Automation of tasks, Management of the human experience. The role of manager is changing. The administration of managing processes and tasks is being replaced with managing the employee experience and setting the tone for the company culture. Wherever task management, process management, or the like can be automated, do 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 Deanna Baumgardner, President and Owner of Employers Advantage LLC.

Deanna Baumgardner started Employers Advantage LLC in August of 2010 to provide small businesses with a viable option for Human Resources support that fits the specific needs of small businesses and non-profits. Deanna and her team work with a variety of small business across the US and in a variety of industries. Prior to starting Employers Advantage, Deanna worked in a variety of corporate HR roles after starting her professional career in accounting positions.

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 am so grateful to be a part of this and to talk with you all about these important topics. For me, my relationship with work and life is something that has evolved in importance over time and now it is a main focus of mine. So much so, that I’ve built my business on wanting to provide opportunities for people to live and work how they want. As it relates to the question specifically, I would say that the catalyst for my work relationship shift over the years started in 2008. Prior to 2008, I thought I had to work the 8–5 job in a corporate setting and just do what is expected and within the “norms” of society and traditional work. In 2008, I quit my job and all the comforts that I knew to take some time off and move from my hometown. Given that a recession rolled through during that time, I ended up being out of work much longer than I anticipated and had to find other ways to get by. That means I found opportunities to see things differently, to see life and work differently and found the ability to be more flexible in work and life. It completely opened my mind. I still searched for a traditional Corporate HR role to get back into some stability and once I found that job, I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted for my future. That is when I started Employers Advantage LLC so that I could take control of my future, the work I do, the impact of the work that I do and how my work fits into my life. I now want to provide that same opportunity to other people whenever possible.

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?

For us, wellness is multi-faceted but starts with focusing on each person feeling safe, supported and respected so that they feel confident and comfortable in their roles and the workplace. When people are confident and comfortable, that will reflect in their work but will also spread to other parts of their lives. We don’t have structured policies or programs that measure wellness, but rather we keep an eye on each other through regular contact and I can see it their work and the feedback that we get from our clients through regular satisfaction surveys.

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?

Unless people are well with themselves, they can’t be well for anyone else. By focusing on people as individuals, caring about their specific needs and knowing that the company supports them, in return, they are engaged with the company. The engagement is reflected in their attendance, their understanding in the importance of taking time off for themselves, in how they treat their co-workers, clients and others they that interact with throughout the course of their work. It also shows in low turnover and people being transparent and open with me about things happening either with themselves or their work. Everyone wants to be cared for and respected in any relationship, so it’s no different in the workplace. Think about the times that you knew either the person you were with or the company that you worked at genuinely cared about you as an individual. When you feel cared for and supported, you want to do good for yourself and others.

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?

Don’t over think it, just do it. Any effort that is intentional and followed through is worth it when it comes to wellness and mental health support. If you haven’t already, start including it in the overall budget for employee benefits. As a business owner, I know it might sound crazy to some people when I say this, but it isn’t all about the money. Even though that ROI statistic is great and seems like a no-brainer, I do understand that sometimes it is hard to see or realize that return because it isn’t so simple. The return is in reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, higher productivity, and engagement, more so than investing money with a specific rate of return and being able to see that come back to the company in a lump sum.

If a company is hesitant to make the financial investment, they can take small steps that don’t cost money. A few examples are: 1. Leading by example. Managers and Leaders of the company are what makes or breaks the company culture, so it’s up to them to lead by example when it comes to wellness initiatives and plans. 2. Create a culture of transparency. Open, clear, and regular communication about the company, the people and what’s important to people sets the stage for any company initiative or plan. When people know the why’s and what’s happening in the company, it helps them be more involved and engaged. 3. Talk about mental health and that it’s ok to ask for help. This will break down any stigma that there might be for some people around mental health and help people know it’s ok to talk about it. There are a variety of low-cost ways to invest in wellness. We all know about Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and that they are a low cost and high value way to support employee’s mental health, but you can also bring in outside mental health and wellness organizations into your company for lunch and learns or trainings for both management and employees.

My company is very small with a lean budget, and we have a strong culture that is supportive of wellness and each team members as individuals. It doesn’t always take a lot of money, it comes from the heart of the leader.

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?

Throughout our recruiting and hiring process, we are transparent as possible with candidates. I know I mentioned it before, but I am a firm believer that when people know what’s going on and what to expect, it reduced any stress or anxiety around some of the unknowns. We are transparent about the recruiting process, timeframes, when to expect response times, who is involved in the hiring process, and we make sure to contact candidates that aren’t chosen. It is stressful enough to try and find a job, so if we can alleviate even a small portion of that for candidates, we are going to do it.

Specifically, as it relates to candidates that we talk to about any of our open positions, we talk to them about what is important to them and then how they set boundaries, how they hold those boundaries and how they manage their workload to be able to do what is important to them. For us, boundaries are very important to protect our well-being.

