Wellness at work starts with self-care. No one else will do it better than you. So, take care of yourself! At work, and outside of work. Note what makes you happy, and what keeps you down; try to do less of that.
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 Céline Schillinger.
Céline Schillinger is an award-winning entrepreneur, author, change agent and leadership consultant. She has over 30 years of field experience, working with both small and global organizations across several continents. A blogger since 2013 and an acclaimed public speaker, a Kotter Affiliate, she was knighted in 2017 in her native France for her workplace change efforts; her book Dare to Un-Lead is released in May 2022.
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’ve worked since I was 21, initially mainly in business operations. My relationship with work has long been “reasonable”. I was grateful for what it provided: financial resources, opportunities to learn, social recognition, friends… I didn’t like everything — some managers, some behaviors — but thought these were the downsides of any job. I did my best to lean in and fit. I changed role when selected by a higher up. I had moments of discouragement when feeling insufficiently recognized, which I blamed on my own inadequacies or those of my managers.
Gradually though, my view of work changed. Maturity, motherhood, and an increasingly informed view of workplace systemic dysfunctions made me ponder. Realizing there was a bias against gender balance at decision-making level in my organization, I became an activist. Together with several colleagues, I started a joyful and constructive movement that spread to many, many employees through the power of a common purpose, the use of social networks, and our collective enthusiasm. This completely changed my view of work. It became my passion to help change the workplace for the better.
From that moment on, I didn’t expect to be picked by a headhunter or a manager anymore. I created each of my following roles, always with a view to transforming interactions — be it with customers, or within the organization. Today, my work is my engagement; it’s who I am. I reflect upon the transformation of work for a better economic and social performance, and I help companies evolve in this direction. My book Dare to Un-Lead is a milestone in this journey and proposes concrete avenues for improvement.
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?
It’s great that wellness enters the corporate agenda, but I wonder if it will change things in any meaningful way.
While the workplace was already a source of stress, COVID has added a new load. Many businesses have invented ways for people to remain efficient despite this stress. A lot of work was done in particular by Human Resources professionals, to whom we must pay tribute.
But here is where I find this focus on wellness equivocal. It entertains the illusion that organizations care about individuals. Generally speaking, they don’t. They care at most about certain individuals: those considered to be key — senior leaders, high potentials — in an elitist perspective to work that is inherited from the past. Businesses are primarily concerned with the expertise they need in order to operate, its performance, and its cost. Accounting rules identify labor as an expense, not as a strategic asset. Companies defend their own financial health first. Why recall this banality? Because workplace wellness is best served by a factual approach, not by a projection of our emotions or aspirations.
Now, if organizations address wellness by providing new benefits and services to employees, paradoxically they do not change anything. It’s a typical “check-box” behavior: “we’ve done something about this topic, we can move on to another one”. But a systemic issue can’t be solved this way. Providing benefits and services feels nice but it maintains people in a passive, consumerist, disempowered posture. It thus further reinforces one of the very sources of the workplace malaise.
That’s why we should not start by trying to define well-being (which varies for each individual — a minimum standard would only level expectations downwards). We must also resist the temptation to establish measurement upfront. So, what about Peter Drucker’s famous injunction: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”? Well, he never said that. Conversations with colleagues are essential, he acknowledged, and this is where I think our effort for workplace wellness should start. How do we create new and fruitful conversations around the topic? The huge advantage of this approach is that it puts people back into an active role, in relation to each other. This is the first essential step towards a truly wellness-friendly workplace.
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?
It’s quite easy to correlate and quantify, studies abound. Many have quantified very precisely the absence of wellness on work and business.
According to Vitality’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace study, supported by RAND Europe, the University of Cambridge, and Mercer Marsh Benefits, ill health was tied to thirty-eight days per employee in lost productivity throughout 2019. It costs UK employers £91.9 billion ($117 billion) per annum, almost 75% of which could be attributed to poor mental health and unhealthy lifestyles.
The World Health Organization (WHO) calculates the cost of depression and anxiety to the global economy at $1 trillion a year in lost productivity. Burnout was included by the WHO in the eleventh revision of the International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon. It’s on the rise among all workers, including the youngest ones. Of 7,500 full-time employees surveyed by Gallup in 2018, 28 percent of Millennials claimed feeling frequent or constant burnout at work, compared with 21 percent among older generations.
In his 2018 book Dying for a Paycheck, Jeffrey Pfeffer studied the impact of organizational culture and workplace ideology on individual and organizational health. From a broad range of employee health and wellness studies, Pfeffer and his colleagues identified ten workplace experiences, such as being laid off, having irregular work shifts, and worrying about health insurance, that contribute 120,000 excess deaths in the United States every year.
Beyond these big numbers, we’re all more or less affected by this reality, or know people who are. A former colleague observed that someone burning out had become a daily occurrence where she works. At least a dozen people in my circle of personal and professional friends have suffered from the syndrome. Some of them have had to stay away from the workplace for up to two years; others have never returned.
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?
I understand the reluctance of employers. They shouldn’t alone shoulder an issue that pertains to society as a whole. Policy choices must be made that support preventive healthcare, which includes mental health. The ultra-liberal ideology has unfortunately pushed for tax cuts that have impoverished the health sector, while costs, associated with an aging population, the development of expensive technologies and the pharma sector’s growing profit expectations, have exploded. Not to mention pandemic-related costs. It is time for better policies. In societies that mutualize little or nothing about health care, such as the United States, it is unfortunately up to employers — and to individuals who can afford it — to take over.
