Working Well: Dr. Tricia Groff On How Companies Are Creating Cultures That Support & Sustain Mental, Emotional, Social, Physical & Financial Wellness
An Interview with Karen Mangia
Flexible work hours. People have always wanted flexibility, but COVID-19 challenged long-held assumptions about productivity. In some cases, specific work hours will remain a necessity, such as in manufacturing or production environments, but even then, employers will try to give more flexibility to attract and retain talent.
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 Dr. Tricia Groff.
Dr. Tricia Groff is an executive advisor and executive coach who works with high achievers and their organizations. She is also a licensed psychologist who brings 20 years of behind-the-scenes conversations to her recommendations for workplace wellness and profitability. She is the author of Relational Genius: The High Achiever’s Guide to Soft-Skill Confidence in Leadership and Life.
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.
When I was in my 20s, my organization closed and all employees were eligible for unemployment. I had started working at 16, and it was the first time in my adult life that I didn’t have to start running hard as soon as my feet hit the floor. I learned that I only wanted to be in environments where I could be human first. On the surface, it wasn’t a big change; I simply made sure that I had 20 minutes to relax with coffee so that I could thoughtfully start my day instead of rushing headlong into it. I recognized that while I want to be excellent, I don’t want to live my life as a machine. The change became foundational in helping me to stay positive and focused for those I serve.
Since that time, I’ve worked with many leaders who have had adrenal burn-out, irritable bowel syndrome and other stress-associated physical symptoms from the cumulative inflammation of a nonstop workstyle. I specialize in high achievers, a specific personality style of people who are driven toward excellence, regardless of their role. When leaders or employees have this drive, it’s easy to assume a mind-over-matter and catch-up-on-sleep-later mentality. They tend to be good at problem-solving everything, and so there is a natural tendency to assume they can outsmart their physical constraints as well. I’ve learned, and try to share, that paying attention to our wellness makes us more effective, not less.
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?
Wellness has too many facets to be integrated into a single metric that would yield adequate reliability. It is better to measure people’s self-report about how they feel about starting their workday, whether they have the support of their supervisors, and a rating of their team dynamic. These questions are usually linked to cultural surveys, but they drill down into the one most important aspect of mental health — the presence of supportive human relationships. Social support is strongly associated with decreased depression and increased resilience in the face of other stressors. The absence of supportive relationships at work will increase stress and reduce the effectiveness of any other wellness efforts.
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?
If we operationally define well-being as low stress, social connectivity, and having a purpose at work, then we have a more focused workforce. Stress is associated with distractibility, short-term memory problems and emotional reactivity that can adversely affect relationships with colleagues. A well workforce helps us develop teams in which people are aligned and moving together as a unit. This cohesion increases the efficiency and the productive brainstorming that drives a company forward. Employee hours can be spent building the company rather than problem-solving relationships or engaging in busywork that looks productive but doesn’t change the bottom line.
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?
First, when wellness is viewed as “at the cost of business,” it signals a lack of understanding and feedback about the mediating variables that connect wellness and profit. Spend time connecting the dots to show that wellness is more than a “feel good” initiative or flavor of the month endeavor. For example, showing some research on the connection between health and missed work time can make a case for health-supporting initiatives.
More importantly, and much more nuanced, is recognizing the indirect ROI on profit. For example, when companies actively work to gain feedback from employees and implement that feedback, it sends a strong message that they value the employees. This in turn generates loyalty and reduces turnover. Thus, the significance of say, a gym membership, isn’t simply about health but rather the fact that the company took the time and effort to make the arrangement. What looks like a wellness initiative becomes a talent retention plan.
