Physical health: This used to mean we simply provided healthcare benefits for our employees. But it’s evolved to so much more because these programs can be an advantage when competing for talent. One way we recently addressed physical wellness was through our virtual team walking program that we implemented during Covid, when department teams created fitness goals and competed with each other. We also share healthy recipes online.
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 Julie Bank.
Julie Bank, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, chief people officer at Brighton Health Plan Solutions, has more than 20 years of experience managing HR for growing businesses and is a 2021 recipient of the OnCon Icon Award, presented to the top 50 human resources professionals worldwide. Since joining Brighton, Julie has developed and implemented strategic approaches to recruiting, hiring, and retaining career-oriented, talented people. She is regarded as a valued strategic advisor to the executive leadership and operational leadership teams.
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’ve been with the Company since 2004, so in a sense I feel like I’ve grown up here. I’ve become a mother to three children while I’ve been here, so this organization is just a part of who I am. Although the company has gone through tremendous change, it’s given me the opportunity to grow and change with it. In the length of time I’ve been here, I’ve seen us completely transform in certain areas while in other areas we realized past approaches worked better and circled back around to those. We have a lot of longevity here among our staff, but we also have brought on incredible newer talent. And we retain them — so to me, that proves we’re doing something right, and that’s really special to me. At University, I studied HR and marketing and always leaned more toward the HR side because I recognized even back then that people are the foundation of any organization.
Before I came here, I worked at a very large organization with thousands of employees in multiple cities. My role was leading people for a region of that company, so I was a small fish in a big pond. I much prefer a smaller, more nimble organization like Brighton, where we still have only 350 employees despite our strong business growth. Today, I promoted someone who I’ve worked with for 15 years. That’s the best part of my job — being part of someone’s journey and influencing someone’s journey. I’m thanking her, she’s thanking me — I was smiling so much my cheeks hurt. I do a lot of things that are very challenging, but there’s nothing like seeing your colleagues flourish because it makes it all worth it.
In terms of what still attracts me to HR, diversity, equity and inclusion has become a personal passion. We’ve leveraged the momentum following high-profile acts of racial injustice, such as the deaths of Black Americans in police custody or acts of violence against Asian Americans, to set the expectation Brighton is a trusting and welcome place to have complex and difficult conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. Being in a role where I can influence that change is profound and I feel a lot of responsibility. I take the privilege of moving our organization forward on DEI very seriously.
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?
To me, wellness is a spectrum — it’s not just a box you can check off. It’s mental, physical, financial and emotional. Covid opened everyone’s eyes much wider around the benefits of mental health, and I think it offered everyone in a position like mine an opportunity to take action. We measure wellness through frequent surveying and other employee feedback mechanisms to make sure we’re dialed in on what our employees feel is most important.
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?
One of the things we saw when we went fully remote during Covid was that enabling remote work created a lot more flexibility in people’s lives. Most people previously were spending one to two hours a day commuting. Getting that time back was invaluable. We also saw productivity increase and unscheduled absences decrease, so that proved to us we can be more flexible and at the same time improve our efficiency, so we’ve tried to incorporate that flexibility going forward.
But the truth is it’s very hard in our business to offer flexibility in the same way other companies might. Some organizations might close early or create three-day weekends on summer Fridays. A lot of companies in New York do that. But we can’t because a large number of our employees have to answer member calls every day, nights and weekends. Our call center has to be open all the time for our stakeholders so some roles have more flexibility than others. We have data to inform those decisions, but that’s only part of the story. In our quarterly reviews, we’re encouraging managers to ask, “How are you?” as the first question and really diving into what that means for people. And the second question is, “What can we do for you?” We weren’t asking those questions years ago because we were so fearful of prying into our people’s personal lives, but we’ve discovered they really do want that personal connection in most cases. I have a manager who has always been plugged into what’s going on in her employees’ personal lives, and I remember talking to her about the need to separate the work and personal. I would joke with her, saying, “your employees aren’t your children, you know.” Now, I realize she was so ahead of her time. It’s definitely humbling.
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?
