Focus on safety — Safety is a hallmark of a dignity-centered workplace. When employees feel psychologically safe, they can suggest different ideas or offer countervailing points of view without fear of embarrassment or being silenced. When they are physically safe, concerns about workplace-related harms, dangers or illnesses are reduced, all of which has become especially important in the Covid-19 world that has persisted. Taken together — and when backed by robust safety policies and leadership that centers open and safe team environments — employee stress and anxiety are reduced, productivity is promoted and a commitment to the wellness of all workers is demonstrated.

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 Jeffrey Siminoff.

Jeffrey Siminoff leads Workplace Dignity, the newest Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights program. The program reimagines how people should be valued and treated at work, and equips organizations and their leaders with strategies and tools that allow all workers to truly thrive, no matter the work they do or where they do it. A former employment lawyer, executive in the finance and tech industries, and global employee resource group leader, Jeffrey has extensive experience on the forefront of global inclusion and diversity, workplace culture, and social impact matters.

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.

Over the course of a fairly deep career, there have been many moments that have caused fresh thinking about how I view my relationship with work. I’ll focus on two — one from early on in my career and one that’s much more recent.

First, I was in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, while one of my brothers was simultaneously flying from Europe to New York (he would later be re-rerouted to Canada for a week). In the near-term aftermath of that experience, which included a 65-floor descent and scramble to get to midtown and reach my family, I had several “a-ha” moments both as a worker and a lawyer focused on employment matters. One, I came to a greater appreciation of how colleagues can provide a network of support in the face of workplace challenge and that employers can concretely help support their employees in the face of trauma through concerted action that includes bringing employees together for open and safe conversations about what they are feeling and processing, and how those things impact their work. Two, human beings simply don’t have “on/off” switches that allow them to put trauma or stress in a box. Rather, the often invisible wounds of trauma have to be acknowledged — in the case of 9/11 or something similar or analogous that could mean a rethinking of leave policies, facilitated discussions of how colleagues in less directly impacted locations can support others, and reminding affected workers that “it’s okay to not be okay.” Sometimes, this needs to be expressly said.

Second, and relatedly, the home-is-work and work-is-home experiences of Covid-19 (for those privileged enough to be able to work from home), brought a seeming never-ending onslaught of what might be considered “external” strife into the workplace — whether the pain of the pandemic, a renewed racial reckoning in 2020, or deeply divisive political rhetoric and policy-making. In the course of my career — and likely the careers of many others — organizations all too often projected messaging that was designed to keep social justice fights or political matters out of the workplace, even though they are often quite relevant to the lived experiences of many workers and people they care about. I have come to think very differently about this issue. I have embraced an approach that recognizes the dangers of organizations touting values and either not supporting them publicly or, worse, shutting down internal engagement on them, especially when the fundamental rights of employees, their families or their communities are at stake (think voting rights, LGBTQ+ rights). Where stated values don’t meet the moment, trust in employers — and commitments made or values stated — breaks down and workplace dignity and well-being suffers.

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?

At RFKHR we define wellness as an umbrella that encompasses a variety of areas such as career development, physical (safety), emotional/mental, social/community, and financial. As a human rights organization we aim to provide top-tier benefits and initiatives that view our staff as people not just “employees.” We believe a focus on wellness is not solely an opportunity for large well-resourced for profit orgs; we all can make a difference with thoughtful actions that prioritize employee wellness. We provide a variety of benefits that include full individual coverage of platinum level health benefits, annual $1,000 employee benefits card, annual professional development stipend, monthly student loan paydown & saveup fund, automatic employer contributed 401(a) retirement plan program + financial wellness workshops. In a hybrid environment that provides flexibility to be with family & work at the comfort of one’s home we also acknowledge can be difficult to check out of work so we provide a generous PTO bank of 27 days per calendar year as well as added floating holidays, 7 professional development days and lastly 2 service days which are work hours that can be taken to volunteer at other organizations/causes our staffers are passionate about. When it comes to measurement we focus on employee usage of these benefits from the administrative side and analyze who these opportunities have been benefiting the most and what barriers may exist that need addressing to ensure everyone has equal access. We also conduct bi-annual employee engagement surveys that give our staff a chance to share more about the impact of these benefits and if there are other benefits/opportunities we should consider.

