Employees will expect more autonomy and flexibility in where, how and when they work. Gartner refers to this as “radical flexibility.” How organizations will achieve this will be influenced by the type of workers they have, their core operations and services, and competition for talent. As previously mentioned, we continue to ask leaders to be flexible with our employees around schedules, asking them to emphasize outputs and performance over in-the-office time.

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 Jeri Hawthorne.

Jeri Hawthorne joined Aflac Incorporated in 2019 as vice president of Corporate Human Resources. She leads HR function for all of Aflac’s corporate support areas, including the talent management, development and employee engagement teams. She has more than 20 years of HR experience, specifically as a strategic HR leader and talent management expert.

Prior to joining Aflac, Hawthorne was Managing Director/Head of Human Resources for Campbell & Company, a quantitative hedge fund based in Baltimore, MD, where she led their human resources, administration teams and community outreach. She worked at Exelon from 2010–2017, serving as Director of Talent Management and Leadership Development and as the HR Director for the company’s commercial organization. Hawthorne also worked in HR and talent management at T. Rowe Price and has broad experience in global human resources. Additionally, Hawthorne has also served as Director of Global HR and Employment at United States Pharmacopeia, leading HR strategy for their global expansion efforts.

Hawthorne was an expatriate in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she worked as an International HR consultant at Novo Nordisk A/S. She started her HR career as a cross-cultural training manager at GMAC-Global Relocation Services and Berlitz Intercultural Services in New York, NY, and Princeton, NJ, respectively.

Hawthorne holds both Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and Global Professional of Human Resources (GPHR) certifications and is a Global Fellow of Talent Management from the Wharton School. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Wheeling Jesuit University and a Master of Science in social policy from the University of Bath.

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.

Thank you for the opportunity.

I recall a very specific incident early in my career. I was leading a global HR function and traveling all over the world to help them open laboratories in various countries. It was an amazing and very intense job. At the time, my kids were very young — 3 and 5 — and when I wasn’t traveling, I was commuting almost three hours a day.

With that employer, I had the opportunity to go to a leadership training program, where they emphasized work-life balance, specifically the balance of professional life, family life, community involvement and self-care. They had us complete an exercise where we each drew a button with four holes. Each hole represented one of those categories. The size of the hole was supposed to represent where you were spending the majority of your time.

My button had 3 holes: one extra-large hole for work and 2 very tiny ones that represented family life and self-care. Community was missing entirely. While I loved the job, that small exercise made me realize that I was too focused on one aspect of my life and missing other, more important areas.

As I’ve moved throughout my career, I’ve used that analogy to think about how I am working to integrate each of these facets in a more deliberate way.

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 Aflac, care is core to who we are. Our supplemental products are designed to provide additional financial protection for people in a time of need, closing the gap between what health insurance does and does not cover. This emphasis on care permeates our internal culture and values as well. We want our employees to feel cared for, supported, engaged, developed and celebrated throughout their careers. With these focus areas at our core, support tools and offerings for our employees are extensive. They encompass emotional, financial, physical, social and spiritual wellness. Some are more traditional in nature, while others are more innovative.

We offer traditional Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and counseling services. For our employees who want to talk with a faith leader, we have a partnership with Corporate Chaplains of America. They are a nondenominational organization that provides general counseling services as well as spiritual support to employees at their request. We have on-site health care centers and on-site fitness centers in our core locations. As our workforce has shifted to become more hybrid and remote, we’ve expanded our program offerings and tools to those populations. We offer robust educational benefits to assist our employees with continued growth and development, financial planning coaching, and even pet insurance to help our employees care for their furry friends. We have on-site day care centers at our headquarters in Columbus, Georgia, and support employees outside of the area with a day care subsidy.

We celebrate our employees. We have multiple tools for leaders and employees to thank and acknowledge one another. Each spring, we host an annual Employee Appreciation Week (EAW), where all leaders help to celebrate our employees and their efforts. EAW ends with a grand finale, where we close the business for a few hours and just have fun. We believe that saying thank you and honoring the work of every employee goes a long way to demonstrating how invaluable the team is.

