Emotional Literacy. The shift to a greater focus on proactive mental health, will lead to a recognition of the importance of the awareness of our emotions and how they influence our thoughts and actions. This will lead to this second trend, where workplace wellness starts with our emotional literacy. Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, and Susan David’s Emotional Agility, are great examples of leaders stepping in to help people improve their emotional literacy.

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 Genevieve Hawkins.

Genevieve is a Senior Executive and the author of Mentally at Work who is passionate about helping leaders unlock performance through creating mentally healthy workplaces. From the beginning of her career in Occupational Therapy, Genevieve has had a curiosity about and focus on helping people improve their mental health in the context of work, to live more fulfilling productive lives. Now as a Senior Executive in retail, she believes in the importance of leaders embracing three layers of connection to improve mental health in the workplace and performance at the same time: connection to self, connection to others, and connection to the reality of work design and its impact on culture and therefore wellness.

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 would love to say it was through my extensive reading, research, and the coaching of others, that gave me the wisdom to create a relationship with work that worked for me. But alas it wasn’t. Rather I was rapidly heading to burnout in a role that I had. I had been putting on weight, I wasn’t sleeping, I found myself emotionally all over the place, and relationships outside work were beginning to get strained because of it. I couldn’t go on that way. It was an Executive Coach that I engaged who helped me pull myself out of where I was. She did that by helping me explore what my sense of purpose in the world was, finding that sweet spot between what I am good at, what I love doing, and what’s important to me. That was a significant turning point for me, in reframing what I do and why I do it, which brought me back the energy I needed to make the right choices moving forward. This was really the beginning kernel back then, for me deciding to write Mentally at Work. To help others improve their relationship with themselves, their work, and their relationships at work.

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?

I will answer this based on the range of organizations I consult to on this topic. I agree that organizations are increasingly looking to what metrics can best indicate overall wellness of employees, albeit I am not yet seeing a trend on financial wellness. In Australia, the greatest emphasis, outside organizations that need to measure physical fitness for specific jobs, is on mental health and wellbeing. I am seeing specific questions get included into broader engagement surveys with this subset data being used to inform decisions. This insight, in conjunction with data on absenteeism and turnover on a heat map, is identifying the ‘well’ workplace versus those that may need help to get there.

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?

There are macro and micro ways of measuring this impact. If you look at the recent 2022 Gallup study on mental health in the workplace, they talk about an estimated annual productivity loss of $47.6 billion, due to rates of anxiety and depression. So, we can talk at this macro level of how this can translate to the productivity and profitability of an organization. I think it is useful at a manager level though to look at the intersection of four key data points: team absenteeism, team turnover, engagement score/insights and regular completion of key pieces of work on time, in budget and hitting expected outcome. You can’t sustainably achieve overall organizational profitability (i.e., consistently over time) without these four areas being healthy.

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?

This is EXACTLY why I wrote Mentally at Work. To give employers practical tools for what to do. The challenge for most wellness programs is they focus on giving advice to the individual about what the individual can do. And even at that, as a recent HBR article on the next 11 trends for the workplace identify, less than 40% of employees take that up. So, it is understandable why some senior managers may question the value of the $ asked for. Creating a mentally healthy workplace is the key to productivity and this needs to happen on three levels. Yes, the individual needs to understand what they need to do to look after their own mental health, but we also need to look at how our interactions 1:1 impact each other’s mental health AND we need to look at work design. So, at an overarching level, starting with designing work well, and building leader’s capability to engage should be the foundation of a ‘well’ workplace that improves collective mental health.

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?

There are a range of ways I am seeing organizations incorporate a promotion of wellness in their recruitment and hiring. This isn’t necessarily about the promotion of programs per se, although organizations are letting potential employees know of the ‘benefits’ they can access in their organizations. Rather I am seeing organizations focus on what is their unique employee proposition which focuses on making sure employees understand the organizations’ purpose and culture. In my experience, it isn’t about the ‘wellness program’ (or benefits per se) but rather ‘will this organization enable my wellbeing through good job design, great leaders, a flexible working arrangement etc.’

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.

To me, the secret sauce here is organizations that are combining all of these into a wholistic view, but let me give some examples in each area that I am seeing:

Mental wellness — education programs to help people understand the continuum of mental health and the proactive actions we ALL need to take to look after our mental health, rather than just looking at what support is available to reach out to when you are struggling. Prevention is alway better (and cheaper) than cure.

Emotional wellness — teaching skills in how to have better conversations, starting with understanding our own emotions and what they are telling us. Emotional literacy is severely lacking in so many. I am excited by the work of Susan David (Emotional Agility) and Brene Brown (Atlas of the Heart) in this area.

