Flexibility is obviously important because people can maintain some control over their work-life balance.
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 work well.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jean Ollis.
Dr. Jean Ollis is a Licensed Independent Social Worker — Supervisor (LISW-S) in the State of Ohio, an Associate Professor of Social Work serving as Department Chair and Program Director at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, and a mental health therapist in private practice. She has over thirty years of experience in social work and mental health.
Dr. Ollis has worked with all ages and populations but specializes in treating adolescents and helping people handle grief, bereavement, serious illnesses, life transitions, mid-life crises, and relationship issues.
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 have always found personal and professional fulfillment in my social work jobs. Spurred by a strong work ethic and passion to help others, my motto is to work, work, and work until the job is done.
I have a great sense of responsibility, commitment, and loyalty to any job or task, but what I missed in my prior work life was a strong voice for work-life balance. As I’ve aged and gained more work experience with bigger responsibilities, I finally had a moment when I said to myself, “I need to speak my truth about what I need, as far as my schedule and its flexibility.”
In my prior job and when I started here at the university [MVNU], both of my children were still at home. They were in sports and school activities, and it was the first time that I said, “I am so excited to work here, and I want to do this job well, but it’s very important to me that I’m also present (emotionally and physically) to support my family. My kids are going to grow up quickly, and I need to be able to attend their activities and make sure that they are okay.”
Through the years I’ve always wanted to be able to balance work and life, and I really had to show up here and say, “This is what I want and need.” I brought a proposal to the table and said I would also like to continue in private practice, and I want to be able to see my kids’ activities in the evening. I developed and proposed a schedule of what this could look like and how this would benefit the company.
In prior jobs, I wasn’t as confident in speaking my truth to do that [be flexible] and I missed a lot of family things. I wasn’t willing to speak up and ask or say, “I’m going to propose this, and here’s how I think this will work.”
It was a struggle of balance. There was this moment when I thought, “Why not?” Why couldn’t I bring this to the table and see what traction it gets?” The university was willing to work with me to say, “If you can bring something to the table, that’s a win-win.” It’s hard for a company to say no to that.
There were many years I wasn’t proactive because I was so conscientious and I wasn’t going to say no when I was needed at work. But there was a pivotal moment when my family needed me. It meant something to my kids that I wasn’t always there and I should be, and so that’s when I decided I needed to put something together that works for everyone, especially me and my work-life balance.
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?
We’ve worked very hard to integrate a wellness model at MVNU. As the director of our Social Work program, I have worked with my team to determine what they need to feel like they are valued here. What is their metric for feeling like they’re able to contribute based on their strengths?
The first thing we do is look at what their strengths are and how they think they can best contribute and find value in their work.
Secondly, I ask: How can I help you find your work-life balance? What does that look like for you? Is that remote work and just coming into the office when you teach or when we have meetings? Do you need to join meetings via Zoom? Do you need to come up with a flexible schedule, i.e., you’re taking Mondays and Fridays off and doing everything on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday?
For example, we have a team member who has young kids, and so the questions become: What works best for you getting home and getting your son off the bus? How do you do that and still maintain this work-life balance? On the other hand, we may have someone whose kids are grown and who wants to spend more time in the office and we will gladly accommodate that preference.
What we have done — and I think we’re seeing great results — is simply believing in you and trusting. I have to trust you as an employee. We’ve hired you to do a job, and you’re qualified. We already know that based on your resume and what you bring to the table. Now that I know this about you, I absolutely trust you to do the job, so tell me what will help you do it best.
We have found this sweet spot of flexibility — some remote work, some office work. I ask my team questions like: What do you want next year to look like? Tell me what you would like to do based on what you’ve done this year. What would you like to change? Do we need to rearrange your classes? Would you like to teach something different?
You can only do this job — and honestly, any job — if you have a passion for it and desire to do it. People want to be here, and they will work twice as hard for the company with flexibility rather than if they were held to a controlled schedule and told tasks to do. For me, wellness is a work-life balance and always recognizing that family comes first. We do a lot of collaboration and teamwork to say, “Where can I cover for you so that you can find that balance?”
You’re also well if you feel challenged. I think everybody in higher ed wants to be intellectually challenged. We’ll support you if you want to further your education — that’s a big part of it. If you want to go back to school, there’s always support for that. If you want to learn a new skill, we’ll support you. If you want to attend a conference, we’ll support you.
We want you to prioritize family and know that we will cover for you if something is going on with your family. We want you to feel like you have some control over your schedule.
For social work students and professionals, self-care and self-awareness are critical because we’re working with vulnerable and oppressed individuals. We have to ensure we are modeling that self-awareness and self-care in our curriculum and in our own behaviors and role modeling how to do that well. One of my favorite mottos I share with students is “We can never expect more of our clients than we are willing to do ourselves.”
