Empathy. There is an increased focus on collective wellbeing within an organization (and society) that reflects some of the latest theoretical developments in positive organizational psychology. There is also an increased understanding that in the long-term, a business will only do so well as the people who are part of it.

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 Bella Vazquez.

Bella Vazquez is the Vice President of Human Relations at Rani Therapeutics. Prior to joining Rani, she worked at InCube Labs in roles ranging from Human Resources Director to VP of Human Resources. A graduate of Evergreen Valley College, she has over 28 years of experience in Human Resources Management, recruiting, leadership, change management, employee engagement, and employment laws.

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.

I was first exposed to business when I was about ten. My parents, who were both immigrants from Mexico, established one of the first Hispanic grocery markets in the Bay Area. That company grew beyond my father’s wildest imagination: we ended up with 23 grocery stores in the Bay Area and gradually I had to take up numerous responsibilities that are typically unfamiliar to a teenager. I picked up many important skills, including multitasking, organization, business acumen, and customer service. Those experiences continue to be extremely relevant today: now I am working with employees rather than customers. Treating them in a similar way to how I would treat paying customers has been an incredibly valuable lesson to me, and a key part of how we have one of the best retention rates in the Bay Area.

Back as a teenager, I also received a valuable lesson in loyalty: having a sense of ownership and being able to really care for a company is crucial for business leadership. It’s the only way I know how to work. The day I come into a company and feel it’s just a job, I feel like I shouldn’t be there any more.

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?

There are so many definitions of wellness out there. I approach it practically: what are we trying to accomplish when we think of the wellness of our employees? The most concise way I can put it is, a work environment that is conducive to the health and wellbeing of the employees and is a safe space for the employees. We have a comprehensive wellness program which includes different initiatives, subscriptions, policies, benefits, and environmental support for the health and safety of all employees. We take a holistic approach and stress diversity — half of our employees, as well as the majority of the vice presidents of the company, are women. We make sure to give everyone a say.

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?

The short answer is, we are very numbers-centric and employee-centric. We rely on the audit surveys and feedback from employees. We do this monthly and we are very keen on helping employees feel like they have a say in how the company is run. That’s key to our low turnover rate.

We keep hearing about return on investment (ROI), but that debate has changed significantly after the Covid-19 pandemic. Much more often now, leaders are looking at value rather than ROI per se. This is where everything is tied in with productivity, engagement, all of those different components. What you’re offering as a company and how you can be flexible is connected to how you’re providing that work-life balance.

Our surveys get a 90% response rate. I feel that’s huge. As soon as we send our survey, people are on it, because they know that we act upon it.

We were recently certified as a Great Place to Work®. This recognition is strictly driven by our employees. We had over 90% of employees agreeing that they are satisfied and feel very engaged working at Rani.

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?

Take a different angle, a holistic view, don’t focus simply on short-term results. We don’t have that problem with Rani, but I’ve seen it in other companies: sometimes with these wellness programs, people just want to go through a checklist. ‘Okay, I got my website up. I got this. These are my core values.’ We try to limit this. So I would say, in the way of advice, really look at what employees want and what the company needs. Every company is different, right? For us, it was exceptionally empowering, for both management and employees, when we started to do these surveys and really to act upon them.

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?

Health and wellness is on the top of our minds always. The war for top talent makes it vital for us to put together great benefit programs that get the attention of these candidates. We are 100% aware that we need to offer programs that include mental health and work-life balance, like fitness, team building activities, and telehealth. It is important for us to not only hire these talented candidates, but to also retain them. For us, it’s important we recruit people who fit our company culture and who will make the most out of our wellness model — and help others make the most out of it as well. We do that in different ways. We try to really embed Rani and its culture into our interview process. We also encourage our interviewers to let themselves be interviewed. Once we are clear that the candidate can perform their job well, our job then is to listen, to answer their questions. I feel this is more important than digging into their career path or what they’ve done in the past. Our intention is to let the candidates know and feel that we are an employee-driven company.

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.

We spend a lot of time on all the different aspects of wellbeing. Technology is huge, especially when it comes to mental and emotional health. We promote a lot of apps in that regard, like Ginger and myStrength for mental wellness, and Happify and Calm for emotional wellness.

But technology has its limits. For social wellness, we hold a Patio Social Meet twice a month and organize monthly team events. For physical wellness, we promote sports events and healthy lunches. And for financial wellness, we offer biannual consultations with a financial advisor.

We also have special wellness rooms which are private areas where an employee can go anytime to rejuvenate through meditation or prayer, and for nursing moms.

In order to recharge, we recently gave our employees a day off for Mental Health — we called it “Disconnect to Reconnect.” Employees were very appreciative for this day.

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?

Better employee wellness translates into a higher retention rate and increased loyalty to the company, as well as a safe and positive work environment. At the end of the day, our main task is to create positive, healthy relationships within our teams. That’s what a good work environment looks like. We are glad to be considered leaders but we do all those things because they are empowering, not because others may or may not do them as well. It ultimately leads to less stress, less burnout, and fewer people leaving the company.

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

Fostering this culture requires constant coaching, raising awareness, and showing results. It takes time, and it takes a village. But, for example, when we act upon the information we receive from the surveys, it’s really empowering.

In general, we are focusing on improving the relationship between employees and managers. Our team events are a key venue for that. You’ve heard it: employees leave their manager, not necessarily the company. But it works both ways, employees who have a positive relationship with their manager are more motivated to perform well.

Collaboration and listening are also among our core values. For me, they are key to good leadership. Always try to find the best answer to every situation and pay attention to how you can impact the lives of the employees: this is how I mentor the managers.

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?

Awareness. Having awareness of your surroundings and knowing that things are always changing is the first step, really. Right after that, probably accepting and making those changes.

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

  1. Redesigned work spaces. Following the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns, companies are busy redesigning their workspaces to increase both epidemiological safety and employee comfort — so that people would be more likely to return to the office after the pandemic is over.
  2. Mental health awareness. Businesses are increasingly looking for ways to boost the mental health of their employees to help cope with the impact of major unexpected stressors — such as the pandemic or economic uncertainty.
  3. Empathy. There is an increased focus on collective wellbeing within an organization (and society) that reflects some of the latest theoretical developments in positive organizational psychology. There is also an increased understanding that in the long-term, a business will only do so well as the people who are part of it.
  4. Technology. A lot of emphasis is shifting towards health apps and telemedicine, for mental, emotional, and physical health.
  5. Healthy eating. As scientists discover more and more about the importance of diet and the microbiome to both physical and mental health, the importance of integrating healthy food into the daily work cycle has definitely grown — especially since a significant portion of the workforce is experiencing long Covid and other health effects resulting from the pandemic.

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

The culture shift to Millennials and Gen Z is very exciting. As a group, they are more open to new ideas about health and wellbeing. They embrace diversity and inclusivity, they are thinking out of the box. These are some of our core values. It is helping my department as well, because these things are now being requested by the employees.

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?

Readers can find me on LinkedIn and follow the progress of Rani Therapeutics on our website.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.