Chief Wellness Officers — In corporate, I predict there will be a rise in the role of Chief Wellness Officer, giving this C-Suite leader the primary responsibility for the wellbeing of their employees. Currently, within corporate organizations, this responsibility is yet another thing that typically gets lumped under People & Culture, or HR, but similarly to the newer Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) role in companies, I expect we will see more people dedicated to employee Wellness. Crucially, this role must be intimately connected to the Chief Diversity Officer so that wellness programs are created in a way that best serves all people.
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 Chris Rollins.
Chris Rollins is a Leadership and Executive Coach who launched his own company, Chris Rollins Coaching, in 2020 to support HR leaders and folks in the LGBTQ+ community. His story of leaving a 10-year corporate career to build a purpose-driven coaching business shows his commitment to building company cultures that embrace modern, progressive, and inclusive people practices. Additionally, Chris launched and oversees an online community of LGBTQ+ HR/People/DEI leaders in an effort to bring together heart-centered LGBTQ+ leaders in the people space so that they can support and inspire each other to bring more humanity into the workplace.
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 always wanted to get involved with leadership, culture, and talent in some way, but it took me some time early on in my career to figure out how. I earned a degree in psychology and spent some time in sales and account management in the corporate space, taking on various leadership roles. I ultimately landed a role as the SVP of Organizational Development for a company in NYC. I was doing what I always wanted! But, I realized after a year that although there were parts of it that I loved, it still felt like something was missing. As I thought about what might come next, I knew I had to approach things differently if I were to optimize for fulfillment. I decided that rather than taking the same approach of trying to figure out what job would be right for me, I took the time to think about things from the inside out.
I reflected on questions like “who am I?” and “what is my purpose?” and realized that my purpose was to create a safe space so that people could have the courage to find and live their own truth, no matter their fears. It felt deeply connected to the fear, shame and ultimate joy I experienced coming out. Once that clicked for me, the next question became how to honor that purpose through my work. I was immediately inspired by the idea of helping people find and live their truth as leaders in a complex corporate world that often has us hiding parts of who we are. So I started my company as a Leadership Coach committed to creating safe spaces to support people in expressing their fullest truths in the moments that matter most. And that is what I set out to do.
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?
During my time as the SVP of Organizational Development, I personally experienced the impact that an unhealthy work environment has on mental health & wellness. The key variable that was missing for me was the sense of purpose and fulfillment. I was commuting to work in NYC on the subway, wondering what I was doing with my life, and spent a year at a job where I felt unfulfilled. As the company went through an acquisition, new leadership came in and, in my opinion, had less of a focus on the people side of the business, which made my experience even more unhealthy. Even though my career was at a positive pace of growth, working with new leadership required me to start over on gaining trust and credibility.
Fast forward to my time as a Leadership Coach, I work with HR and People leaders to help them create an organization where not only can they feel supported, but their employees are in a healthy space as well. One of my clients took over an HR team at an organization that had always been very traditional, policy driven, and focused on protecting the company first. Through their leadership, they implemented an entire organization-wide compensation review, where for the FIRST time in the organization’s history, people were talking about salary and compensation. There was full transparency into how compensation was calculated. This change created a sense of empowerment, trust with the company, and feeling that they understood the value of their employees’ work. It was a big commitment for the organization to take the time to have almost 100 separate conversations, but this impacted employee wellness as a whole.
Based on your experience, how do you correlate and quantify the impact of a well workforce on an organization’s productivity and profitability?
As a Leadership Coach, a lot of my work is directly related to the experience of LGBTQ+ or otherwise marginalized employees. What I have noticed for these folks, myself included, is that a lot of energy can be wasted on figuring out if they fit in, if they belong, if they are safe to come out, and if people will treat them differently if they do. When you’re different from the majority, it takes a lot of work to live fully into who you are rather than shrink, mask, or shapeshift to fit in. All of that energy is taking away the chance to get actual work done. Over time, and at scale, it has hugely negatively impacted organizations’ productivity and profitability. And now we know from research that more diverse teams and organizations do yield more positive business outcomes.
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?
When it comes to employee wellness programs, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. While studies like these are helpful jumping off points to investigate further, each company will need to gather data from their own employees to find out what’s important to them, what their needs are, and then design programs that respond to those needs to have a higher likelihood of driving real, positive change. By taking the time to pause and zoom in on this opportunity to positively impact the wellbeing of your employees, you are more likely to see change. Also, by engaging your team in the process initially, you will create more buy-in once you roll out new programs.
My final tip is to shift the language from “cost” to “investment.” Companies are not spending money that is disappearing, you are investing in people and their ability to contribute and be active participants in building the culture of the business.
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?
As a coach, I directly correlate innovation in wellbeing programs to employee retention and recruitment success. Companies need a way to stand out when recruiting new talent, and by incorporating modern-thinking innovative practices, it helps you to have a competitive edge. One way to create wellness programs at your company is through coaching; investing in a coach can be a huge benefit for people’s mental and emotional well-being. Many companies are partnering with coaching organizations to offer coaching services across the entire company. I actually work with some select organizations to coach their teams.
One strategy to help improve recruitment and retention is to offer coaching to new hires within the first 90 days. It costs a lot of money to start over and recruit new people, and given that the job market is so competitive, a lot of change and uncertainty can happen within the first 90 days. By bringing in an external objective coach, you can benefit the experience of new hires and positively impact their likelihood to stay.
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?
As a Leadership and People-Focused Coach, I have seen first-hand the value of coaching on leadership and their employees, and I have seen how it creates a safe space for breakthroughs to help people move forward faster, bring to the surface things that are getting in the way, and actually share how they are being impacted mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, financially, etc. Through coaching, leadership can pinpoint and really understand in what areas their employees need emotional and mental support.