We don’t have control over work-life stressors once students graduate and enter agencies, but we teach them to look for warning signs when seeking work at agencies. This could be blanketed across all companies. If you go into a company or business that doesn’t prioritize your self-care or let you prioritize family commitments within reason, that might be a red flag. You’ve got to be very intentional about choosing a place to work that recognizes work-life balance and the importance of relationships, both in and out of the workplace. The caveat is: within reason. You can’t spend 10 hours working and the rest of the week having fun with the family. However, the key is balance.
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?
I would like to reference one of my favorite quotes by Brené Brown:
“Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.”
Productivity is connected to the wellness of your workforce. How much time are you taking to hear what people have to say? There’s the concept that change sometimes happens too fast. One of the indicators of the Great Resignation is too much innovation too fast. Some of the most innovative companies like Tesla and SpaceX are losing employees because of the human inability to adapt to constant change and the demands connected to innovative work.
I think the question is: How much can you handle, and are you fearful of it? Are you worried about the historical data that says this isn’t going to work? How do we address those fears? I feel to really integrate change and have productivity, people have to be on board with it. I don’t want to have power over, I want to have power with. I want to do this together, where we can come to a consensus that this may or may not work, but it’s a good idea to try it. Will you at least give us the opportunity to try this new innovative scenario and see if it works? If not, we’ll dial back, but I think when you try to have power over people, you’re always going to meet resistance.
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?
You’ve got to invest the money. You have to take the risk and put the money into wellness to enhance productivity. The Great Resignation speaks so significantly to that. We have well-trained and long-term professionals leaving the workforce because they’re seeking something else, which is mostly work-life balance, flexible schedules, remote work, or escaping a toxic workplace.
I don’t think this phenomenon is going to change until a company dials back and says your wellness matters and what you have to share [as far as wellness] is important. Companies need to reevaluate what work-life balance should look like now instead of just continuing with a traditional model and schedule that has been the same for 40-plus years.
I’m going to share an analogy of mental wellness with your personal health. If I told someone who was on the verge of diabetes to change their diet, eat less sugar, and invest in an exercise program, they’re more than likely going to see improved health. This lifestyle change allows for improved physical health, ultimately resulting in better contributions and productivity in the workplace. Caring about wellness and mental health is that exact same investment, but we don’t always see it in that light. We don’t always equate how we view health to how we view mental health and wellness, but it’s the same concept.
There should not be a stigma to taking care of yourself emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically. That investment will always pay off because people will feel like they are heard and valued holistically versus just for the bottom dollar that they bring to your company.
Training employees and supervisors in a trauma-informed care approach is another step that would be valuable across all employment sectors. Trauma-informed care is an approach typically found in the fields of social work, healthcare, and education. Essentially, it’s the assumption that the persons you are interacting with may have experienced trauma in their life. From that trauma, defense mechanisms breed, distorted cognitions develop and reactions may be connected to a trauma trigger. In my opinion, trauma-informed care needs to be blanketly implemented across corporations, businesses and educational institutions.
For example, when someone has an angry outburst, is it really about something I said in the meeting, or is this something internal that’s being triggered based on their conflict with their parents, something that was said to them years ago or trauma that was experienced? That is a bit of a light bulb moment for many to recognize that everybody brings life experiences to the table.
Adding to past trauma, COVID-19 in and of itself is a trauma, so companies need to think about its impact when employees are resistant to coming back. Is anybody acknowledging that being home and being isolated — and the political dissension around this and other issues — are their own forms of trauma? I don’t think we are talking about it enough. We’re saying, “let’s come back to work, let’s go back to normal,” but people are forever impacted and changed.
In my 52 years of life, I don’t know that I’ve seen collective trauma of this magnitude since 9/11. There was a very similar secondary trauma when it happened, with fears of flying, irrational biases, and deep, deep anger that developed.
I worry that this has impacted everybody and wonder what the long-term impact will be — not just in our country, but in our world. We are changed, and we really have to give attention to helping businesses and other organizations learn to step back and listen, receive people’s stories and experiences, and then figure out, “What do we do with this changing workforce?”
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?
How we incorporate that is recognizing and not being resistant to the idea that we are in a changing society. It’s the flexibility. It is remote work. If we don’t integrate that into what we’re offering to new employees, I don’t think they will come. I’m amazed at the number of applications that are wanting fully remote online work, which is fairly new in higher ed. We have adjusted a lot of our policies to accommodate that. For example, sometimes faculty need to be on campus a few mornings a week, and then they can work remotely otherwise. There are a lot of departments across campus that are doing this as much as possible.
We are trying to be very flexible. What are the must-haves, what do you need to absolutely be here for, and what things do you not have to physically be present for? We can Zoom, we can change how we format our meetings, we can rearrange our work week. At the end of the day, organizations, universities and whoever is hiring will be able to find the best employees when they bring something like that to the table.