Ask employees directly what is helpful to them. The mistake that many employers make, is that, with great intentions, they enact initiatives without finding out what their employees really want. They may read great articles and see an idea to implement. The problem is that they don’t really know if it’s the right initiative for their people, company, and culture. Then, when expenses are high, it’s easier to justify cutting the program. On the other hand, if they implement changes based on employee feed-back, it’s easier for them to feel that they are doing something that is appreciated and makes a difference versus wondering if they are throwing money at the wind.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, when employees make positive comments about the wellness initiatives, ask them if you can share the feedback with senior leaders, or better yet, ask them if they can send an email or have a quick chat directly with the decision-maker. Much to my delight and chagrin, I’ve learned that the most logical and data-driven people are still moved by personal stories and emotion in the face of contradictory data. If even 3 people shared positive impact directly with the financial decision-makers in an organization, there is a strong likelihood that at budget time, the conversation will shift to “we can’t cut that program; it’s important to our people.”
Speaking of money matters, a recent Gallup study reveals employees of all generations rank wellbeing as one of their top three employer search criteria. How are you incorporating wellness programs into your talent recruitment and hiring processes?
The companies I advise are discussing flexible hours and unlimited PTO in interviews. I work with highly driven, Type A clientele, who are seeking top level talent. The go-getter employees don’t mind working hard; they just want to know that they can prioritize family if someone is sick. The conversation isn’t simply about specific benefits but more of helping employees understand that the culture is attentive to people’s personal wellness and family priorities.
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.
The specific initiative that I’m watching is unlimited PTO. It’s very important that companies be transparent in performance expectations apart from expectations of work time. For example, unlimited PTO sounds great, and it may help both employees and HR reduce paperwork. However, if a company is offering unlimited PTO with the expectation of employees doing whatever it takes to get the job done, the overall culture is still very demanding and driven. Sometimes wellness perks are offered to get people in the door, but if the reality of the culture doesn’t confirm the initial promises, people feel misled and doubt the integrity of the leaders.
Similarly, unlimited PTO can breed resentment among colleagues if some people are taking a lot of time off and leaving their co-workers to compensate for the unaddressed workload.
I’m not suggesting that we go back to old ways of accrual, but rather, to be straightforward about the offerings and limitations of all wellness programs. People need to feel that they know where they stand, and the honesty, even when it sounds bad, will outweigh the value of any individual program.
Apart from and more important than specific programs, the #1 initiative that can radically improve mental wellness is a philosophy and behavior of leaders leading by example on two variables:
Their relationship with their own colleagues and
Their own health behaviors.
- Senior Leadership Relational Dynamics. The stress, toxicity or health of an organizations starts at the top and flows down. When executives are fighting with each other, their teams feel the stress. People say to me, “Dr. Tricia, it’s like our parents are fighting and all of the meetings are weird and uncomfortable.” When I did counseling, the number 1 career complaint was a strained work environment. When I did career coaching and helped senior leaders quit their jobs, the #1 reason was chaos and distrust in the executive team. If leaders can do the uncomfortable work of creating and maintaining highly communicative and positive relationships, it sets a culture of psychological safety that flows down to the teams. When executive teams thrive and address root causes of stress, employees can optimize wellness programs. Without healthy interpersonal dynamics at the top of an organization, investing into wellness initiatives is like putting expensive decoration on a cardboard cake.
- Senior leaders’ own behaviors. This is the most common statement on worklife balance that I’ve heard from both lower-level employees and more senior leaders. “My boss tells me that is fine to stop working at X time, but s/he is on email all night. I’m worried that if I draw better work boundaries that it is going to hurt my chances of a promotion.” Leaders set the tone for an organization with their own health choices. Humans are social creatures, and good (or bad) habits are catching. I texted one of my CEOs and told him to bring sneakers, and that I was going to show up on campus. When I dragged him out for a walk, he said “are we really going to do this?” My response was, “you’ve been inside, at your computer, in back-to-back meetings all day, right? Yes, we are going to do this.” A few weeks later, I noticed that he was taking a walk while on a meeting. It sets the tone for others to do the same. Simple things like prioritizing a drink or bathroom or walking break shows employees that the organization values wellness. It makes employees feel comfortable prioritizing their own wellness without fear of penalty.