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?

Dignity-centered organizations prioritize all forms of employee wellness in both day-to-day ways (such as through how leaders lead their teams) and more structurally through programs and processes that affect the workforce writ large (benefits and compensation, communications, etc.). Where employees believe that both their direct leadership and the organization more broadly care about their well-being and health (in all senses of “health”), they feel respected and valued, invested in and truly important contributors to the organizational mission. That then deepens engagement (often measured through employee engagement and benefits or wellness surveys or more anecdotally through focus groups and one-on-one discussion), furthers productivity and performance, and reduces attrition and turnover risks and the costs associated with them (such as recruiting to replace departing, disaffected workers). With feeling respected being a predominant workplace driver, there is a strong positive correlation between concrete and authentic investments in employee well-being and organizational performance, which business leaders also overwhelmingly acknowledge. (Source and source)

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?

Drivers of well-being should be the responsibility not only of wellness and benefits and other organization-wide teams, but a range of leaders who affect the workplace experience. Action is not as paralyzing as some might think.

From a day-to-day leadership perspective, it is crucial that leaders take actions and set an example that demonstrates that the well-being of workers is a priority. Not only is such leadership “muscle” low-cost, it helps reduce the costs associated with negative well-being indicators, like poor mental health. (One recent study found that employees’ poor mental health caused productivity losses of $16.8 billion and over 200 million missed workdays. Seventy-five percent of Gen Z said they have left a job because of mental health reasons and half of Millennials said the same. Across the board, respondents said that mental health affected their work performance. (Source)

When leaders share their own mental health or other well-being challenges or talk about the full range of organizational wellness resources available, they create a safer environment for others to talk about — and seek support on — their own challenges. And safe environments are markers of dignity-centered workplaces. All too often, supportive services and benefits go unused because employees are either unaware of them (poor internal communications or failure of leaders and internal comms teams to showcase them) or fail to actually use them (due to stigmas of one sort or another). By opening up discussion about matters of wellness, caring about and listening to understand how employees are actually doing and feeling in terms of their relationship to work, and prioritizing awareness of the resources, support structures and benefits that exist to advance wellness, leaders can close the perception gap between what they think they’re delivering on wellness and what employees feel is being provided. In the meantime, as our own research with Willis Towers Watson shows there is a material disconnect between employer and employee beliefs about whether there is a sincere interest in well-being.

But this is a two-step: leaders need to be supported by the organization itself. That means that:

  • Internal communications teams need to find ways to center wellness-related messaging to back-up what leaders are (hopefully!) talking about.
  • Benefits and Compensation teams need to think holistically about a range of wellness benefits that truly matter to the workforce (this could mean pulse and other surveys designed to capture employee points of view on what they need), and that prioritize both physical and mental health (for example, coverage that is comparatively generous for both diabetes and depression) as well as financial wellness. We offer many dignity-centered Benefits and Compensation practices on our website.
  • Benefits and People Analytics teams need to use data to track wellness benefits awareness and utilization, including where certain demographic groups might disproportionately *not use* available benefits.
  • Infrastructure and real estate teams need to think about workplace design in terms of air quality and other measures meant to enhance physical health and safety, while policy teams need to prioritize clear and understandable workplace safety policies.
  • Workplace policy teams need to revisit flexible and “remote” work policies to ensure that the flexibility workers need (and, frankly, expect) are available to help employees better manage the range of rest-of-life responsibilities, which, if not properly supported can lead to needless stress and emotional harm.
  • Policy teams must ensure that non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies cover mental illness and related conditions and that leaders are alerted to such policies to avoid any form of retaliation.
  • Recruiting teams should showcase available wellness benefits in job descriptions, recruiting sites and in interview processes.

When all the wellness dots are connected across an organization, employees will approach their work with confidence that not only is the talk being talked, but the walk is being walked.

Speaking of money matters, a recent Gallup study reveals employees of all generations rank wellbeing as one of their top three employer search criteria. How are you incorporating wellness programs into your talent recruitment and hiring processes?