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.

Sometimes answering questions like this is difficult because we don’t necessarily have a traditional structured program or initiative, because it is a part of who we are and what we do as a company. It’s not a separate line item like office supplies or anything. It is our culture to value and respect each other as individuals and be supportive of them and their individual needs. It’s through a variety of small things that I do that add up to psychological safety at work that supports their total wellness. Things like sharing articles and resources with the team around wellness topics, we created a buddy system so everyone has a back-up and a go-to person to cover them so they can take time off without worry or stress of work, I have regular check-ins with individuals just to see how they are doing, I make sure that they aren’t put in situations in which they might be unsafe or uncomfortable and I give them time when they need it. Lastly, I want to know what’s important to each person and what they want to their work and life schedule to look like when they join my company. If they want to work 15 or 20 hours a week, we manage their workload to be no more than 15 or 20 hours a week. If they want “full time”, we manage their workload to be anywhere between 35 and 40 hours a week. If they want 30 hours a week, same thing. There is a bit of flexibility in their schedules, and everyone manages their own time as they see fit. If the clients’ needs are met and they are hitting the outcomes of their role, it is up to them where and when they do the work.

  • Mental Wellness: Well, we offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides employees with up to 8 free counseling sessions, and most EAP’s only provide 3. This particular EAP is a total wellness benefit in that it also provides financial counseling, an employee discount program, there are legal resources, there is a benefit advocate, there is an entire e-learning portal for both personal and professional development and there is even a concierge service so if you want help booking a cool vacation, they can help. Of course, we have PTO for people to completely disconnect and take time away from work but one thing about this that I am stickler for is truly being off. We have a saying at Employers Advantage “when you’re off, you’re off”. I don’t like it when people say they are going to be off but available if needed or if they feel like they need to justify why they won’t respond while on PTO by saying they have limited or no access to email or phone. As mentioned, we have a work buddy system so that employees know they have backup for their time off and that they don’t just come back to 2 weeks’ worth of work.
  • Emotional Wellness: One of Employers Advantage’s core values is respect everyone and I believe that supports emotional wellness. I make sure that the team knows that it’s ok to have a bad day and to reach out to me if they need help or support. It is important to remember that we are all human, employees are human and we can’t expect that external factors don’t impact the workplace and that the internal factors that influence mental health don’t impact their personal and home lives. What we have experienced in our past and present personal lives carries with us and doesn’t get left at the door when we go to work. Another one of our company core values is to have fun. I think having fun and knowing it’s ok to have fun at work greatly impacts a person’s emotional wellness. We have a team call every week and I always open the team call with a “dad joke”. We have a “random” channel on Slack so that people can share fun or funny things and we gather in person as a team on a quarterly basis to enjoy each other’s company. Whether through a meal, activity, or celebration, we focus on fun.
  • Social Wellness: I recognize and acknowledge things happening in society and the impact it may have on everyone on my team. I provide space and time for the team to come together and share their thoughts or feelings. I don’t pretend it didn’t happen or that it doesn’t give people thoughts that they might want to sort out. We have open and respectful communication around things that are happening in the world. Companies are fooling themselves if they think things happening in society don’t impact them at work. People bring their whole selves to work, and they need to know that it’s ok to do that and that it’s ok to talk about it without fear of judgement or repercussion. Over the past 2 years in particular, we’ve had a variety of socially impactful events that can’t be ignored. I provide space for the team to gather socially and better connect with each other through a weekly “coffee break”. It happens every Thursday at 9:30am and team members can attend if they choose. The only rule is no work talk is allowed, it is specifically intended for the team to socially interact and connect.
  • Physical Wellness: We are a fully remote workforce and sometimes it can be easy to get stuck at your computer so we have a couple of team members that will do walking calls. They take a walk during an internal meeting call or any other call in which they don’t need to be tied to the computer. I regularly encourage people to get out and walk, even if just for a quick break. I even have an away “on a walk” or “on a run” status in Slack. I make sure to lead by example by utilizing this message throughout the week, so the team knows it is ok to use and do as well. My company provides clients with workplace yoga services and we have done that internally as a team as well.
  • Financial Wellness: Outside of the financial guidance available through the EAP, I do what I can with a small business budget to provide as fair of a wage as possible.

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?

As I mentioned previously, ROI for employee wellness programs is not all about dollars, it also is reflected in reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, higher productivity, and engagement. With the recent “Great Resignation”, an engaged employee frequently means a retained employee. Which, in turn, reflects in the financials of the organization.

For me, just knowing that the employees are happy, healthy, and working and living the way that works best for them and their families is a benefit enough. Outside of that, when employees are well at work it also reflects in our client retention, new business, and the overall operation of Employers Advantage. Not to mention, because we provide outsourced HR to other small companies, our HR Business Partners are able to incorporate what works in our company as recommendations and suggestions to their clients making a bigger impact to small businesses.