Nevertheless, employers also have a special responsibility. They must own the health consequences of their own work practices. The organizational and management methods inherited from Fordism are still in place although they are no longer in phase with the expectations of individuals. They restrain, infantilize and de-humanize people. They reduce their capacity for autonomy, creativity and individual agency. Some corporate cultures breed power relations, contempt, harassment, the cult of performance and of humiliation, hierarchical domination. This erodes people’s mental health.
Now, as employers, what can we do?
First, change our vocabulary. “Wellness” evokes the realm of sensations, which according to the old work/life dichotomy and the widespread belief that workers are purely rational beings, would not really belong to work. People concerned with this topic would be the fragile ones, the less reliable thus less worthy of attention by the productive system than their “stronger” colleagues. Also, when talking about employees, senior leadership and Human Resources tend to distance themselves from this set, as if they were not employees too. “How we work together” seems to me a more accurate terminology.
Second, think about our corporate culture. What are the sources of stress, powerlessness, humiliation? Where do the contradictory injunctions come from? Where could we re-humanize over-processed operations? In my book Dare to Un-Lead, releasing early May, I explore three paths that seem promising for a better economic and social performance: emancipation, connection, and mobilization. They all offer opportunities for workplace wellness.
Finally, sustainable solutions will not come from a single point in the company (HR, Management…). They will come from everyone, together, a dialogue and co-creation. The process is itself part of the solution. It is possible, as I write in my book, to implement new value creation strategies based on purpose and mutual respect. An example I describe involves a pharmaceutical company’s change of approach to manufacturing quality. Carried along the pathways I mentioned before, this change improved quality in a spectacular way. In the same time, accidents in factories around the world were reduced by half. Not a coincidence: when you support human agency through community engagement, people take more care of each other.
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?
If you make wellness programs an argument for attracting talent, you may succeed in the short term, but you create additional risk in the long term. Because talents attracted by your generosity and apparent concern for people are in for a rude shock as they experience a dysfunctional management culture. That’s where you need to focus first. People resent a poor work experience. Or, they learn to conform, and reproduce on others the patterns of domination they experience. Your best arguments and ambassadors are your current and former employees, not a catalog of services.
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.
- Mental Wellness:
- Emotional Wellness:
- Social Wellness:
- Physical Wellness:
- Financial Wellness:
If we seriously addressed soul-crushing systems, unlivable wages, disrespectful or unfair management behavior, and meaningless work, we might need fewer wellness programs, not more. Adding stuff up shows that we haven’t taken the systemic dimension of the problem into account. We are putting patches on a used tire that it is high time to change. It is precisely because we maintain old systems that we create or add to ill-health.
The Oscar Kilo community, established in 2017 by wellbeing activists at the British Police, is among the examples that inspire me. They have really taken the problem on the right side, and are doing a great job. Oscar Kilo helps prevent the suicides, stress, and depression which are much more numerous among the police than the general population. It does so by connecting people across ranks, professions, and territories through various digital platforms, events, and in-person conversations. It reaches the front lines on the street via “well-being vans.” Most importantly, Oscar Kilo enables people to talk to and support one another rather than leaving them to rely on a central source of knowledge and assistance. It has positive effects on all aspects of wellness.
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?
Corporate activism offers enormous potential to improve employee wellness by changing the way we work together. It is basically a new leadership strategy that places the methods, tools, and practices of social movements in service of the organization’s purpose. Business can learn enormously from the dynamics of social activism. Around a shared cause that speaks to people’s values and benefit the enterprise, corporate activism allows to set in motion employee collectives of all levels, gathered in communities of intent and action. Agency, but also social capital and trust can grow from there, inspiring movement and sustainable performance.
How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
It’s about learning new skills, but also — and perhaps more importantly — unlearning others. Those that do not serve us anymore. How? By engaging leaders in new forms of leadership, by involving them differently in value creation: in a more collective way, leveraging the dynamics of networks and movements. Before exploring further via books and courses, it was through such experiences, in the field, that I developed such new skills. I learned about my colleagues as well, and about what we could do together. This knowledge is accessible to anyone. It is situated knowledge, acquired together, in context. It is very powerful.
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?
As an individual, try to identify the systems of interactions in which you operate, and what they hold that is potentially harmful. Find allies to change something about it.
As a team, explore how to develop the willingness to collaborate. How can a group want to (not just have to) work together? Where does desire come from?
At company level, invest time and effort in developing your social capital: the aliveness, multiplicity and diversity of horizontal and transversal networks. And question all sacred cows: talent selection, compensation scale, performance management. It all goes together.
What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
- The way people feel at work shapes our society. Workplace ill-health doesn’t only produce burn out, resignations or disengagement. It fuels social anger, “anti-system” opinions, and prevents us as a society to tackle the major issues of our time.
- Working well is a business-critical issue. The cost of workplace ill-health is so high, it sharply reduces organizations’ productivity and capacity to innovate.
- Wellness at work starts with self-care. No one else will do it better than you. So, take care of yourself! At work, and outside of work. Note what makes you happy, and what keeps you down; try to do less of that.
- Working well demands systems change. Solving the workplace crisis is not a matter of perks but about how we change the way we work.
- Workplace wellness requires the participation of all. We will only succeed if everyone is actively involved in this effort.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
The COVID crisis has allowed a detachment from the usual patterns in which we were all caught. This has fostered awareness and a more critical eye, the first step to possible change. After a wave of mass layoffs, employees are now more demanding of their employers. Managers and Human Resources professionals, faced with more burn-outs and resignations, are looking for answers to improve workplace wellness. I hope they will not limit their quest to gadgets and perks, however nice they feel.
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?
My book Dare to Un-Lead: The Art of Relational Leadership (Figure 1 Publishing) gets released early May 2022. I look forward to interacting with readers! They can reach me easily on
on my website http://weneedsocial.com/
and by email [email protected]
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.