When thinking about the extremely competitive hiring market right now, RFK Human Rights has prioritized our wellness programs in order to attract a diverse range of strong candidates and also retain our own talent. Examples of this include flexibility and independence to help our staff manage their work and home life, an annual $,1000 work from home stipend that we provide staff to support work from home needs, and our College Pay-Down program to support our legal fellows, who are recent law school graduates.

We seek to stand out from other organizations and invest in our staff by also providing a $2,000 stipend to use for professional development along with the professional development days necessary to complete those certifications and courses. From a benefits perspective, we also seek to stand out by offering 100% health insurance coverage to all of our employees.

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/Emotional Wellness: We currently offer a free confidential, third party, Employee Assistance Program that all of our employees & their household members have access to. We’re also looking forward to diving into this area by providing resources behind how to select a new mental health provider (what are some challenges that persons may experience for the first time, how to know who’s the right provider for you, etc.) as well as our $1,000 benefits card which can be used to staff discretion. This annual card can be used to help cover the cost of mental health services such as but not limited to: virtual meditation subscriptions, mental health provider apps & services, etc.
  • Social Wellness: From an emotional and social aspect, this element is the bread and butter of our organization — we are people. Our staffers enjoy getting together, having social outings together safely when possible in person. We aim to hold at least a couple social events together each quarter for staff to meet as people and not feel like they have to talk shop. These range from grabbing dinner and cutting the day early to head out as a large group all the way to having a virtual paint and sip where we cover everyone’s supply costs so everyone can do a guiding painting together while enjoying a beverage of their choice. From an inclusion perspective, we also cover the costs for all of our interns to attend our key annual events and interface with our partners and donors including our Ripple of Hope Gala and Human Right Award.
  • Physical Wellness: As an employer, we cover 100% health insurance coverage to all of our employees. Through our health insurance provider, there’s a specified wellness program that provides discounts and rewards to staff to have standard check-ups each year. This includes gift cards for getting your annual completed to having discounted prices on gym memberships and other wellness products. Our annual employee benefits card is also available to assist with the cost of gym memberships, virtual memberships/subscriptions, and any other wellness products that our staffers are interested in for themselves. Lastly, each year we typically schedule a chair massage therapist to come to our office spaces closer to the end of the year (while remaining COVID safe) where staffers can voluntarily sign up if interested.
  • Financial Wellness: Two key programs tied to financial wellness that we’ve launched here at RFK Human Rights are our College Save-Up/Pay-Down program and our 401A pension plan, which is a 7% automatic employer contribution after an employee’s first year of employment. We understand the importance of financial planning and as it pertains to our human rights advocacy and strategic litigation work, we found that most of our incoming legal staff had some form of college debt. This was a driving factor in launching our college loan payment program, which has been well received by staff. The funds from this program can also be used as an employer contribution for a college savings plan as well, which our staff who are parents have appreciated.
  • Career Wellness: In the past few years, we’ve recently piloted a professional development stipend along with 7 professional development days each year to help our staff achieve their personal career goals. The stipend can be used either for certification/skill enhancement courses or also as a board member gift. Building leadership for our staff even outside our organization is something that we prioritize here at RFK Human Rights and we have found that one of the main prohibitors for joining a non-profit board is the financial commitment required to join a board. This stipend is intended to help with that.

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?

Recruiting benefit — from the earliest moment in the employment lifecycle, future employees understand that they will matter as human beings to the organization and that their well-being will be invested in and prioritized. This can contribute to offer acceptance and to beginning the employment relationship on strong footing. And even unsuccessful candidates can become ambassadors for an organization.

Engagement and Retention benefit — [see discussions above]

Benefits Efficiency benefit — By seeking out perspectives from the workforce on the state of organizational wellness (surveys, focus groups, 1:1s) and by auditing utilization and awareness, delivery of wellness benefits will be more tailored to the actual needs of employees. Importantly, needs may rapidly shift in times of crisis or trauma, as our Covid-19 and post-George Floyd experiences have made clear.

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

What we found most helpful in reskilling and having our leaders really model a work well culture, has been empowering our leaders with more information & data around where their teams are now and how to best support them moving forward. For example, we’ve been working on providing quarterly PTO balance updates to our team leads so they’re aware of the amount of PTO time their teams have used vs. have available to have a clearer line of sight around how important it is for their team members to take off & what role they can play to make that feasible.

