… Workspace Reimbursement Stipend. Working from home is not as luxurious for some as it is for others. This benefit was implemented during the height of COVID to help employees experience wellness in their at-home work environment. Each new employee is given a stipend to be able to purchase things that will promote wellness in their remote work environment that they might not otherwise have been able to pay for.

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 Jeanne Stevens.

Jeanne Stevens is the founding and co-lead pastor of Soul City Church in Chicago, one of America’s fastest growing urban churches. A sought-after speaker, leader, and writer, Jeanne’s passion is to help people wake up to their purpose as they pursue a life of wholehearted freedom. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Jarrett, and their two children. Jeanne recently released her first book called WHAT’S HERE NOW? How to stop rehashing the past and rehearsing the future and start receiving the present.

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 the unique and beautiful opportunity of being one of the founding lead pastors of a non-denominational church in the heart of the West Loop of Chicago. My husband and I started the church in our living room with a dream and a handful of people. Over the past decade, we have grown to well over 3000 people who are part of our community. The name Soul City Church was a very intentional choice. We wanted to become a community of people that would help people transform at a soul level, hopefully leaving the city and the world a better place. We recognize that many of the wellness shifts taking place are so helpful in creating better practices of mental, emotional, relational, physical, and relational health. Still, if a person’s soul is not transformed, those changes don’t fully transform the person’s life. Four years into navigating through the hustle of a start-up, forging through the growing pains of a fast-growing organization, parenting two young kids, navigating through the everyday pressures of life, and experiencing some significant loss began to take a toll on my life. My own soul felt dry and weary. I could not bounce back with just some subtle shifts and tweaks to my sleep, diet, or exercise. I was on the doorstep of burnout and needed to make more profound changes in my soul. Through intentional, conscious leadership work, I realized that I was very rarely present and in the moment. I was either rehashing the past or rehearsing the future in my mind and heart. So I began a journey of learning how to receive the gift of the present moment.

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 wellness, and how does your organization measure wellness?

One of the things we always say to our new team members is that we want the mission of our organization to work in their own lives. We don’t just want them to work on the mission of our church; we want the mission to work in them. We always remind them that we all have a first day and a last day. Our hope and prayer is that they can say, “I am a healthier and more whole person by the time they come to the last day.” For that to happen, we long to care for our team through ongoing financial, emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual benefits that support their continuing growth and transformation.

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?

Healthy and whole people are more aware of what is going on inside of them, and they’re able to pay attention to what they most need to practice wellness regularly. When a team member knows their work culture is in support of them taking personal responsibility for their health and development, they are then able to invest their energy into their work and collaborate with others to solve problems, bring fresh ideas and create a meaningful and enjoyable work environment. I believe strongly that the organization and the employee need to see themselves as partners in creating wellness. When both equally contribute to creating a culture of health, everyone wins.

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?

While organizations must create robust wellness opportunities for their team, we have to hire people committed to their own wellness journey. It has been said that the most expensive positions you hire are the ones you have to rehire. There are reports that the cost of a bad hire is 30% of the employee’s wages for the first year. If you take an employee with a yearly pay of $80,000, the expense to the employer would be as high as $24,000. This might not seem like a lot to a business, but if you are a small business and have a small budget, this amounts to a lot of wasted money that can hurt your bottom line.

The wrong hire is not just a resource issue. When managers have to spend a disproportionate amount of time supervising poorly performing employees, it drains energy and time from good managers, decreasing their desire to contribute in meaningful ways to the organization.

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?

Flex/development days. Soul City employees are given one per quarter to use for rest, rejuvenation, or developing their overall well being (personal, professional, spiritual) in one way or another (it is up to the employee to determine what form of rest or development will be most helpful for them). This promotes autonomy and ownership in the well-being of the employee.

Health & Wellness benefits. Each employee receives a yearly stipend for health and well-being. This money can be used for counseling, spiritual direction, gym memberships, therapeutic massage, etc. This benefit applies to any type of health: physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual.