I think the days of having this structured, “it-must-be-this-way” mentality are over. As soon as job-seekers hear that, they will lose interest in the job. Current employees may leave. There is an absolute necessity to be open-minded and evaluate whether certain practices have to be done a certain way or if there are alternatives. Sometimes, it’s somebody new at the table who has that great idea that we have to be willing to receive.
In an interview, if someone asks if there is any way that we can work with flexibility on the job, my past response might have been, “Well no, we’ve never done that.” Now, I step back and pause and give a response like, “I’m not sure. That’s new to us, but I am willing to consider anything. Let me think about this and figure out what that might look like.”
That pause is a beautiful moment to say, “Let me consider anything.” Again, when you offer that and are open to it, your employees will perform much better than they would if they were put into a box.
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:
Personally, I’m a proponent of a four-day workweek, depending on what those four days are. If they’re 10-hour days, what does that look like? Does that still fit with your family life balance? Are you home in time to have a meal with your family? What does that look like for you? Maybe if you don’t have anything on Friday and the rest of your work is pretty much done, you don’t have to come to the office just to answer the occasional email or join a Zoom meeting.
But, again, I like the idea of saying what works for some doesn’t need to work for all. Some might prefer five days a week, whereas others might prefer four. If you can work it out that each can have what is preferred in their work-life balance, then I’m all for that.
- Emotional Wellness:
On Mondays, I ask my students this in every class, and I ask my employees and my team, “What did you do over the weekend that brought you joy and that filled your soul?”
I think that’s a part of what we’re not talking about enough. We need that recuperative time — that time of renewal — where I step away and I’m not just doing tasks of life. I’m saying that if I like horseback riding and it is life-giving at that moment, I think those are the things we need to encourage our teams to do. Don’t just exist on the weekend — fill your cup.
- Social Wellness:
A recent study by Dr. Donald Sull and Charlie Sull found that to help with employee retention, employees specifically want social activities as teams. They want gatherings, they want meals together. It was interesting because I was listening to Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead Podcast” with the Sulls, and they were shocked by the data because the perception is that employees see these activities as just another work task.
However, what that social gathering actually does is build mental and social wellness. It builds relationships at work, and I think we cannot forget that at the core of humanity is our desire to have relationships with others, whether we know that about ourselves or not.
Those social gatherings give us time to say, “I see you as a human and not just a coworker. I care about you more than just what you can produce while you’re here.” Social wellness can be connected to how we run our workplaces, so find opportunities to schedule lunches and birthday celebrations. Even the simplicity of a policy in which everybody gets their birthday off is a simple, small gesture, but it says, “You matter, and I acknowledge you on this day.”
- Physical Wellness:
A lot of organizations have initiatives that are more about their insurance rates. However, our university started sending out invitations to physical fitness events saying, “We’re meeting to hike at 7:30 a.m. at this park. Please join if you’d like.” We create it as a social gathering and recognize that activity is important.
I work with a super physically active team.
One of my team members brings his bicycle on the back of his car every day, and he rides for about an hour during the day. That is key to his physical wellness, and it’s a great break in the day when he gets out of the office. I’m proud of him because I think that it is important to get out, be physically active when you can, and not let being at work limit you.
Most of my other team members go to the gym during the day, so I always support and affirm their decision to do so, even if they’re flexing their schedule. If you can get to a class, go do it, because I think your physical wellness matters.
- Financial Wellness:
I’m probably not alone when I say I would get every person on my team a raise if I could, but I can’t create funds that are just not there. How do we facilitate financial wellness?
A lot of times in higher ed, we give opportunities to our faculty to overload by teaching extra classes or offering special projects for pay. I look for ways they could contribute to our program at the university and get a stipend or contract. While I don’t have the pocket strings to navigate everything, I will always advocate on their behalf. Pay is not everything, but it is a part of how and why we invest and feel valued in our jobs.
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?
Employers would immediately sense that their team feels valued. Viewing employees holistically and as part of the solution to wellness would increase productivity.
The research also shows there’s not a specific demographic looking for a change. We assume that it’s the 20- and early 30-year-olds that are wanting this new and improved work experience, but research shows it is across the lifespan. It’s people who are 40, 50, and 60 that are seeking this better wellness model, so I think it’s a trickle-down effect. Your employees will be happier, they will stay longer, your retention will be better, and you’ll be able to hire easier if you integrate some of these wellness ideas.
Also, I am a firm believer that a diverse workforce improves wellness. Research shows that a diverse workforce and team add so much value to productivity, and I think that is essential. Diversity of thought; diversity of life experience; diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality — all of that is important. When we all bring what we have to the table, we are often more innovative and creative, and it pushes us all outside of our boundaries of comfort.
How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
We encourage them to get involved and explore learning opportunities.
