Listening and truly hearing what your employees say is your number one priority. Do it often, do it thoroughly, and do it right.
The pandemic pause brought us to a moment of collective reckoning about what it means to live well and work well. As a result, employees are sending employers an urgent signal that they are no longer willing to choose between life and work. 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 and Sustain Mental, Emotional, Social, Physical, and Financial Wellness, we are reaching out to successful executives, entrepreneurs, managers, and 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 Ilona Bernotaite.
Ilona Bernotaite is an entrepreneur, HR expert, and Chief People Officer at Kilo Health. During her time at Kilo Health, the company landed a second place on the Financial Times FT1000 ranking and expanded the team by 200%. Over the last 6 years, she has worked and lived in more than 50 countries, including Singapore, Peru, Thailand, Indonesia, Chile, the United Kingdom, and Spain.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. 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 what role work plays in your life.
Thank you for having me! More than 6 years ago, I needed a change of scenery. For years, I worked in one of the biggest global consulting firms, and even though the work was rewarding, my life lacked a sense of adventure. So I quit the job, packed my bags, and went on a 4-month solo trip to Asia. This was the turning point — I’ve never actually come back from this trip, and in the past 6 years, I lived and remotely worked in more than 50 countries.
This experience was rewarding in many ways — I learned to prioritize, plan my time, and stay curious wherever I went. Generally, I tried the hybrid work model and saw its benefits and drawbacks. Once I joined Kilo Health, I decided to move back to Lithuania and focus on helping to build this quickly-growing tech company because I felt the position provided me with the same level of autonomy, growth, and freedom I had while working remotely.
Harvard Business Review predicts that wellness will become the newest metric employers will use to analyze and assess their employees’ mental, physical, and financial health. How does your organization define and measure wellness?
I absolutely agree that employee wellness is the key to a thriving business. We can talk all we want about the bottom line or the quarterly results, but if your people are not happy and healthy, the business will stop growing.
And wellness can mean many different things to different people. Of course, at first, we have to cover our basic needs — financial security, emotional safety, and physical well-being. That’s why many corporate wellness programs will offer as part of the employer benefits workout classes, healthy meals, or mental health apps to help address stress.
But there are many more dimensions to wellness, such as social or intellectual wellness.
Work is all about the relationships we can build with others, and in many cases, as adults, we spend more time with our coworkers than with our friends or families. That means making employees feel good at work is the number one priority of every business.
We also need to make sure each person feels they are constantly growing at their position — and the main job of any manager is to identify how their employees can become the best version of themselves.
Recognition is another important factor which may be overlooked by some managers, but may be very important for the employee’s wellbeing at the workplace. Giving credit to others, acknowledging other’s achievements, or simply saying “thank you” or “well done” can sometimes do miracles.
Finally, another part of wellness is having a clear purpose — knowing that you are not just earning money and that your job actually matters. At the end of the day, you want to be a part of something bigger than yourself.
Our slogan at Kilo Health is “It’s all about the people,” and I believe we truly live it. We seek to create an environment where people can feel secure, appreciated, taken care of, and connected. We want to ensure we can all grow individually and as a team and follow our mission along the way. And even when our people outgrow Kilo and decide to build their own business or explore another industry, they would look back at their time with us and know that we did our best to make them thrive.
At the center of our philosophy are freedom, transparency, and trust — we believe our people know best what kind of workplace fits them. We seek to create as many opportunities as possible, at the same time asking them to be in the driver’s seat.
Measuring so many different dimensions of wellness requires different kinds of tools. Of course, we regularly survey the people to make sure our eNPS is growing. On top of that, we have a fleet of dedicated office managers and employee experience curators that keep the pulse on solving day-to-day issues.
Even the amount of improvised after-work gatherings gives us some valuable insights — we can see that people like spending time with each other and want to go to a gym, sing karaoke, or watch sports games together.
Based on your experience or research, how do you correlate and quantify the impact of a healthy workforce on your organization’s productivity and profitability?
Essentially, we created an ecosystem of intertwined teams and companies that not only create wellness products but also live life well. We have close to 700 experts, and it’s safe to say that our teams are small but fast, and we keep the ambition and drive of a startup as we grow.
The best indicator that what we are doing works is that we are a bootstrapped company that managed to become the second fastest-growing company in Europe without any external funding. We have launched 30+ successful projects, invested in other companies, and have tons of exciting projects on the way.
Our eNPS score is also showing that we are doing something right. In June 2022, the score was 48, while some individual teams even managed to get 100.
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 that 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?
Let’s just take one case: workplace burnout. 77% of people in a recent Gallup survey said they had experienced burnout in the workplace, and 91% said that burnout negatively impacted the quality of their work. Symptoms of stress-related exhaustion can linger on for more than 7 years.
If your people are overworked and not cared for, they will either quit or will need expensive professional help for years. If some of your team members quit, those who stay have to take on more work — and probably burn themselves out, too. If the larger part of the entire workforce is not performing at its best, the entire economy suffers.
Workplace wellness programs help prevent these issues — and they cost way less than dealing with low employee retention, high turnover rates, and low productivity.