Excellent medical, vision, and dental benefits. It would be remiss of us to promote the holistic health of the employee without contributing to their ability to care for themselves and their families. Soul City covers 80% of the plan costs for medical, vision, and dental for both employees and their dependents. This generous contribution comes out of a desire for each person who works at Soul City to be able to attend to their physical and mental well-being. These plan costs significantly increase the value of each total compensation package, which is discussed with every potential employee throughout the hiring process.

Workspace Reimbursement Stipend. Working from home is not as luxurious for some as it is for others. This benefit was implemented during the height of COVID to help employees experience wellness in their at-home work environment. Each new employee is given a stipend to be able to purchase things that will promote wellness in their remote work environment that they might not otherwise have been able to pay for.

Each of the things listed above are key talking points and discussed/promoted with candidates during multiple stages of the interview process. Particularly, during our group interview process, each candidate has a chance to hear about these things firsthand from a panel of current employees who speak about their personal experiences within our Soul City work and wellness culture.

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: Health & Wellness reimbursement to be used towards counseling. We have staff (through Soul City’s House of Hope) dedicated to vetting and recommending counseling based on their specific specialties and the staff members’ specific mental health needs. We are discovering that people want to pursue their mental health; they often don’t know where to start. Providing them laid out options that they don’t have to begin researching on their own and the financial means to get the process started (anecdotally) yields higher numbers of staff pursuing mental wellness.
  • Emotional Wellness: Development days for when staff needs to recharge. Flexibility to work from home several days a week. Sick days can be used for mental health. Recently implemented DEIJA work. Creating an accessible, emotionally and psychologically safe workspace for every employee across every protected classification is a significant investment in the overall wellness of each individual. Employees spend so much time in the workplace (minimum 8 hours a day on average). Ensuring that the workspace is safe and employees feel comfortable expressing their experiences and needs is a considerable step towards emotional wellness. We are learning that flexibility and openness in the workplace are two highly valued traits. Employees are more productive and more loyal to an organization when they feel that there is a willingness to meet their needs (flexibility) and a desire for their voice actually to be heard (openness).
  • Social Wellness: Soul City staff participates in annual staff retreats (ex: getting away together as a team to promote unity and team-building). Regular outings are planned, such as trips together to local establishments (ex: Mario’s Italian Ice, Escape Games, Ax Throwing, the Dawson) that create opportunities for staff to experience social wellness amongst one another. Soul City also creates intentional opportunities (ex: staff holiday parties, costume contests, staff chili cookoff) for employees to bring their families/significant others. These events promote our belief that the person does not just do vocational ministry on staff- it is a felt, family experience that deserves space and recognition. We’re discovering that a culture that can “play hard together” has a higher capacity to “work hard together.” The sense of community, connectedness, and responsibility to one another has great potential to yield higher accountability in daily work.
  • Physical Wellness: We give two additional weeks of vacation for a Christmas Break and a Summer Break. Those weeks are a gift to staff to allow them to rest. Rest and rejuvenation is key to physical wellness, and these two additional “free” weeks off for staff promote a rhythm of rest and retreat that allows the team to pause and check-in with their physical well-being. We have discovered that intentional cycles of rest help yield employees’ best efforts.
  • Financial Wellness: Soul City offers employees access to financial planners and investment experts who assist with budgeting, investment advice, and general inquiries around financial wellness. Discovering that employees (more often than not) want to be good stewards of their incomes but sometimes need help in that direction. In addition to take-home pay, Soul City automatically contributes 4% of each employee’s annual salary into their 403B account.

