Most employees spend at least eight of their 24 daily weekday hours at work. And whether companies want to assume responsibility or not, employees believe that their jobs play a role in their health.

For example, a 2017 CareerBuilder survey found that 56% of Americans are overweight and they blame it on sitting at a desk most of the day; being too tired from work to exercise; having to skip meals because of time constraints; and having to engage in workplace celebrations.

Employees, especially healthy employees, are the lifeblood of an organization. Many companies are implementing wellness programs with varying levels of success.

However, according to Chris McReynolds, CEO of Wellsource, which provides health risk assessments and self-management tools, creating a culture of wellness has to start with the C-suite.

Leaders lead by example

As John Maxwell would say, “To lead any other way than by example, we send a fuzzy picture of leadership to others.”

So, you can’t create a wellness policy and then expect employees to fully engage if you don’t. “If you say you care for your employees, and a wellness program has developed from that value, then participate in it,” McReynolds says.

If you didn’t participate in creating the wellness initiatives, you need to at least understand and be a part of them. “Whether it’s going out for a walk, unplugging from work while on vacation, or choosing a healthy option at the next team lunch, your employees will take notice when you’re walking the walk of health.”

Creating a culture of health

McReynolds says a company’s culture isn’t dictated — it’s demonstrated, and it starts with leaders who build credibility by acting with integrity. “These leaders decide, intentionally, what they want to be known for and then they live that out, day by day, decision by decision.” Employees who identify with these traits respond by supporting and reflecting these behaviors.

“A leader who publicly praises the virtues of a health-focused culture, can’t privately demand unhealthy work ethics and schedules, because this kind of double standard is toxic for the culture.”

For example, a West Monroe Partners study found that over half of employees are uncomfortable asking for time off during the holidays because their managers expect them to be available. That’s why there must be symmetry between words and actions before employees will trust their leaders.

“Once the leaders set the tone by making healthy choices, and intentional opportunities are created to help others do the same, that health culture begins to flourish.” When this happens, McReynolds says that although the wellness program was planted from the top down, it grows from the bottom up.

Workplace changes companies can implement to help employees

When choosing changes to implement, make sure they resonate with the employees. “So, the first step is to really understand each of your employees’ health status and their desire to make positive change,” McReynolds says.

“At Wellsource, we do this through our health risk assessment, which asks traditional questions about diet, exercise, and stress; but also assesses employees’ readiness to make healthy changes.” When you know where employees are on their health journey, it will be easier for you to implement programs that will resonate with them.

Other considerations

Whether you’re implementing or revamping a wellness program at your company, McReynolds recommends giving some thought to your work environment.

“It’s like gardening: if you transplant a beautiful, healthy rose bush from good soil to bad soil, you are not going to continue to get beautiful roses.” Likewise, he says you can’t buy a world-class wellness program without considering the environment you want to plant it in.

“Sometimes the best thing a company can do before they launch a new wellness program is get solid, reliable feedback from their employees about the work environment.” If there’s an issue with the soil, he says it’s going to be difficult to get the “good stuff,” to grow. In other words, you might end up with weeds.

“Start by building trust with your employees,” McReynolds recommends. “It takes time, but as you do, you’ll have an environment where both the health of the business and the health of your employees can flourish.”