Can you please tell us more about a couple of specific ways workplaces would benefit from investing in your ideas to improve employee wellness?
In terms of specific programming, here are some low-cost options that can make a big impact.
- Mental Wellness: Short workshops on stress, depression and anxiety not only offers information but sends a message that it is okay for people to talk about these concerns. Often the biggest stress created on mental health, is not the mental health issue itself, but rather the feeling that it is shameful and that one needs to keep it a secret.
- Emotional Wellness: Teach all senior leaders to say, “thank you’ and “You did X well. I really appreciate it.” This single strategy is the cheapest and most underutilized strategy that affects not only wellness, but also employee happiness, productivity and retention.
- Social Wellness: Simple ways to facilitate community without adding burden: Add 1 hr of fun time into an all-day agenda, hold happy hours (if voted by the team — some teams hate them); well-placed break rooms and communal gathering places with great furniture to enhance spontaneous connections.
- Physical Wellness: Slightly shortened meetings to promote stretching time and bathroom breaks. If people are traveling, ensure that it is easy for them to access water and whatever type of nutritious food they eat at home.
- Financial Wellness: Are there items they are personally funding that helps the business? If so, providing reimbursement gains loyalty that goes far beyond a dollar amount. One of the companies I work with reimburses a low-cost item, and they have been flabbergasted by the response in it attracting potential employees. It has nothing to do with finances but shows a level of awareness and caring that is attention-grabbing.
Also, do employees like the pay and bonus schedules or would they prefer an altered arrangement that could be easily integrated without adding undue burden to HR?
How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
Work Well cultures will only truly work when they are modeled from the top. I give leaders permission for self-care. This may mean closing their laptops at a specific time. It may mean holding boundaries on their schedules so they can prioritize time for the strategy that grows their company and decreases their own stress instead of always being available for everyone else.
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?
Stop meetings 5 minutes earlier. It can be surprisingly difficult to do, but it gives everyone a chance to stretch or take a bathroom break before the next meeting. This tiny change is one, that if carried through the culture, shows how one can work in high-demand and time-constrained settings while still maintaining attention to human needs.
What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
- The remote-working debate. Both employers and employees are still experimenting to see what blend of in-person versus remote work is best. While there have been many articles written from all sides, we need time to see what maximizes wellness, relational cohesion and productivity for each industry and culture.
- Flexible work hours. People have always wanted flexibility, but COVID-19 challenged long-held assumptions about productivity. In some cases, specific work hours will remain a necessity, such as in manufacturing or production environments, but even then, employers will try to give more flexibility to attract and retain talent.
- Gen Z’s impact on conscious capitalism. The idea that people should separate work from personal values was on its way out before COVID-19 and it became a dinosaur in the face of children and pets entering video screens. Gen Z admires what is real, and what is congruent. They will demand work that aligns with their values and worldview.
- The format of off-site programming. With more remote work, 1 or 2-day yearly team-building events will not provide enough contact to build cohesion. Workplaces will be assessing easy and short off-site activities that help maximize in-person connection.
- Salary transparency. Will Gen Z’s desire for transparency change the traditional methods of salary negotiations? How will employers handle salary inequity, especially that which results from the higher incentives to attract talent during the employee shortage?
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
The intersection of Gen Z, COVID-19, and the Talent Shortage/Great Resignation — Workplace wellness and worklife integration have been problems for a long time. Historically though, employees felt forced into a choice between their own health and providing for their families. I am wildly excited about Gen Z, to see highly motivated young people who want to work hard AND maintain a sense of purpose and happiness in their lives. COVID-19 broke many assumptions about the ideas of traditional work, and the current talent shortage forces companies to compete on more than salary. Because of the current power shift to the employee, Gen Z (and others) have the power to demand healthier cultures.
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Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.
About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success A Success From Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Working Well: Dr Tricia Groff On How Companies Are Creating Cultures That Support & Sustain Mental, was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.