It’s investing in people and when you invest in people, they will invest in you/your company two fold.

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

We don’t have to reskill our leaders because it lives in our core values and how the company is run. Employees are brought in from day one knowing that wellness and support around people as individuals is a priority for us and it shows in the work that we do.

Our leaders lead by example by taking time off, going “offline”, participating in encouraged outdoor or physical activities, speaking up when help is needed, etc. Additionally, I offer professional development dollars that employees can allocate for growth. Many employees utilize these dollars for things they feel passionate about, be it being a Mental Health Workplace Ally, getting certified in DE&I, etc.

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, know that you deserve it. You deserve to invest time and/or money into yourself to feel better, be better and possibly inspire others as well. A great first start is knowing you deserve it and if you need help, it’s ok to ask for it.

As an organization leader or manager, start talking about wellness and get ideas from employees about what wellness means to them and what it is they need from you as the organization.

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

  1. Mental Health Allies and Advocates. I am Mental Health First Aid Certified and one of our team members recently received her Mental Health Workplace Ally Certification as well. Since we are the external HR Department for small companies, we can be an advocate of mental health support for our clients’ employees. For larger companies, the HR department, department leaders and managers will be trained on mental health in the workplace so that they can get employees to the help and resources they need. Some companies have embraced having Mental Health Allies in the workplace and created programs around it. Employees and managers that elect to be a part of the program are trained on what they need to know to be a Mental Health Ally. It isn’t that they diagnose or provide any counseling to their co-workers, they are a safe place that people can go to and get direction to the resources and benefits available so that they can get the help that they need. I’d love to see this trend expand and move forward.
  2. Workplace Flexibility . This isn’t so much a trend as it is a business necessity at this point. My company has been fully remote for the 12 years that we’ve been in operation, and it has been successful for me as the business owner, the employees on my team and our clients. Employees have the ability to manage their own schedule and incorporate their personal life needs into their schedules. Workplace flexibility doesn’t always mean being remote or even being hybrid, but simply having an awareness and understanding that life doesn’t stop 8am-5pm and people need to know that it’s ok for them have the ability to step away if they need to and not be negatively impacted by it. Of course there are some roles and professions that don’t always allow for a lot of flexibility but I do think it is important for companies to truly assess each role and find ways to be more flexible and innovative in their approach to scheduling.
  3. Increased Access to Mental Health & Wellness Benefits. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are more common now and a great foundational source of mental and wellness support. What’s important to note here is that a lot of times employees are reluctant to utilize an EAP because of fear of the employer finding out but I am here to confirm that it is anonymous. Unless an employee tells their employer that they utilized the EAP, the company will not know that the employee called. So, if you work at a company that offers an EAP and you are looking for help, I urge you to start with EAP. The expanded reach and access to help through telehealth and virtual visit options gives people more access and is an opportunity for employers to provide another option for employee wellness. A benefit could be a subscription to something like Calm or Headspace as part of your wellness program.
  4. Automation of tasks, Management of the human experience. The role of manager is changing. The administration of managing processes and tasks is being replaced with managing the employee experience and setting the tone for the company culture. Wherever task management, process management, or the like can be automated, do it. Managers can then focus on the employees as individuals managing and supporting performance, conducting coaching and one and one sessions as well as making connections with their team. What this means for companies is that they need to invest in training and reskilling their front line managers and people leaders to make sure they have the capacity and ability to focus on people and manage the employee experience.
  5. Transparency. When we know what is going, what to expect and why, we tend to be less stressed or anxious about the unknown. This is applicable in any situation. Specifically for the workplace, operating in a place of transparency helps employees feel more secure in uncertain times. We are currently going through uncertain or uncomfortable financial times with the economy being (or not being) in a recession from one day to the next. That weighs on people’s minds and their first though is whether or not it will impact their job. Knowing that this is the case with my team as well, I shared our current financial position, cash reserves and projections for the rest of the year. Because they know, they feel secure. When you’re open and transparent with employees, they will feel more comfortable being transparent in their own way with you by giving their feedback, which is a valuable currency in the workplace. Be Transparent is another core value we have at Employers Advantage. It proves successful when I am transparent with employees about the how, why, and what of the business because then they know they can be transparent with me when I look to solicit feedback from the team.

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

Seeing more people talking about mental health and seeing companies be more open about providing resources for employees to be able to get access to help. The dynamic has shifted over the past couple of years, for the good, in what candidates and employees are expecting from companies and their employers, with wellness being a priority.

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?

I welcome individual connections on LinkedIn as well as following Employers Advantage LLC on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Our website is where you can sign up for our monthly newsletter, read out latest articles or watch our Team Live discussion videos. I also welcome direct outreach to me via email at [email protected]

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