We’re also looking to provide a similar approach when it comes to team recognition. When it comes to an emotional & social wellness standpoint, we want to ensure that our leaders are keeping track of which of their team members have received more recognition in the org during our all staff meetings versus those that maybe haven’t as much yet — not due to poor performance but potentially a lack of visibility in which leaders can play a role in shining a light. This year we’ll be rolling out manager roundtables that bring together supervisors and leaders of the organization to discuss specific topic areas that empower managers with tools around how to best relay wellness & professional support resources to their teams. It will also be a space for managers to discuss what has worked really well and what barriers they may have experienced in fully embedding a Work Well culture in the past.

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?

Talk about matters of wellness regularly and openly. Think about staff or team meetings or 1:1 meetings — what is discussed and what is not discussed? Change the ratio. What’s discussed or invited in for discussion is signaled as important. What’s not is signaled as “figure it out on your own,” or not important. When workers need to keep burdening well-being matters locked down, they are distracted, their ability to perform well suffers, their dignity is diminished (because they don’t feel valued), and the organization’s productivity declines.

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

Focus on mental health — From ensuring diversity on Benefits teams (so that experts on both mental and physical wellness are contributing perspectives) to expanding support to better equalize benefits for physical and mental health to promoting more open discussion about stress and depression, employers will be better positioned to support employees in the Covid-evolving workplace as leaders and staff find their footing. The issue is urgent — one-third of workers believe a return to work has a negative impact on their mental health (source), and 86 percent of employers believe employee mental health, stress and burnout are a priority (source). For parents and caregivers, the stakes, of course, are even higher.

Focus on safety — Safety is a hallmark of a dignity-centered workplace. When employees feel psychologically safe, they can suggest different ideas or offer countervailing points of view without fear of embarrassment or being silenced. When they are physically safe, concerns about workplace-related harms, dangers or illnesses are reduced, all of which has become especially important in the Covid-19 world that has persisted. Taken together — and when backed by robust safety policies and leadership that centers open and safe team environments — employee stress and anxiety are reduced, productivity is promoted and a commitment to the wellness of all workers is demonstrated.

Focus on leadership well-being competencies — Wellness literacy (understanding the range of workplace wellness issues and being able to openly discuss them) is an important leadership competency. Organizations need to facilitate more open discussions about the range of treatable conditions that benefits and leave policies cover (including mental health conditions) and equip their leaders with understanding of available benefits, non-retaliation for employees who utilize them, indicators to help spot employees who may be experiencing distress and methods for sharing personal stories of challenge (around, say, behavioral health or financial security) that may help to destigmatize challenges faced by others.

Focus on development of articulable, understood and well communicated well-being strategies

Most organizations are quick to endorse the importance of employee well-being. Things begin to fray, however, when it comes to actual strategies and plans. Having a well-being roadmap that plans near and short-term priorities in each of the core wellness priority areas creates wellbeing intention that establishes focus and allows goals to be tracked. And yet — while over 85% of employers acknowledge the importance of wellbeing, less than half have a strategy. (Source) Of course, unless the strategy is visible and well communicated (by leadership, in internal communications, etc.), its effectiveness will be of limited value.

Focus on connectivity and workplace community and social wellness — Research has shown that employees who feel connected to their colleagues are three times as likely to report that they maintained pre-pandemic productivity levels. (Source) As companies navigate hybrid work environments and other Covid-19-related alterations to work experiences, ensuring that healthy, strong and meaningful connections between workers take root will be important both to promote social wellness and drive productivity.

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

Discussions about all forms of wellness are increasingly “out of the closet” and being directly discussed. From CEOs like our Board member Thasunda Brown Duckett, President and CEO of TIAA, promoting financial wellness and equity, to sports figures like Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka sharing mental health challenges, to advisory firms like Willis Towers Watson producing cutting edge thinking and research on wellness, we now have the voices and the research foundation necessary to ensure that wellness matters are not reduced to side conversations or token benefits but are centered as crucial elements of a thriving workplace where dignity of workers is central.

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?

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