When I think about how we measure wellness, we look at a variety of metrics to help inform us about how our employees are feeling. We conduct bi-annual engagement surveys to understand employee sentiment. To try to keep an ongoing barometer, we conduct pulse surveys and focus groups periodically. We also review things like benefits usage and turnover trends to help inform us about our employee wellness. We look at the volume of health-related claims. Is it consistent with previous years or greater than? What are the drivers of these trends? All of these and many others help us to create an overall perspective on the wellness of our workforce.

And finally, we actively encourage our workers to use their PTO. As human beings we need time to wind down and recharge. Our leaders are asked to encourage their teams to use their time off.

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 is a direct correlation between employee engagement and company performance, but we believe it goes beyond just engagement. At Aflac, we have always focused on the overall well-being of our employees. Our Chairman and CEO Dan Amos has said for many years, “If you take care of the employees, they will take care of the business.” This philosophy permeates all facets of our organization.

We do a lot of research in this area. In fact, the Aflac WorkForces Report focuses greatly on employee wellness, particularly in the area of mental health, given the recent global pandemic and current economic insecurities. The workers that we interviewed for this survey made it quite clear. We learned that 59% of American workers currently face at least moderate levels of burnout especially younger workers, Hispanics, women and those working multiple jobs. Almost half (46%) of workers stated that mental health challenges had a negative impact on their productivity in the past year, a significant increase over 2021 (34%).

Employees who suffer from high levels of burnout also report lower job satisfaction, lower confidence that their employers care about them, negative perceptions of work-life balance and a higher likelihood of seeking another job in the next year. Here are three critical first steps for organizations to help their employees battle burnout in the workplace:

1) Set up an online resource to provide access to self-care.

2) Establish a corporate culture in which on-demand work outside of office hours is discouraged.

3) Encourage time off for employees to focus on wellness such as going for a walk, volunteering or engaging in a social activity.

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?

My advice is to use data to inform senior leadership of the need for a focus on wellness. Track trends around things like employee attendance rates, engagement scores, health care claims (e.g., high costs for claims for those who didn’t use preventive services), usage of other benefits and services — all of these point to health of a workforce. Combine this information with external best practice research around the performance of a well workforce. Treat it like a business case — identify the business risk, correlate drivers to that risk and recommend solutions through demonstrating potential savings.

If that doesn’t work, see if there is a senior leader who would be willing to pilot some wellness offerings, then assess the impact. By researching issues — like we’ve done with the Aflac WorkForces Report for the past 12 years — we are continually looking at new and innovative benefits for employers and their employees. Often, we will take these findings and pilot new benefits in small divisions to assess usage levels and impact. If we get positive feedback, we will then determine if we want to extend to the rest of 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?

We work to share our employee value proposition with all candidates. Luckily, Aflac is a well-respected and well-known brand, which helps to help recruit and retain talent as well as serve our customers — business decision-makers and policyholders. We have a good foundation upon which to tell our story. All the things I described earlier paint a picture of an overall employee experience, built over decades of care, that we work to share with prospective candidates so that they can understand our overall emphasis on well-being.

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.

Employees are demanding that employers think about the employee value proposition in a new and different way. They want employers to realize that work is just one part of who we are. The expectations our employers have of us is no different. Beyond the programs previously mentioned I’ll share a few others that help us keep an engaged workforce.