If you can defend to me how learning a new skill is going to impact your work here, we can try to get the funding for training or a conference. We are trying to help them understand that there is no proposal off the table. We can’t always make it happen, but I’m willing to entertain any thoughts you have and if we can figure out how to make this work, we will.
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?
I want to add another Brené Brown concept, which I use across all facets of my life, including my students, my team, and my family. It’s this idea that clear is kind and unclear is unkind. If there’s any ambiguity in what someone says and you make an assumption that doesn’t manifest, you’re going to be resentful and frustrated.
It’s important to have a clear conversation about my intention as a team leader to try to improve this work experience. The first step is to talk about what that may look like. I’m a believer that, oftentimes, it’s not me as the leader who has the best answer. My team might have the best answer that I’ve never thought of and never considered. You have to say to your team, “If this was a dream world, what would your work experience look like?” Then we can look at all of those suggestions and consider what is feasible, what is not and why. You are being clear that you cannot guarantee this is going to happen, but that you want to know what their needs are and what they see as potential solutions.
Also, the first step is always to listen to your existing team. If a new hire gets to work remotely and with a flexible schedule but the existing team is still forced to work 8–5 Monday through Friday, then you’re immediately going to create problems. If you start to consider change, you have to recognize your existing team has the right to contribute to this conversation or you will immediately get people looking for new jobs.
What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
Flexibility is obviously important because people can maintain some control over their work-life balance.
For example, if my child is in preschool, I might like to be the one that drops them off, picks them up, and takes them back to a babysitter. A flexible schedule allows parents to feel like they have the opportunity to parent in the way they want.
Employees should know that whatever their situation, whether it’s caring for a child or an aging parent — or even just wanting to take a fitness class — they have the flexibility to do that. That way, you can integrate balance into your life without guilt or shame.
My philosophy is: You know what work needs to be done, you know what hours are expected, and you know the parameters of when you need to be in the office for certain functions, like classes or meetings. Otherwise, it is all open to flexibility.
2. Remote Work Opportunities
Remote work fits in with flexibility, but it’s also about how much time people spend in their vehicles getting to work. Although many people expected that productivity would tank during COVID-19 and the rise of remote work, the data is showing that it did not.
We have the technology and we have the infrastructure. And the research shows that productivity is on the rise and people are still getting their jobs done. Now that we can show it’s effective, why wouldn’t we allow that where we can?
3. Access to Mental Health Resources
To access mental health services, you may need flexibility in your day to go to an appointment. I work in mental health services, so I know that everybody wants an evening appointment because how often can you take time off of work?
I believe there should be time — outside of sick time and PTO — set aside for mental health. This could be, for example, 20 hours a year or so that employees can use for therapy appointments, counseling, or any other mental health activities. They should not have to provide a specific explanation to their employer about where they’re going.
It is important to let employees know that you understand that their wellness directly impacts not just productivity, but also work culture as a whole. We want people to learn positive skills, and therapy is an excellent way to do that. In therapy, you learn assertiveness skills, how to deal with conflict, and how to improve relationships.
I also feel like we need to get away from employee assistance programs (EAPs). What happens with an EAP is that someone will go to therapy for five sessions because they are covered at 100 percent, but then that coverage is done and the therapist might have barely grazed the surface of their issues.
4. Time Off
Tying back to my previous point, a lot of employers simply aren’t giving enough time off, and I don’t just mean sick time. I’m talking about time to pursue passions and explore the world. We are behind Europe and how they use their vacation time in this respect. The United States is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday. In the European Union, they are required by law to provide four weeks of paid leave, and we’re still stuck in this two-week model.
When you only have two weeks off a year, you have to decide if you want to go to your child’s play or if you want to put that time toward a vacation. We have to reconsider this because, again, that is directly correlated to mental and emotional health and work-life balance.
5. Physical Wellness
An important thing to know is that when someone exercises, a burst of serotonin is released, which helps with mental and emotional health.
One trend that addresses this is integrating physical wellness into the workday, whether it’s a place to do workouts on the premises or a membership to a gym.
I would also love to see businesses not focus on physical health to lower their insurance rates, but instead because it is beneficial to employees as people. Monetary incentives — like a $25 per month insurance credit — are okay, but at the end of the day, it’s more about having a conversation and caring about employees’ well-being.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
That we are actually talking about it in this world today. We’re acknowledging that it’s important. We’re not perfect yet, but for the first time, it is more prevalent in conversation and we are recognizing the need for it. If there was anything good that came out of COVID-19, it was the acknowledgment of our anxieties and how we can help people work through the trauma that came about from COVID-19. Now, we can work to understand the importance of needing to adjust, adapt and acknowledge the need for mental health services.
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 connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-jean-ollis-lisw-s-msw-dmin-a6986296/
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.