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This article first appeared in Authority Magazine on November 27, 2022.

Employee Wellness: For any organization, supporting an employee’s holistic health should be a top priority. Reducing stigma in the workplace, particularly around mental health, and creating a safe space for employees to share their experiences is invaluable.

The pandemic pause brought us to a moment of collective reckoning about what it means to live well and to work well. As a result, employees are sending employers an urgent signal that they are no longer willing to choose one — life or work — at the cost of the other. Working from home brought life literally into our work. And as the world now goes hybrid, employees are drawing firmer boundaries about how much of their work comes into their life. Where does this leave employers? And which perspectives and programs contribute most to progress? In our newest interview series, Working Well: How Companies Are Creating Cultures That Support & Sustain Mental, Emotional, Social, Physical & Financial Wellness, we are talking to successful executives, entrepreneurs, managers, leaders, and thought leaders across all industries to share ideas about how to shift company cultures in light of this new expectation. We’re discovering strategies and steps employers and employees can take together to live well and to work well.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Helen Leis.

Helen is a sought-after strategic advisor to senior executive teams across the world. She is renowned for her ability to blend incisive insight with an adeptness for leadership effectiveness, successfully steering companies to create new business models, identify and capitalize on opportunities, and become more customer-centric organizations. Helen serves both on Oliver Wyman’s Global Leadership Team, and as Head of People & Organizational Performance in the Americas. Raised in Virginia Beach, Va., Helen earned a B.A. in economics and history from the University of Virginia and an M.B.A. from Duke University.

Karen Mangia: Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you better. Tell us about a formative experience that prompted you to change your relationship with work and how work shows up in your life.

Helen Leis: Well, the first thought that comes to mind is the birth of my two children, because it was an experience that required me to redefine my relationship with work. For some moms, deciding whether to return to work or stay home after having kids is a challenging decision. For me, it wasn’t. While being a present parent was important to me, the fulfilment I got from work felt too important to give up. But navigating both at the same time wasn’t easy — and the first time I realized this was when I led a project that called for a daily 7:00am meeting.

You see, at that time, in my household, 7:00am was our magic hour: It’s when I would wake our kids up for school, sing good morning, cook their breakfast, and prepare them for their upcoming day. A standing 7:00am call would have interrupted that time with my children that I cherished, so I knew I had to put my foot down.

This realization forced me to draw clear lines around my boundaries and define what I am and am not willing to give up for a job. In that moment, I had to step back and reconsider what was important to me and then clearly communicate it to the ones around me about what was and wasn’t working. Today, I’m a better leader — and mom — because of the projects that forced me to be choosy with my time and define my priorities. I enjoy working and I love being a wife and a mom, so figuring out how to show up as the best version of myself in different aspects of my life was a challenging task, but it was worth it.

Harvard Business Review predicts that wellness will become the newest metric employers will use to analyze and to assess their employees’ mental, physical and financial health. How does your organization define wellness, and how does your organization measure wellness?

Many of our clients have recognized that while garnering a sense of employee wellness across their organization is still important, not everyone is comfortable sharing the intricacies of their wellbeing with their employers. This is one of many reasons we see firms provide wraparound support through outside resources, like mental health assistance. We also work with our clients to convene virtual focus groups on an ad hoc basis that allow for dynamic, anonymous discussions about organizational changes and needs within the agency. By holding these sessions, employees of all levels can openly — and comfortably — share their experiences. The sessions also get leaders involved in the conversation and allow them to have a better understanding of employee experiences and how they feel about the decisions being made around them.

Based on your experience or research, how do you correlate and quantify the impact of a well workforce on your organization’s productivity and profitability?

With existing employees leaving and new ones being hired in a cyclical pattern, it’s impossible for productivity and profitability not to be impacted. In fact, recent research shows labor productivity, which measures output per hour of labor, is down in 2022, and economists suggest the high volume of turnover — which leads to an increase in onboarding and training time — is one reason why.

Moving forward, employers should focus on setting the foundation for a well workforce — including safety, financial security, and holistic wellness — and then build an environment that allows employees to feel seen, respected, and connected to culture via a sense of belonging (think: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). When you’re able to construct a workplace through this framework, employees can start to become their best selves, and it has a valuable trickle effect on the people around them. If organizations can work to build this type of environment, then I truly believe their productivity and profitability will improve in parallel.

Even though most leaders have good intentions when it comes to employee wellness, programs that require funding are beholden to business cases like any other initiative. The World Health Organization estimates for every $1 invested into treatment for common mental health disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. That sounds like a great ROI. And, yet many employers struggle to fund wellness programs that seem to come “at the cost of the business.” What advice do you have to offer to other organizations and leaders who feel stuck between intention and impact?

Improving employee wellness isn’t always linear — so organizations really need to be thinking about it much more complexly. Wellness is an interconnected issue that impacts many facets of an employee’s life, which can make it hard to track and quantify. What we can track is how our organization is progressing toward our organizational goals and creating a more positive culture. One way we’re doing this at Oliver Wyman is through the creation of a “shadow board,” a representative body at our organization that includes employees from across departments, functions, genders, races, ethnicities, tenures, and regions. The council was selected by outside advisors who looked at the applicants objectively so as to create a diverse group without bias or “who you know.” What’s come out of this council has been eye opening: it has allowed us to course correct around mindsets and behaviors throughout the organization in order to get the things that are important to our organization modeled.

Speaking of money matters, a recent Gallup study reveals employees of all generations rank well-being as one of their top three employer search criteria. How are you incorporating wellness programs into your talent recruitment and hiring processes?

