” every two weeks to the entire organization and emphasizes the importance of well-being.
Recent data from our Managers on the Move leadership training program shows how managers who act as well-being multipliers can favorably affect team members’ productivity, engagement and overall well-being.
Sara Sullivan, Senior Vice President, Global Clinical Operations with Clovis Oncology, regularly “makes the rounds” before she leaves the office, telling team members who are still working, “I’m going home,” and gently prods, “Why don’t you pack up so we can walk out together?”
Jim Purcell: What types of guidance do managers need to better lead employee well-being efforts?
Laura Putnam: Companies must stop managers from pursuing performance metrics that run counter to employee well-being and instead cultivate managers that actively support employee well-being.
At my company, Motion Infusion, we’ve distilled the process to ensure front-line managers support employee well-being to three simple practices:
Do. Managers must lead by example and embody well-being. Managers don’t have to resemble fitness instructors, but their teams need to see that managers make their own well-being a priority, whether that means hitting the onsite gym, taking a lunchtime walk or leaving work at reasonable hours.
Speak. Through conversations or written communications, managers must engage with their teams about well-being - both their own well-being and that of their direct reports. This ensures that team members feel empowered to engage in self-care at work.
Create. Companies should encourage managers to develop systems, rituals and processes that make well-being easy and “normal” within their teams. This could be as simple as starting weekly staff meetings with an office stretching exercise or a minute of silence, a practice used at Eileen Fisher.
Managers can create an oasis of well-being within their teams that leads to meaningful changes that increase engagement, healthy eating, exercise, self-care and productivity.
Jim Purcell: Can you talk about a company that’s cultivated front-line managers as stewards of its well-being initiative?
Laura Putnam: Schindler Elevator Corporation is a global company based in Morristown, New Jersey with over 60,000 employees. Their commitment to wellness started with their managers.
I helped develop and deliver a Leadership Odyssey training for their high-potential managers. Our approach centered on driving home the message that manager-led well-being is essential for “building a winning team.”
Once we showed managers how to become well-being activators, it drove higher engagement in the company well-being effort. This resulted in 83% of participating US employees saying that their manager cared about their well-being in a recent company-wide employee engagement survey.
The key was showing front-line managers how wellness contributes to higher engagement among their direct reports and sustainable success for the company. We later helped Schindler develop programs for its safety managers (called “Safety Odyssey”) and HR managers (called “HR Odyssey”).
Today, Leadership Odyssey lives on with the active support of Mike Yurchuk, Senior Vice President HR in the US, who incorporates elements of the workshop into the training curriculum for all company supervisors.
Jim Purcell: Any final thoughts on managers and the impact of Covid-19?
Laura Putnam: If there was ever a time when managers matter, it’s now. Employees are looking to team leaders to provide added support (even though they may not be asking for it). Now, managers should model self-care and demonstrate compassion, gratitude and authenticity.
Follow Laura on Twitter @motioninfusion or visit her website: www.motioninfusion.com.
Steven Van Yoder, co-founder at Returns On Wellbeing Institute, provided editorial support to this article.
Jim Purcell is former CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of RI and Co-Founder of Returns On Wellbeing Institute, LLC. We help employers design workplace wellbeing programs that generate measurable ROI through better employee engagement and productivity, and lower turnover and healthcare costs. Visit our website for more resources and take our free employer Workplace Wellbeing Assessment to help you get organized and take action.
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