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?
At this point, plenty of candidates see the traditional wellness benefits as a baseline. We offer private health insurance, healthy food options, gym, on-demand therapy sessions, spa retreats, additional days off, access to all our Health and Wellness products, and other opportunities to stay physically well.
That’s why we seek to communicate more about our culture — the growth opportunities, the community, the purpose behind our work. I believe that’s just as important as the tangible perks — to show that, yes, after joining, you will have great working conditions. Still, even more importantly, you will become a part of a collective where you can grow, stay authentic, and be fully trusted.
We’ve all heard of the four-day workweek, 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 — As a basis, we invest a lot in the relationships between our leaders and their team. We have an internal Kilo Leadership Academy where managers learn the soft skills necessary to ensure our people are engaged but not overwhelmed. Also, we have experience managers who keep an eye on our people and make sure everyone can be their best self at work.
- Emotional wellness — Our company is all about authenticity, and we encourage everyone to show the full spectrum of emotions. If you are having a bad day or feel sick, expect to get a care package delivered to you. If you make a mistake — learn from it, and grow as a professional. We are currently organizing Fail & Scale events which give us a chance to laugh and learn from the mistakes we made. I think life is not always about the positives, and if we acknowledge the negatives, we provide more emotional safety to our people.
- Social wellness — Our entire office looks more like a small town than a corporate building, and we invite the wider community to come over. Just this month, we were hosting the prestigious World Press Photo 2022 exhibition. This ensures that we keep close ties with our industry, make new connections with others, and invite our friends and families to get a glimpse into our daily work.
- Physical wellness — On top of access to the gym or a very active runners’ club, we offer all our employees access to all our digital health programs so that everyone can get healthier at their own pace. As I mentioned before, we believe in personalization, so we need to offer a variety of tools to our people.
- Financial wellness — We are launching our employee stock options program to ensure our people have an opportunity to become co-owners of the business.
Can you tell us more about some specific ways workplaces would benefit from investing in your mentioned ideas to improve employee wellness?
I don’t believe what works for us should be a blueprint for other companies. Every company is different, and each should find its own way of enhancing its employee experience.
We chose to create Kilo Health after a model of a small town. For instance, in our headquarters, our corridors are named after streets, and we have cafe-like spaces for meeting up, a cinema for inspiration, and even a bar for a happy hour with some karaoke. One of our key values is authenticity — the office is a living organism that changes with every new person that joins us.
I think the key here is to know your company, identify its essence, and invite like-minded people to join.
How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
We have internal growth programs, skill development programs, and a learning budget for each person. Also, we offer specialized trainings for managers that help them become true guides and team leaders. Our learning and development budget has grown by 1,500% this year alone.
The goal is to reframe the way companies see their relationship with their employees — we want to help our people reach their full potential.
Since we have plenty of different kinds of positions across multiple companies, each person can try out multiple roles across the companies, specialize in their preferred field, or become a leader.
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?
Listening and truly hearing what your employees say is your number one priority. Do it often, do it thoroughly, and do it right.
For example, my calendar is public and available for everyone. I usually get a few meetings a week where people just come to talk to me, because they want to be listened to, understood, and they want to know that someone is there to help them. Make sure you spend your time talking to your people and understanding their goals, needs, and dreams — only this way can you provide proper tools for each of them to grow.
Every company is different, just as every employee is different. There is no secret rule here. You cannot copy and paste a great company culture because there are no two companies that have the same proportion of different types of people. You might need to create one type of environment for teams that mostly consist of parents and another for people who are just starting out their careers or prefer to work remotely.
You’ll never know the real needs of your employees if you just assume what they need — always ask first and listen carefully.
What are your “Top 5 Trends to Track in the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
- Behavioral health. There are way more dimensions to wellness than just physical. We are a sum of our habits, environment, and actions. So focusing solely on physical wellness (i.e., offering healthy snacks at the office) might not solve the underlying issues — you need to encourage systematic change.
- Elderly health. Our society is getting older, and companies will need to invest more in reskilling and wellness programs for older employees. Plenty of research shows that older people are just as productive as younger employees as long as they stay healthy. So the key here is to ensure healthy aging at work.
- Mental health care. After the pandemic, many people struggle with mental health, from dealing with stress to anxiety or depression. Since we all spend so much time working — it’s the employer’s responsibility to provide additional accommodation for better health.
- Personalized health care. Remote workers, caregivers, and on-site workers will want different things from their workplace wellness programs. Focus on personalization, and ensure everyone can access exactly what they need.
- Preventative health. We should help build healthy habits, or we might have to deal with chronic diseases later in life. Healthy behaviors should be a part of any work culture — and that includes taking regular breaks, stretching, and having yearly health checkups.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
I think hiring is a balancing act — we need a healthy mix of people that have varied backgrounds, and create an environment where they can feel happy. I feel optimistic when I see different generations working smoothly together, sharing experiences, and learning from each other.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and remain up to speed on what you’re discovering?
I would love to learn more about how other companies build their wellness strategies! Let’s connect on LinkedIn.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.