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?
I briefly mentioned earlier in the interview about my client that onboarded a brand new program for compensation review at a traditionally policy-driven company. This is a great example of how this specific company decided to invest in their employees’ financial wellness. Although the leadership and HR team had to take extra time to set up 83 individual conversations with their employees, these investments created a huge impact on the team. They felt valued, acknowledged, and heard by leadership. In many cases, these were coaching conversations that allowed people to open up and take the opportunity to share their personal challenges. Coaching created the space for these employees to feel more connected to the impact of their work, to feel more empowered in their jobs, and to feel inspired to contribute their full potential. I expect this to have additional positive ripple effects for the business going forward.
How are you reskilling leads in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
When I work with leaders to reskill them to support a “Work Well” culture through coaching, we work a lot on learning how to develop empathy. Coaching naturally helps people to strengthen their self-awareness muscles through self-reflection. That same muscle is applied to bringing awareness to what’s going on for other people. There has been a lot of talk in the industry about the importance of empathy in the workplace and within leadership, which is really positive. In my coaching, I connect empathy to humility and curiosity, focusing on the important combination of all three of these skills to develop. I also provide examples of how some leaders may think they are empathizing with someone by saying “I know what you’re going through” without actually asking about their experience and being curious. In this situation, leaders can take the opportunity to build humility, curiosity, and empathy to lead better conversations and have breakthroughs with their people. This is the change that can truly support their wellbeing.
Much of what I learned on this topic has come from Amy Edmonson, who is a known researcher of leadership, teaming, and organizational learning. Her research focuses on the idea of Psychological Safety, and she emphasizes the three traits we should look for in leaders if we are building psychological safety in an organization. Those three traits, as I previously mentioned, are curiosity, humility, and empathy. Amy has described in her research that psychological safety is “a belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk-taking — that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.” She also touches on the risks of organizations ignoring this fear; not only would it hold the company back from innovation and progress, but it can also be disastrous for the organization as a whole.
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?
The first step, while small, is to take the time to pause and have conversations within the organization about how to put employees’ needs first and allow them to show up as their best selves to work each day. This could be through 1 on 1 conversations with team members, such as adding a line item in your agenda to do a “person check-in” at least once a quarter.
What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
- Leader as Coach — Leaders should be encouraged to think of themselves as a coach, not just a leader or manager. By experiencing coaching for themselves, they become better coaches and leaders. One example of this is a previous client I was working with; after several months of coaching, he was in a meeting at work and he noticed that another person in the meeting seemed flustered and distracted, impacting their presence in the meeting. He took a moment to consider what might be going on with them, which demonstrated his empathy and curiosity. Rather than assuming the colleague was fine, he followed up and checked in to create space for a conversation that ultimately supported their wellbeing by feeling seen, heard, and supported.
- Increased access to mental health resources — Companies are trending towards offering more comprehensive benefits that include access to a therapist or a coach at low or no cost by developing partnerships with companies that offer coaching or therapy on demand. Some examples of companies that provide these benefits are Plume (supports trans & LGBTQ+ community), BetterUp (provides coaching at scale for organizations), and Ginger (provides in the moment mental health care).
- Chief Wellness Officers — In corporate, I predict there will be a rise in the role of Chief Wellness Officer, giving this C-Suite leader the primary responsibility for the wellbeing of their employees. Currently, within corporate organizations, this responsibility is yet another thing that typically gets lumped under People & Culture, or HR, but similarly to the newer Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) role in companies, I expect we will see more people dedicated to employee Wellness. Crucially, this role must be intimately connected to the Chief Diversity Officer so that wellness programs are created in a way that best serves all people.
- Work Flexibility — A trending topic of discussion are companies offering work from anywhere or 4-day workweek flexibility. Finally, employees have the choice to create a schedule that fits their complex and unique lifestyle situations. Everyone has unique demands from our personal lives; children, caretakers for elderly, health needs, physical limitations, etc. The setup at home may be more conducive to productive work and that must be valued. What we are seeing is that people are designing their jobs around their lives, not the other way around. One client I coach is about to embark on a 12-month digital nomad adventure, while she continues her work as head of HR. This flexibility is satisfying her need for travel, adventure, and change while still allowing her to remain committed to the work that she does every day with her team.
- Connecting DEI with Wellness — Corporate is finally viewing DEI initiatives as directly related to, and impacting, employee wellness, rather than thinking of the two as separate. They are intricately woven. The experience of someone who feels like they don’t belong or are not included is extremely negative on their mental and emotional wellbeing. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), especially within the tech space (where there is more often underrepresentation), create a space for connection and community for folks who share similar identities and experiences, giving them a sense of belonging and connection that positively impacts their mental health.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
I am most optimistic about the fact that executive leaders are starting to realize that if they want to create cultures at work that support wellness, they must be leading the way. Chief People Officers are taking more care of themselves in the wake of an incredibly demanding few years that has many on the edge of burnout. If organizations want to support wellness, their leaders need to be showing folks what that looks like, and more often.
Speaking for myself, as a previous Head of People, the best decision I made was to invest heavily in a coach. Every week, we meet to create meaningful objectives, measures of success, and a vision for my business and life that has me excited for the future. As an entrepreneur, I’ve created my ideal work week that allows me to show up best for my clients, my partner, and myself. Most notably, I reserve Fridays for myself. It’s time for creativity, fun, play and tightening up any power leaks like getting behind on my finances. I avoid business meetings as much as possible, because I can!
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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.