Social wellness — smart organizations are linking emotional and social wellness together. When employees flex the muscle of conversation, friendships/support blooms. Organizations are teaching skill sets in how to create connection through effective conversation.

Physical wellness — leader led virtual walking meetings — no matter where you are — get out and walk while you talk

Financial wellness — employing skilled organizational design specialists to guide the effective design of the structure, so it doesn’t continually change it. This is one of the biggest areas organizations needs to face into, to create more certainty, therefore financial security for employees

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?

We are living and will continue to live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. I firmly believe that unless we address our global mental health crisis, our brains will not be in a place that they can effectively work together cohesively to solve the complex problems of the world. Workplaces will find the benefit from implementing these, and the actions within Mentally at Work, will be better employee engagement, leading to improved complex problem solving and from that, employees that stay for the excitement of solving the next complex problem TOGETHER.

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

The key to success here is getting leaders to see this, not as a HR program or a separate program to how they are leading. The integration into leadership programs is what works to reskill leaders. They key though is giving them practical skills, not just deep understanding of what is means to create the right culture. I love doing skills development workshops and coaching on genuine conversation which creates the foundation of trust based relationships. Helping leaders understand their own shadow, and its impact on others is part of the foundation of a ‘work well’ culture.

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?

Ha ha. Well, I could say read ‘Mentally at Work’ as your one small step. 🙂 But to start, it might sound strange, but find out what you have in common with the people that you work with, that has nothing to do with work. We need to feel like we belong, as a starting point to work together to create the culture we want at work. Finding out what you have in common with others and using this as a basis for conversation and laughter gives us a regular oxytocin hit in our brains that can help get us feeling safer/like we belong. This is the first step to a ‘Work Well’ culture.

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

  1. Proactive mental health — Bit by bit we will shift the focus from reactive mental health management (making sure support is there when needed) to proactive mental health management. The secret sauce in improving our mental health, lies in us understanding how ALL our brains work and how vulnerable we are if we don’t take proactive steps to look after our mental health, the way we know we need to do to look after our physical health. Most people know if they eat donuts and smoke cigarettes every day, at some point this will come back to bite them in their physical health. Question is…do you know what you might be doing (or not doing) everyday that can ultimately deteriorate your mental health.
  2. Emotional Literacy. The shift to a greater focus on proactive mental health, will lead to a recognition of the importance of the awareness of our emotions and how they influence our thoughts and actions. This will lead to this second trend, where workplace wellness starts with our emotional literacy. Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, and Susan David’s Emotional Agility, are great examples of leaders stepping in to help people improve their emotional literacy.
  3. Sustainable Organizational Design. We know a key component of employee wellness is financial security, particularly in our uncertain world. Knowing this, and the importance of retaining key talent, organizations will start to realize that the perpetual cycle of restructuring and removing people, leads to an unwell workplace. Experienced organizational design experts will be key to creating the flexible structures that enable organizations to deliver on their mission AND provide the certainty of employment that contributes significantly to workplace wellness.
  4. Career Conversations across the organization. In getting this organizational design right, leaders, not just coaches, will become better at guiding effective career conversations around purpose. A key component of workplace wellness is employees feeling like they are in jobs with the magic three-way combination of doing what they are good at; doing what they love; and doing things aligned with what’s important to them. Better career conversations are key to creating workplace wellness, and organizations that realize this, will start to equip their leaders with the skills to have truly effective career conversations that focus on career wellbeing for the individual, not just what works for the organization.
  5. Direct Leadership skills in positively influencing culture. In recognizing the complexity of the world in which we operate, the ability to positively influence a culture will be a critical skill of the future, and one expected of each leader, rather than as something that you bring in expert advice for, or need to do deep analysis on to decide on the course of action. Leaders cast significant shadows on their teams form the choices they make. There is growing recognition that leaders with high EQ who can flex to shape culture is critical to a well workplace and our future,

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

While Covid has been a challenge for these last three years, the silver lining of this, is it has brought the global mental health crisis front and center as well as greater discourse on climate change and the need to have a better relationship with planet earth. There is a significant link between the two, as greater connection with nature helps our collective mental health AND will help us start to think in a different way about how we interact with nature for the longer term. This collective conversation is my greatest source of optimism for the future of workplace wellness as I only see the conversation getting louder, and employees will vote with their feet if organizations then don’t lean into this.

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?

Please read my book which is available at your favorite online bookstore in paperback, audible and e-read versions. I also have a website for the book, mentallyatwork.com.au where I will be starting to put links to any articles I have written, while I continue to work on my second book. Recognizing the adverse effects that social media can have on mental health, I try to minimize how often I am present on this, but you can follow me on Instagram as mentallyatwork and on linked in as Genevieve Hawkins where I will occasionally put forward a reflection or article respectively.

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