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Make Wellness Mandatory for the C-Suite

Improve corporate performance, engage employees and reset culture by making wellness-based leadership the norm

More than a third of S&P 500 firms have a mandatory retirement policy for their CEO’s. Senior leaders must acknowledge their organization’s code of ethics and most top executives sign non-compete and non-disclosure agreements as the normal course of business. Given the advantages of these policies, it makes sense to add one more, out-of-the-box caveat to restart and improve corporate culture and performance – make wellness mandatory for the C-Suite. After all, wellness, which I’m defining as taking good care of one’s physical, mental and emotional health, has been proven to improve productivity, mental clarity and effectiveness. Don’t employees, shareholders and other stake owners deserve for company leadership to perform at their very best?

This topic is personal for me. I am the Chief Communications Officer of a $2 billion corporation. As a 25-year weight loss success story who also manages a chronic disease, I have seen my energy, concentration, well-being and success skyrocket after making regular exercise, healthy eating and regular sleep my go-to behaviors. Here’s why resetting the expectations of how company leadership care for themselves is a good idea:

1. Protects your investment. Sports franchisees that pay top dollar for star athletes require them to exercise, eat better and take care of their overall wellness during the season. The same should be true for C-level employees as companies pay more for those roles, particularly the top job. CNBC reported that In 2016, the CEOs of the top 350 U.S. firms earned on average $15.6 million – which is three times the average salary of a professional baseball, basketball or football player. Considering that the Economic Policy Institute estimates that average CEO pay is 271 times the nearly $58,000 annual average pay of the typical American worker, we should hold the C-Suite to a higher personal maintenance standard.

2. Improves performance. Ron Friedman, Ph.D., an award-winning psychologist and the author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, espouses that regular exercise is actually part of an executive’s job. “Instead of viewing exercise as something we do for ourselves—a personal indulgence that takes us away from our work—it’s time we started considering physical activity as part of the work itself,” he noted. “The alternative, which involves processing information more slowly, forgetting more often, and getting easily frustrated, makes us less effective at our jobs and harder to get along with for our colleagues.” Many high performing leaders agree. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson says he gets four additional hours of productivity every day by working out, turning to swimming, Bikram Yoga, rock climbing, running, and weightlifting. Vogue Editor Anna Wintour plays tennis each day before 6:00 a.m. Despite his busy schedule, Apple CEO Tim Cook is in the gym at 5 a.m. every morning.

3. C-Suites create culture. Senior leadership often sets the culture of an organization, as people look to them as the role models for how to succeed in that environment. Adopting healthier behaviors encourages others to do the same, creating a ripple effect of increased productivity and happiness. In an October 2016 Harvard Business Review article called “Leaders Can Shape Company Culture Through Their Behaviors,“ Red Hat President and CEO Jim Whitehurst write that culture “all begins with the behavior of your leaders. To say that another way, if you are interested in changing the culture of your organization, your first step should be to look in the mirror and make sure you are setting the kind of behavioral example you want everyone else to follow.” Developing wellness-based leadership sends a powerful message to employees that self-care is important for success, which can increase job satisfaction and personal well-being.

4. Being active helps people handle stress better. Senior executives – whether they are working at a start-up or a Fortune 500 company, can have the weight of the world on their shoulders as they guide business and fiscal performance of their organization. Tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of value are determined by the decisions you make. Stress has escalated with technology increasing the pressure to be connected 24/7. Regular exercise, whether your jam is walking, Zumba, cycling classes or Pilates, helps manage stress. Just ask the Mayo Clinic, whose website details how exercise releases endorphins, which makes you feel better, helps reduce tension and can increase your self-confidence.

5. Sleep is essential for executive brain functioning. Nick van Dam, McKinsey’s global chief learning officer, and sleep expert Els van der Helm wrote a really compelling Harvard Business Review article about the proven link between effective leadership and sleep. Citing research reported in the Occupational & Environmental Medicine Journal, they note that moderate sleep deprivation, which they define as about 17-19 hours of wakefulness, individual performance on range of tasks is equal to that of a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%, which is the legal drinking limit in many countries. You see, the brain’s prefrontal cortex directs what psychologists call executive functioning, including all the higher-order cognitive processes, such as problem solving, reasoning, organizing, inhibition, planning, and executing plans. As the authors explain, while other brain areas can cope relatively well with too little sleep, the prefrontal cortex cannot. Basic visual and motor skills deteriorate when people are deprived of sleep, but not nearly to the same extent as higher-order mental skills. A good night of sleep is essential for effectively solving problems, seeking out different perspectives, increased engagement and supporting others – the very skills senior executives need to be effective leaders.

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