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 think all workplaces would do well to benefit from Soul City’s example in the following ways:

  • Quality health, vision, dental insurance. It is one thing for an employer to say that they care about their employees’ well-being. It’s another to make a significant financial contribution through an 80% plan cost-share with the employees to receive the care they need without fear or feelings of scarcity. It is also worth noting that Soul City made this a priority even when still in the “start-up” phase, which is not common in start-up culture, particularly in the not-for-profit sector.
  • Acceptance, promotion, and provision for counseling and mental health care. Soul City creates a culture in which leadership (from the top down) speaks openly about going to counseling and the benefits of tending to mental health. Soul City “puts its money where its mouth is” by providing a financial stipend to help people offset the cost of counseling. The quality health insurance coverage they provide goes a long way towards offsetting the cost of therapy and counseling.
  • DEIJA work. Rather than just hiring someone to lead a one-off workshop, doing a deep, systematic dive into the work of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and accessibility (in a way that promotes honesty and creates space for everyone to be heard) is a crucial step in supporting the emotional wellness of every employee in the workplace.

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

Additional training opportunities for managers. Soul City invests in managers/leaders in the organization through bi-weekly meetings to discuss important topics and receive the necessary training to enhance their leadership skills, thus equipping them to promote healthy wellness cultures with their direct reports. Soul City also encourages each manager to write line items in their budget for professional development opportunities. Managers are encouraged to intentionally use their professional development opportunities (conferences, workshops, certifications, etc.) to dive deeper and learn more about promoting overall wellness within their specific departments/teams.

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?

One small step: TALKING about wellness. I am convinced that Soul City has so many opportunities to promote staff wellness because the topic is constantly top of mind. It is at the forefront of the conversation.

Creating a culture where leadership and employees talk about the value of rest, check-in around mental health, have regular conversations about the work of DEIJA, and verbally value overall well-being may seem simple, but even starting the discussion is a significant step in the direction of implementation.

Mr. Rodgers once said: Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”

The work of “getting well” directly reflects what it means to be human. Starting the conversation, and keeping it going, makes the work of wellness seem more manageable (and arguably even more possible) in the workplace.

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

1. Creating the Health & Wellness Benefits This helps destigmatize mental health and has led to a more significant percentage of our employees pursuing counseling. Our HR Manager was not attending counseling when she started working at Soul City. Through regular 1:1 meetings, her manager was able to discern this was something she would enjoy/benefit from. Soul City increased the amount of her health and wellness stipend for that year, and she’s remained in counseling for two years and openly speaks about how it has changed/benefited her mental wellness.

2. Social wellness Soul City has experienced greater wellness in our team’s social dynamics/unity following opportunities for “play” together as a team. Example: Our staff took a retreat to the Oaks Center in California. Staff from different teams (from Executive Leadership on down) had numerous opportunities to interact and intentionally get to know one another outside of just their titles and job descriptions.

3. DEIJA Work This is something we have just begun a deep dive into as a team. We are hopeful and very curious to follow this trend and see how it might create more openness, care, and inclusion in the workplace (emotional wellness.)

4. INCREASED PTO We have recently increased the amount of PTO that staff gets after being at Soul City for two years or more. We provide sabbaticals for full-time pastors who have been with the organization for seven or more years. We award any staff member after 5 years on staff up to 5,000 dollars invested in them towards a life plan or other in-person intensive experience. We are interested to track this trend and seeing if there is any correlation between the implementation of this increase and people’s longevity with the organization.

5. PHYSICAL WELLNESS CHALLENGE We would like to implement some type of physical wellness program or challenge for the staff and would be curious to see if this correlates with reportedly higher levels of emotional health/workplace satisfaction.

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

I am encouraged and hopeful that people want to be healthy and whole and they feel a new freedom to talk about it with others. For so many years there was so much shame associated with mental, emotional, and relational wellness, I am so grateful that the conversation is shifting and people are being encouraged to take responsibility for their health in supportive and holistic ways.

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?

You can find Jeanne Stevens on her website Jeannestevens.com, and if you are interested in her church, you can look up Soulcitychurch.com.

Jeanne can be found on Instagram and Facebook at @Jeannestevens

Jeanne recently released her first book called WHAT’S HERE NOW? How to stop rehashing the past and rehearsing the future and start receiving the present.

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