As an HR leader responsible for budgeting for employee programs, this is something I struggle with –trying to show their ROI. We’re always looking to add new programs to our plan or enhance existing ones, and there’s controversy about ROI around certain programs and has been for years. But mental health is a must-have nowadays. The data since Covid shows a significant increase in mental health issues, so much so that I would say mental health is in its own pandemic right now. And it’s not just our employees — it’s their spouses, children, and extended family. We’re third party administrator of self-insured health plans and have our own provider network, so we work hard to make sure we have great mental health access in our network. This is no easy feat. Our EAP has a ton of programs too.
If you want to look at the cost of poor mental health access, you can see it in the cost of turnover. It’s a lot easier to retain than recruit. Speaking of turnover, the great resignation means you have to have everything you can on your side if you’re going to keep the valuable employees in whom you’ve already invested. Our fireside chat program is not an expensive program, but it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career and helps me know I’m doing the work that attracted me to human resources to begin with. We’re talking about anxiety, depression and medication in a way we never did before. So, back to your question on ROI, I can’t measure the impact of these candid conversations in financial terms, but I’ve heard more positive feedback and engagement in these programs than I ever had from what I know is a high-quality EAP program that is well utilized by our employees. It’s amazing what can happen when your fellow employees and your leaders are comfortable being vulnerable enough to share what they’re struggling with. You feel you’re not alone and you’re connecting. Candid conversations around race and diversity can be life-changing for peers. We wouldn’t have been having these kinds of discussions several years ago but we’re truly changing the culture by having them.
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?
The biggest thing I’m hearing from candidates is the need for a remote or hybrid position. People need this for their work-life balance. We recognize our employees need to be a caretaker for an elderly parent, or they need to put a kid on a bus in the morning. It’s not just about letting them have flexibility to do those things, but about the relief they feel from being able to do them.
For the most part, we’re able to have remote and hybrid programs that work for our talent, but when we’re recruiting for a position that can’t be remote it feels impossible. Secondly, candidates more and more are asking about what we’re doing for DEI. We’re hearing people talk about that in a way they never did. They’re also talking about mental health and what resources we have available for employees and families. During our interview process we spend time outlining our programs from mental health to physical to financial health. Candidates want to know we care and how we put action behind that concern. We don’t want people to leave because they don’t feel seen or heard or because we’re not addressing mental health or work-life balance, so I’m constantly looking for ways to improve our offerings in those areas. We could always do more, and I continue to look for innovative ways to incorporate new programs that will make a difference. We’re a small organization relative to our competition, so you’re not a number here. People know who you are. This is a conversation I have frequently with candidates — specifically those coming from larger organizations. We’re fortunate to know what our people are concerned about through our monthly pulse surveys, frequent dialogue and from our fireside chats. One great element of working for Brighton is our employees generally feel support from their peers. We rally around you. This is particularly obvious on our employee communication channel where we see our employees openly supporting exciting news like engagements, weddings and babies — to the sad times when people are sick or a mother passes, and our employees band together to help each other get through these challenges.
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.
We have programs and webinars for all these areas and our people use them frequently, but I have to say nothing is as profound as having candid conversations with people in one room to try to help them where they’re struggling. These “fireside chats” are probably my favorite because they’re so good for community. They encourage personal conversations we wouldn’t have had years ago, and they provide a window into people’s personal lives. The understanding that emerges from these events enables a diverse workforce by encouraging and allowing our people to be themselves. We also created Days of Understanding, as part of the work we do with CEO Action. Days of Understanding are opportunities to lead open dialogue and inspire change though hosting events in line with real-time issues.
That’s where we’ve had our most recent success, but also, we have a number of resources available through the EAP including counseling sessions, interactive programs and exercise programs that impact all areas of wellness. Finally, our pulse surveys help us make sure we’re leading these programs with the employees’ voices, so they’re driving what’s important to them. And in every town hall, our CEO talks about these issues and why they’re important.
- Mental Wellness: Five years ago, human resources was all about helping employees with their physical health and of course, we still offer plenty of fitness programs and incentives, but that’s not enough. Now we’re focusing on shining a light on mental health and offering an array of resources. To kick off our recently enhanced programming for mental health awareness, we brought in mental health professionals to have a fireside chat with our employees and then we had our internal leaders speak on the importance of mental health in their lives, and how they cope with mental health around everyday stress or through sharing stories of their own personal struggles. For instance, our chief medical officer spoke about teenagers and drugs and alcohol, and where our employees can get help with those issues.
