Workplace wellness is a noble idea — but such efforts have a hard time succeeding when senior leadership is not on board.

That’s the significant finding of new research from the American Psychological Association, which found that well-being efforts fall short when employers don’t support them.

Only four in 10 working Americans said their senior managers are involved in and committed to well-being initiatives, the group’s new survey of 1,500 employees finds.

The survey’s findings also stress the need for such well-being support: Among all employees surveyed, 33% said they typically feel tense or stressed out during the workday, an increase for the first time in three years in the percentage of those reporting chronic job stress. But only 41% said their employer helps workers develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle or helps them meet mental health needs. Even fewer (35%) report receiving sufficient resources from their employers to help manage stress.

“The survey results shine a spotlight on one of the keys to success when it comes to efforts that promote employee well-being — supportive leaders who are involved in the programs themselves,” says David Ballard, assistant executive director of organizational excellence at APA and head of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “Proponents of workplace wellness have touted the importance of leadership support for years. Now we have data to back up those claims.”

The group’s research found widespread links between support from senior leaders and a variety of employee and organizational outcomes.

Nearly three-fourths (73%) of employees with senior managers who show support through involvement and commitment to well-being initiatives said their organization helps employees develop a healthy lifestyle, compared with just 11% who work in an organization without that leadership support, according to APA’s 2016 Work and Well-Being Survey.

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“Proponents of workplace wellness have touted the importance of leadership support for years. Now we have data to back up those claims.”

Additionally, more than nine in 10 workers at companies that support well-being efforts say they feel motivated to do their best (91%, vs. 38% of those without leadership support), are satisfied with their job (91% vs. 30%) and have a positive relationship with supervisors (91% vs. 5%) and co-workers (93% vs. 72%).

These employees are also more likely to recommend their company as a good place to work (89% vs. 17%), and fewer said they intend to leave their job in the next year (25% vs. 51%).

Lack of support may be one reason wellness participation is still fairly low among employees. Despite the prevalence of workplace wellness efforts, only one-third of American workers say they regularly participate in the health-promotion programs provided by their employer, according to APA.

While leadership support is one critical element in program success, Ballard says, other factors are also important. Those include “involving employees in the development of workplace programs; using evidence-based practices that are grounded in good science; tailoring the efforts to fit the unique needs of employees; communicating effectively; and measuring your results, so you can fine-tune the program over time.”

The bottom line? Employers need to step up their wellness efforts from the top down, or else wellness won’t reach its full potential.

“Employers should look at their workplace well-being efforts holistically, rather than as a collection of unrelated programs,” Ballard says. “Provide the resources employees need to be at their best, but also seek to create a positive, healthy organizational culture that is conducive to well-being and high-quality work. Part of that is leaders modeling the behaviors and values they want to see in their workforce. Actions speak louder than words.”

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