  • Mental Wellness: When I think about mental wellness, I think about learning new things, whether they are personal or professional in nature. At Aflac, we emphasize helping our employees learn and grow. One unique service we offer in support of career development for our employees is our Career Success Center. Think of this like a career counselor at a college. Our team members provide things like career advice, resume writing support and interview preparation. It has been successful with dozens of employees receiving promotions after their experience with the Career Success Center. They also provide support like proctoring tests as needed. Outside of career development, we offer employees the opportunity to engage in activities like desk yoga, financial acumen classes, etc.
  • Emotional Wellness: During the pandemic, supporting mental and emotional wellness became more important and more challenging at the same time. As a result, we reminded leaders and employees that working remote doesn’t equal being alone. We asked leaders to take additional time to connect with and check in on employees outside of regular work topics. As we have shifted to our new work configurations, we continue to ask leaders to think about the whole employee, allowing flexibility in work locations and schedules where we can. When leaders are bringing teams together in person, we want those interactions to be meaningful, which means that when people are on-site, that time is maximized for work and building connections. We are discovering that our employees want to be together with colleagues in person when it’s meaningful, but they also want flexibility to manage their own schedules.
  • Social Wellness: Our community outreach efforts and corporate philanthropy are essential to the social wellness of our employees. For example, in October 2021, we launched the Care on Purpose campaign and committed $1 million to support communities and individuals and help close the medical debt gap. Through the Aflac Care Index, a nationwide study that examined Americans’ awareness of and exposure to debt resulting from medical bills not covered by insurance, Aflac is working to gain a deeper understanding of the issue of medical debt, digest its impact on insured Americans and support those who are most affected. Several highly vulnerable regions were identified and to support those regions, Aflac is donating Community CareGrants to select organizations that improve the medical outcomes for individuals in their communities. In 2018, we introduced the My Special Aflac Duck®, a social robot designed for children with cancer to provide a sense of joy, comfort and control. In early 2022, we introduced a new generation of My Special Aflac Duck with features and play accessories designed specifically for pediatric sickle cell patients. Sickle cell disease impacts approximately 100,000 Americans each year, including 1 in 365 Black children every year. To date, Aflac has donated more than 19,000 My Special Aflac Ducks to more than 450 hospitals and disease-focused organizations in the U.S., Northern Ireland and Japan. Our current and prospective employees are constantly energized by this sort of philanthropy.
  • Physical Wellness: From a physical wellness standpoint, Aflac offers on-site fitness centers at our core locations that are free of charge for our employees. We also recently added Gympass to our benefits offerings. This benefit is for our employees and their dependents. With it, they have access to gyms, fitness studios and online fitness applications. We also provide a plethora of health support services from health advocates who provide an array of services to our employees and their dependents, including help finding doctors and dentists and navigating the complex health insurance landscape.
  • Financial Wellness: We also offer a variety of tools to our employees to provide education and planning around financial wellness. Employees have access to financial coaches to help with planning efforts around things like buying a new house, paying off debt, etc. For families with kids who are thinking about college, we partnered with SimpliCollege, which is a virtual college coaching service to help them plan. For expecting families, we offer a free car seat program, where employees participate in educational sessions around parenting. We encourage employees to plan for the unexpected expenses by providing them with our own Aflac polices, a generous company match on 401(k) and other tax-deferred savings opportunities such as an FSA.

One key learning for us is around how we share this information with our employees. We are evaluating our approach to how we market our offerings internally to employees and externally to candidates. We want to make sure that our extensive menu of offerings are being accessed as our employees want and need it, while ensuring that our services, benefits, philanthropic and other efforts are packaged in a way that is clear, easy to find and user friendly is essential.

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?

Acquiring, engaging and retaining talent are the main benefits employers can receive from investing in wellness. Employees who are looking for jobs want to work for companies who have a value proposition that emphasizes well-being and flexibility. Employees will stay with companies and demonstrate higher levels of discretionary effort if they feel engaged, supported and developed. Additionally, offering robust mental health resources, flexible work schedules and one-on-one support rise to the top of this year’s Aflac WorkForces Report as ways for employers to help attract and retain top talent in today’s competitive work environment. In fact, the Aflac study revealed that over three quarters of employers (77%) who offer supplemental insurance believe these benefits help with employee recruitment, and 80% say it helps with employee retention.