- Emotional Wellness: We survey our employees every month as a sort of check-in to make sure we’re keeping track of what they need and offering programmatic support. Internally, we call it our employee experience monitor.
- Social Wellness: I’m extremely proud of our “fireside chats” program. These chats were initially part of our outreach to employees around the racial injustices of the past few years. Our employee-led group initially hosted, and continues to host, informal meetings to create a safe space to discuss issues of racial injustice in the news and their own lives. But the success of those groups has spawned collaborative sessions for team members to discuss other aspects of DEI that, while not as easily identifiable as racial differences, are just as important — like sessions where parents of autistic children can discuss their mutual challenges and opportunities and help others understand and learn, or where stepparents can come together to support one another, or to celebrate heritage and diversity months that are important to our employees, such as Pride Month. These opportunities have allowed employees to be their authentic selves by sharing on a personal level. The results have been immediate — noticeably changing the dynamic between colleagues as they feel seen.
- Physical Wellness: Beyond our generous health benefits, we do have programmatic approaches to physical health that help make it fun to stay in shape or at least encourage movement for our folks who have desk jobs that can be sedentary. One way we recently addressed physical wellness was through our virtual team walking program that we implemented during Covid. We have department teams creating fitness goals and we share healthy recipes online.
- Financial Wellness: Financial health is also important. Through our retirement program we conduct multiple financial health seminars for employees to make sure they have the resources they need to plan for retirement and make good financial decisions now. For example, for retirement planning we offer a financial analysis program. We also offer help with identity theft and lifestyle coaching through our EAP services. We offer other financial programs to help build financial literacy among our employees and help with identity theft, should an employee experience that. We offer seminars on whether our folks should be leasing or buying too, for example. These interactive programs go far beyond helping our people set up a 401(k) 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?
My biggest advice would be to listen to your employees and let them drive the conversation. As you move toward strategy, you want a pulse check to make sure you’re going in the right direction and that people are going to rally around what you’re doing. Which is why I don’t take credit for this employee leadership. We just set the table for them to lead on the programs they want from us.
This all started when we held our first Day of Understanding last year — an entire workday of dialogue to help illuminate the unique experiences of individuals, especially minorities, in the workplace. We had several guest speakers from outside the company come and speak on their struggles with racism and how individuals can help reduce this problem in their own world. The success and feedback we got from that day were fantastic so I thought we had a model that we could replicate every year. But we found out through surveying that we didn’t have a handle on a programmatic approach to helping people address their struggles. What I mean is, we thought we could just take the format from our first Day of Understanding and replicate it, but we couldn’t because there was a desire to build more connectivity. We recognized that if we really wanted to build that connectivity, hearing from one another would speak to that goal in a more meaningful way. So when we had our second Day of Understanding, we exclusively had internal speakers. This was even more inspiring because they were hearing stories they had never heard from someone they knew, which was incredibly powerful.
I encourage companies to be willing to have these difficult conversations because that’s what their people want and it’s easier than you think. In addition to the surveying, I’m always going around the company and knocking on doors to find out what employees are having difficulties with and whether they are interested in participating through town hall meetings. I led by example with my own town hall on work-life balance. I’m also a mother — I have three children and have all the struggles that go along with it. That resonates with people and they can identify with me as a person, not as the leader of HR.
And I’m willing to be vulnerable. You might think I totally have my life together, but I struggle with the same things the rest of our employees struggle with. When I started sharing more of my personal self that resonated. I am certainly way more open than I ever was about the lows and of course the highs too. The leadership team bought in to this idea of sharing where we’re struggling personally. With me leading the way, it was important for me to be vulnerable and show more of who I am, which was hard at first, but feels really good after. In a bio five years ago, I wouldn’t have told you I’m a mother, and you wouldn’t see that side of me. I lead with that now. I now understand the value of leading with that and being vulnerable instead of leading with my education or certificates or resume.
How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
We’re starting with conversations. Years ago, we would tell managers not to ask an employee how they’re doing, to keep everything professional. It feels safer but if you’re not doing it now, you’re missing an important part of team leading and you will probably lose many valuable team members over time. We’re offering resources for managers not used to operating this way on how to incorporate empathy and compassion into management. The reality is, these days if you’re not an empathetic leader, you’re not one who will be retained. So, for managers, it’s about setting those expectations.
