Workplace wellness programmes have become the norm in most large corporates across the globe, who have witnessed the impact of having a healthy, happy workforce, not least of which is increased productivity. What many have not yet realised however, is that the active involvement of a company’s C-suite executives – with the CEO leading from the front – is crucial for the uptake and ultimate success of such programmes.

There is nothing more encouraging to employees than seeing their leaders set an example in taking their own health and fitness seriously. To cope with long hours and the stressful demands of an on-the-go lifestyle, top executives today have no choice but to build fitness into their daily routine. In our experience, this can have a domino effect, starting from the CEO all the way down to the general workforce. If a company’s executives are themselves the embodiment of wellness, it will encourage employees to take action and do something about their own fitness levels.

Besides setting an example, business leaders should actively support employees in participating in company wellness programmes. It is not only about keeping people healthy – participating in a fitness challenge can be great for team building and getting employees out of their comfort zones. And there is nothing like breaking down silos within an organisation than employees at different levels and from different departments going for a run together or competing in a sports contest.

In working on their own fitness, C-suite executives – including the CEO – should not retreat into private gyms, however – it can do wonders for employee morale to be able to sweat it out alongside their leaders. This will also enable them to communicate in a different context than in the office – an executive in a T-shirt and shorts is a far less intimidating figure than one in a suit behind a desk! Fitness events in which executives participate can also encourage meaning dialogue – we can guarantee more ideas will be generated on an afternoon hike than in a brainstorming session around a boardroom table under false lighting.

In our experience, South African executives are generally faring much better than their counterparts in other parts of the world in terms of setting an example to employees. We have an outdoor culture in South Africa, and sports such as mountain biking are now overtaking golf as the traditional corporate sport. Also, many of the big corporates sponsor major sports events, another way they are putting their money where their mouth is.

Further steps corporate executives can take to champion wellness in the workplace include:

  • Programming regular wellness activities, including sports competitions, into work schedules, including those of the workforce – these are also a great networking opportunity for ambitious employees.
  • Appointing a co-ordinator or team to champion a workplace wellness programme. This can even form part of a management development programme, since organising an event – whether this is a Sunday walk or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – requires leadership skills.
  • Sharing the photos and the fun with the rest of the organisation – this will encourage greater participation. Wellness should be made central to the employer brand.
  • Arranging for regular wellness checks for employees, and providing free advice on lifestyle on diet.
  • Ensuring canteens have healthy food options, or arranging for local providers to deliver healthy food options.

South Africa has a great climate for participating in outdoor activities, as well as the necessary infrastructure such as bike parks, excellent gyms and trail running routes, for those not fortunate enough to live near the beach or natural open spaces. There is no excuse for executives not to get out there and participate in a dawn yoga session or a sunset hike with employees. The rewards will be incalculable and after all, a healthy workforce is a happy workforce.

Leon Ayo

Leon Ayo is the CEO of Odgers Berndtson South Africa based in Johannesburg. He works within all industries and sectors in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Previously he was a partner in Odgers Berndt...

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