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

Rather than going to an external training vendor to help us address this, we are taking an in-house approach. We are using our own leaders to educate and train other leaders on how to support, engage and develop employees. We also have a team of employee experience consultants. They are tasked with evaluating our employee experience overall, identifying where we are doing well, what we are missing and what we need to change. Part of their focus going forward is to work with leaders directly on their engagement and wellness plans for their 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?

Ask your employees for their perspectives on what is important to them. We have found that our employees are not afraid to tell us what they want and need. The first step is to solicit their input. Once that happens, the key is to respond to that feedback — either build programs and offerings or, at the very least, explain why you aren’t able to implement their recommendations.

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

An overall trend that will continue is an employee-centric work experience to drive wellness and productivity. Employees who don’t feel supported at work are less productive and less empathetic with customers. For many companies, this means a reassessment and likely a reinvention of their employee value proposition. A recent study by Gartner, called “Reinventing the Employee Value Proposition: The Human Deal,” identified the difference between providing a holistic life experience versus a traditional employee experience, highlighting five attributes that focus on the actual person and their needs. I think these are examples of trends for the future of wellness.

Employees will expect more autonomy and flexibility in where, how and when they work. Gartner refers to this as “radical flexibility.” How organizations will achieve this will be influenced by the type of workers they have, their core operations and services, and competition for talent. As previously mentioned, we continue to ask leaders to be flexible with our employees around schedules, asking them to emphasize outputs and performance over in-the-office time.

People want to work for an organization that cares about their families and their communities. This means that companies will need to provide more benefits that emphasize the family, not just the employee. Companies will also need to emphasize community outreach and give employees the opportunity to participate in events that have a positive impact on the community. For instance, Aflac partnered with a local food bank in Columbus when their facility was closed due to the pandemic, and we offered one of our facilities for them to use. We went one step further and gave employees the opportunity to spend time during their work schedules to help sort food. Employees felt good because they were helping the community, and Aflac allowed them to contribute to this worthy cause while at work. It was a win-win for all.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) will continue to be a top trend and priority for organizations. At Aflac, DEI has historically been a priority. And, we’ve continued to be recognized by a variety of organizations as a top employer for DEI, including Fortune’s World’s Most Admired Companies (21 times on the list), World’s Most Ethical Companies (16 consecutive years), Forbes’ Best Employers for Diversity (four consecutive years), Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index (three consecutive years), CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion (two consecutive years), and LATINA Style magazine’s 50 Best Companies for Latinas to Work for in the United States (23 times on the list) to name a few.

Aflac’s workforce diversity is stellar at nearly 67% female and 49% people of color (as of October 2022). However, this only tells part of our story. Our efforts to ensure that employees are treated respectfully and that we create an inclusive environment are top of mind in our leadership trainings, engagement efforts and benefits offerings.

Development and career growth will always be key for employees. How organizations engage and support this will likely shift to a more customized approach with services like the career counseling services we provide. We have also taken a more targeted approach at finding unique development programs for our diverse leaders such as Leading Women Executives and Black Enterprise’s Black Men Excel Conference. Leaders who have attended these programs have shared that they not only grew in their leadership acumen, but also felt a sense of connection with their peers in these programs. They return energized with objectives of being greater champions of diversity at Aflac.

Overall, companies will need to think about their employee wellness in a way that gives employees choice, control and flexibility. Employees want to feel heard, valued, developed and cared for in a more customized and holistic way. Companies that do this well are those that will attract, retain and engage top talent, and as a result, likely perform better.

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

Workplace wellness is a significant focus area in the news and media. Employers are paying attention. We are deliberately offering new programs and tools to help support employees’ overall wellness, and creative solutions to these new demands are being considered.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Michelle Obama would be my choice. She is a smart, well-poised woman who also happens to be the only first lady with a very similar background to me. It would be delightful to break bread with her.

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 follow me on LinkedIn, and you can also stay up-to-date on Aflac news and announcements through our website, Facebook and Instagram.

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