LAS VEGAS — When it comes to wellness, the phrase “it take a village” certainly holds true. Or maybe, more specifically, it takes leadership.

Benefits and HR managers, speaking Wednesday at the Human Resource Executive Health and Benefits Leadership Conference, said that C-suite executives are key to getting wellness programs to work and work well.

“The biggest strength [of wellness programs] is our leaders who are engaged,” said Tom Cantwell, vice president, total rewards and HR systems at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “The biggest weakness is those who aren’t engaged, and they’re showing employees it’s OK not to engage.”

That sentiment was echoed by panelist Kathy Wright, vice president of human resources at Jamba Juice, who said that manager participation is vital to wellness engagement.

“We’ve really found it’s led by leadership. If their supervisor isn’t involved, then the employee really isn’t.”

And that’s a bad domino effect on the workforce. Benefits managers can — and must — help change the culture by pushing executives to embrace, and engage in, workplace wellness, the panelists said.

“Healthy employees are happier, and hence more productive, employees,” Wright said. “Sell that perspective [to executives]. The benefits won’t come in the short term, it will come in the long term. It’s a strategic, but smart, move.”

The panelists shared other lessons they’ve learned about wellness while implementing programs. Among them:

Start small. “If you don’t have a wellness program, it’s OK to start small,” Cantwell said. Each company representative explained rolling out a wellness program took time, with tweaks and other changes over the years. It didn’t all happen at once, and it took time to measure what worked and what didn’t.

Be competitive. Fitness challenges — or even fun workplace physical events, like a field day — are very effective to getting employees moving. They bring out the competitiveness of your employees, in a good way. For example, at Jamba Juice, the company has a six-week long Jamba Olympics event. “Our executives are very competitive,” Wright said. “Employees and groups will wear costumes and work together as a team. It really makes it fun.”

Peer pressure works. Forget what you’ve heard about peer pressure in other situations. In the wellness world, peer pressure is beneficial. When co-workers are doing anything from shedding weight to walking during the lunch hour, that impacts other co-workers. At the same time, said Karlyn Byham, benefit adminitrator at Bloodworks Northwest, “people sharing their stories can be really inspiring but also really intimidating. It doesn’t have to be ‘I lost 50 pounds.’ Smaller stories can be really helpful too, like someone who says they did 10,000 steps in a day for the first time ever, or they climbed five flights of stair in a day. Some of these are tiny milestones but they can really shift the culture.”

Couple data with stories. Hard data is important when you sell to C-suite executives the importance, and success, of wellness. (The three companies represented in the panel all have reduced health care costs and increased employee engagement since implementing wellness.) But also think about the personal side of it. “We’ve had so many inspiring success stories,” Cantwell said, “and a lot have created camaraderie. There’s a lot of value to this that’s hard to put a dollar amount on.”

People make the difference. “It’s about a culture of helping others,” Wright said. “Whether it’s the CEO or a receptionist, you can make a difference in the wellness journey; either positively or negatively you can make a difference. Do it positively.”