Directors MIA on employee well-being

CEOs come and go, but boards of directors remain. Boards set strategic objectives and hold CEOs accountable for achieving them. They are the glue that holds organizations together and provide long-term vision.

It is not uncommon for CEO tenures to last five to seven years. But board tenures often last longer. And a board that has as its own culture a firmly held resolve toward employee well-being ensures its long-term continuity and business success.

Typically, boards fail to focus on employees, much less their well-being, leaving those things to the CEO via the HR department. It is a commonly held tenet that employee matters are the province of management – not boards. In this day and age, that is dead wrong.

Until boards embrace employee well-being as a central business priority, companies risk losing focus, as boards pull CEOs in other directions that undervalue employee well-being. The almost monomaniacal focus by for-profit boards on short-term shareholder value, or nonprofit boards on mission success, has blinded boards and their CEOs to the real drivers of operational and business success – employees and customers.

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The jury is no longer out: well-being – not traditional wellness – is where companies can achieve the greatest returns, well-outshining the $8 billion a year they are spending on failed wellness programs.

Today’s employees hunger to be valued and cared about – for company loyalty. That is what employee well-being is all about.

Yet, when is the last time a board of directors held its CEO accountable for employee well-being? How many boards review measures of employee well-being, much less strategize its improvement? When has employee well-being even been discussed by boards? Almost never.

So, what should boards do?

Step One: Achieve an understanding: First comes a data and fact-driven understanding of the tremendous business value of employee well-being.

Boards must be educated on such things as:

• The current crises of coverage cost, lack of engagement, rampant turnover, and ghastly employee well-being/health – and the resulting cost to the organization, employees and their families.

• What can be achieved through increased employee well-being and engagement.

• That this is doable, not pie-in-the-sky, and is perhaps the most effective and sophisticated business strategy.

• That the costs, compared to those for other strategic initiatives, are remarkably low, and that the returns can be enormous.

Step Two: Adopt employee well-being as a top board strategic priority. It must have its own written, board-approved and mandated strategic plan with goals, tactics, benchmarks, timetables and accountabilities. It must be planned, funded, staffed, executed and held accountable as the mission-critical, strategic priority it is. And then measured.

Step Three: Every board meeting should have employee well-being as a standing agenda item, with a planned presentation and time for discussion/questions.

Step Four: The board must hold the CEO accountable for the success of well-being initiatives. This requires that the board, when setting annual goals and objectives for the CEO, includes specific employee well-being measures.

Step Five: Boards must have and maintain at least one well-being champion who makes this his/her mission. Employee well-being must become a board priority and part of the board culture, handed down from veteran board members to new members.

Virtually every CEO I’ve approached on this topic has said, more or less, “I don’t have the time for this.” Imagine? That is where boards come in. Make your CEO have the time for this.

James E. Purcell is a speaker and writer on well-being in the workplace. He is the former CEO of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.