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 is check in with one another. Knock on the door and ask your fellow employees, and especially the employees you manage directly, how they’re doing. With what’s going on in the world today, there’s an increase in Asian hate, antisemitic crimes, racism and everyone’s impacted in different ways. So we have to be checking in with our people in ways we haven’t before. Whenever we have conversations, we recognize everyone has different values and opinions, but we want to make sure we allow everyone the freedom to share with leaders and fellow employees in a safe space. These conversations can get tense whether you’re talking about gun control or Roe v. Wade — people are passionate about how they feel and it’s naïve to think that doesn’t come into play in the workplace. You, as a leader, are not going to save the day, and you can’t make it go away, but you do have the power to be an empathetic leader. You can make clear employees can come to work with their burdens and they’ll be respected.
What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
- Diversity, equity and inclusion: Our DEI journey didn’t take place without external instigation and that’s probably the case for most employers. But DEI is the future of the workplace because it’s all about creating an inclusive workforce. If employees can’t be their authentic selves at work, they won’t be successful, and we won’t be successful as a company. We started with our Day of Understanding, created with help from a group called CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, which gave us some programmatic ideas, and a framework for beginning this journey and built further activities and discussion groups using that as a launch platform.
- Mental health awareness: Talking about wellness around mental health is difficult right now. One issue is there are not enough mental health providers. To kick off our recently enhanced programming for mental health awareness, we brought in behavioral health professionals for a fireside chat with our employees and then we had our internal leaders speak on the importance of mental health in their lives, and how they cope with everyday stress or through sharing stories of their own personal struggles. Finally, we make available resources so employees can get the help they need in a variety of formats.
- Financial health awareness. Inflation is a real thing, and most of us don’t have a lot of experience with it since it hasn’t been a pervasive problem in decades. But people are nervous about their financial futures so it’s a critical factor in overall wellness. Through our retirement program we conduct multiple financial health seminars for employees to make sure they have the resources they need to plan for retirement and make good financial decisions now. We also offer help with identity theft and lifestyle coaching through our EAP services. For example, for retirement planning we offer a financial analysis program. We offer other financial programs to help build financial literacy among our employees and help with identity theft, should an employee experience that. We offer seminars on whether our folks should be leasing or buying too, for example. These interactive programs go far beyond helping our people set up a 401(k) account.
- Leadership training: Part of focusing on retention means creating pathways for our most talented employees to advance in the organization. And that means we have to train them as leaders based on the advancement plans they create with their manager. We have an online catalog of thousands of pieces of training for leadership that we’ve revamped to help develop managers with this philosophy. We make it clear now, when maybe we hadn’t explicitly done so before, that managing is not just about how to conduct a review — it means helping your team members advance in the organization.
- Physical health: This used to mean we simply provided healthcare benefits for our employees. But it’s evolved to so much more because these programs can be an advantage when competing for talent. One way we recently addressed physical wellness was through our virtual team walking program that we implemented during Covid, when department teams created fitness goals and competed with each other. We also share healthy recipes online.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
For me, it’s about watching our employees come together and have difficult conversations to understand each other better. Employers are in a position where they can impact wellness and be a catalyst for change in so many ways, but the fact that we’ve been able to have these difficult conversations with each other helps make the team stronger. That we’re talking about difficult things like racism, mental health, suicide, and reproductive services gives me hope that we can find a way forward together. Before the past couple of years, we weren’t having these conversations. Just as a way of explaining how our employees have bought in, here are some of the comments we’ve received recently in our surveying around these programs:
- These are great conversations. This is the first organization I have been a part of that digs this deep.
- Very proud of [our colleagues] for being so candid and for sharing these very personal stories for the benefit of BHPS.
- I commend both [our colleagues] for being so open and vulnerable sharing their stories. I learned so much. Thank you.
- I enjoyed hearing [our colleagues] speak today. You both touched some needed points and so glad you both overcame issues in life that were similar to mine and so many other people. We as a people are one no matter where we are from, or what color we are.
- These stories were so powerful. I have never been part of an organization that was so willing to share.
I don’t use the word profound lightly, but when you see this kind of feedback as a company it’s the best word to describe it. You see people cry in sympathy at work and develop empathy for each other’s struggles because we’ve given them permission to be seen and heard in whatever way makes sense to them.
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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.