Historically, conversations around talent recruitment and hiring have focused a lot on work-life balance, but today, the conversation is shifting to focus more on work-life sustainability — which ensures that every facet of the employee experience — from hiring to retention — is considered through a lens of sustainable wellbeing. Part of this also involves recognizing that there are key differences in generations, and tailoring communications to meet employees where they are is key. Everyone has bad days, and when I do, I leave work and go spend time in nature, or in an artsy setting, or with my loved ones, because I know that is what will help me reset. However, for younger generations, it doesn’t seem as though they’re fully prepared with stress management skills that allow them to recharge effectively. Particularly in this increasingly hybrid world, instead of disconnecting, many younger working adults seem to turn to their phones for an escape (Cue: Doom scrolling).

We’ve all heard of the four-day work week, unlimited PTO, mental health days, and on-demand mental health services. What innovative new programs and pilots are you launching to address employee wellness? And, what are you discovering? We would benefit from an example in each of these areas.

Okay, think for a minute about the time between the December holidays and New Year’s Day, when — for many organizations — work slows down and/or stops completely, and you don’t have to worry about returning to a full inbox and pile of work lined up because everyone is off at the same time. It’s an amazing feeling, and we tried to recreate that at Oliver Wyman by implementing “Recharge Days” — a day where everyone in the organization unplugs at the same time. In some cases, we tag these days onto a three-day weekend; however, we know that it’s also important to give our colleagues time to unplug, especially when we’re running very hot. As a client services business, especially when we’re working to help our most important clients through their hardest times, we incorporated “Recharge Days” periodically throughout the year to help people get a break. People would even send pictures to their teams sharing what they did with their time off, and I absolutely love it! People came back to work energized and ready to tackle the day, instead of feeling burned out and overwhelmed by how much they have to catch up on.

Can you please tell us more about a couple of specific ways workplaces would benefit from investing in your ideas above to improve employee wellness?

Workplaces would benefit by implementing some form of “Recharge Days” when the businesses are running particularly hot, because beyond improving employee wellbeing, it also improves job loyalty. People don’t often want to leave a company where they feel like they have useful benefits, a great work-life balance, and a sense of belonging. In implementing programs such as “Recharge Days,” we’re walking the talk and our employees notice.

How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?

A big focus of ours is on leadership development and helping leaders support employees of all levels and their individual needs. ‘Wellness’ and work-life sustainability look and mean something different for every individual, so recognizing that and being flexible where we can to meet their unique needs is something we prioritize. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to wellness, so customizing and creating solutions that work for both parties is fundamental.

Additionally, in this age of acceleration, information comes at such a high velocity and volume that no one person can keep up with it all. We help our clients identify where leaders can push authority down in their organization — empowering employees who aren’t leaders to lead. This helps leaders feel supported and ensure that the weight of staying up to date with consistent changes doesn’t only fall on their shoulders.

Ideas take time to implement. What is one small step every individual, team, or organization can take to get started on these ideas — to get well?

Pay attention. In this virtual and hybrid landscape, it feels like everything is moving all at once, everyone is talking 100 miles per hour, and no one has visibility into what’s going on in any other employee’s life. So many times, we join meetings and dive right into talking about the topic at hand, instead of taking the time to talk to people about their day and get a sense of how they’re doing. People are often so caught up in their to do list that they aren’t paying attention to the signals and body language their colleagues are showing. Every individual, team, and organization should work to notice, observe, and listen.

What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?

  1. Great Resignation: While news headlines about the Great Resignation have slowed, it is increasingly important that organizations continue to monitor their workplace turnover: is it increasing, decreasing, or staying the same? Based on these findings, employers can have informed insights into their rates of employee turnover and ensure they’re prepared for the next workplace shift. As employees continue to advocate for the things that are important to them — flexibility, opportunities for advancement, work-life balance, and work-life sustainability — employers who can adapt their organization to meet these needs will be well positioned to retain their workforce both now and in the future.

  2. Quiet Quitting: I’ll be interested to see if quiet quitting continues to be a workplace trend, and if so, to see what organizations do to combat it. As we know, labor productivity is down this year, so understanding ways to improve employee engagement and make sure they’re working on things that interest them could be the difference between employees doing the bare minimum to get by or being engaged in their work.

  3. Labor Productivity: As turnover continues to impact organizations, companies should focus on how they can support employee retention. We know that onboarding employees takes time, and it can often be months before someone is fully up to speed, which in turn impacts labor productivity. In the upcoming months, tracking labor productivity and turnover will help give us a better understanding of the workplace landscape that we’ll be navigating throughout 2023, and how organizations are doing in terms of retention.

  4. Organization’s Mindset: Today’s competitive job market has empowered employees to communicate their top workplace priorities. For organizations, adapting your company’s mindsets and behaviors to address these emerging employee needs will be table stakes when it comes to employee retention. Now, this doesn’t mean you abandon the pursuit of profitable growth, but instead, recognize that what worked 10, 5, or even 2 years ago may not be what will work in today’s workplace environment and revamp accordingly.

  5. Employee Wellness: For any organization, supporting an employee’s holistic health should be a top priority. Reducing stigma in the workplace, particularly around mental health, and creating a safe space for employees to share their experiences is invaluable.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?

I always tell my coworkers that I can’t solve an issue if I don’t know it’s happening. In recent years, I’ve seen more and more of my colleagues start to open up about their mental health and share their experiences. As more of these stories come to life, the stigma around mental health at work will lessen, and in turn, it’ll become easier for us to provide them with the right support.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

The best way to connect with me is through LinkedIn, and please do! Workplace wellness is an incredibly important topic and I’d love to continue the conversation.