Emotional Wellness: High performing individuals, especially women, have been conditioned to convey strength and resiliency in the workplace. Don’t assume a strong woman is Wonder Woman and can keep an unrealistic pace with all things. The innovative program here is quite simple. Ask managers to participate in ongoing, empathetic two-way dialogs with their employees to very fully explore how to make their overall work experience realistic and achievable.

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 Kate Walker.

Kate Walker, SPHR, SHRM-SCP has more than two decades of experience working in Human Resources, driving growth, transformation, and culture within organizations. As a strategic and tactical leader, she’s partnered with senior-most company executives, led the HR function, and built out HR infrastructure in global companies Nintendo, USTA, Sony Interactive, Publicis, TBWA/Chiat Day, JWT and consulted for fast-growth biotech and healthcare companies. She provides confidential and trusted space for the c-suite and senior leaders to work through strategies, challenges, decisions, and change management.

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’d like to share the most recent formative experience that led me to make numerous changes to my relationship with work. From 2014 to 2020, I had been driving to and from my job in a very congested Bay Area commute. The daily drive was extremely draining and challenging. Ultimately, the pandemic brought me home and off the road. Being brought home full time was a relief.

My darkest commuting day was when in 2018 when I received a phone call from my son who had just broken his collar bone at football practice. He was safe with a physical trainer, but not being able to get to him quickly in under two hours was the epitome of stress. After being in the ER that night, I was right back in the commute the next morning because I had a brand-new employee to onboard. All I could do was soldier on.

Being out on the road in a rough commute — and operating as a single parent — gave me plenty of time to think about how I wanted the next chapters of my life to play out. I knew freedom and flexibility were core values of emotional wellness needed to implement more deeply to live my best life. With that and all wellness aspects in mind, I made the decision to resign from corporate to start my own consulting business. Work shows up in my life now with a commute-free schedule designed to support my well-being and family in all areas. My new path allows me to create greater flexibility and efficiency in how I choose to get my work done.

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?

There is a long way to go here, but I believe the pandemic was a catalyst that more fully propelled this initiative forward. Wellness should include supporting employees beyond a paycheck. It’s about supporting the whole person as a dignified member of the organization.

As a Leadership Coach, I am invited into organizations and continue to observe the need for increased awareness on wellness. At times I do witness an impatient approach toward how companies expect people to move beyond their wellness challenges. If someone is struggling in their performance (and we don’t take time to ask questions) there can be a lack of empathy and an ensuing frustration trying to get the employee to get over it and on with it. Certainly, many companies offer basic resources for employees struggling, or who need support, but far too many solutions are cookie cutter, rather than custom. While there is much work to do, and much of what’s done now is open to critique, I do feel optimistic that the rally cry for greater and more rounded employee wellness is being heard. Companies and individuals will benefit greatly from this awareness and evolution.

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?

Based on my experience as a human resources leader, I’ve spent two decades out on the front lines observing people struggling with various areas of their personal wellness. When you ask what type of help or the support they need, often times they don’t have an answer. When there is a struggle, you can often correlate the issues manifesting in performance problems. Conversely, I’ve observed that the people who are proactively reaching out for support and resources get pointed in the right direction more quickly and can take advantage of programs or plans to best support them. While their performance may have dipped, you can see the course correction start to take place after they receive the support they needed. These are the employees that make a difference in company’s bottom line.

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?

A chain is as strong as its weakest link and organizations and leaders need to support employee wellness. When considering programs to invest in, organizations need to get this right by asking employees want or need directly. I urge organizations and leaders to survey their people and ask them these questions directly. Use survey feedback to glean qualitative and quantitative data to launch conversations that will lead to solutions. Take action-steps toward implementing (and testing and refining) programs or initiatives that will have the greatest impact. What the people want, and what helps them find wellness, may not be as massive an undertaking, or as great a financial investment, as you were led to speculate. The ROI of happy, engaged employees is significant.

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?

Wellness programs represent a definite shift in the talent acquisition approach. This can start during the hiring process by not boxing someone into answering ‘what can you do for us,’ but by asking candidates about how in this role, and at this company, how can we do our best work together. It’s good to have deeper understanding to determine if bringing in a new employee can be part of a mutual symbiotic work relationship. Every company has its own culture. Let’s determine if we’re a good mutual match and can fulfill each other’s needs. This approach gets a new hire, before they even get to work, invested in where they work by already feeling heard and seen. Feeling seen and heard are the base fundamentals of wellness.

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: Programs such as Employee Assistance Plans are beneficial. However, with significantly more people using EAP’s, mental health providers offer limited calendar availability, are fully booked, or frankly do not return phone inquiries. That leaves employees unable to get support or help they desire. Programs must do better at offering mental health counseling programs that are well staffed and able to meet the demand for realistic appointment availability.
  • Emotional Wellness: High performing individuals, especially women, have been conditioned to convey strength and resiliency in the workplace. Don’t assume a strong woman is Wonder Woman and can keep an unrealistic pace with all things. The innovative program here is quite simple. Ask managers to participate in ongoing, empathetic two-way dialogs with their employees to very fully explore how to make their overall work experience realistic and achievable.
  • Social Wellness: Offering social groups, such as Employee Resource Groups, can be a positive way to create social wellness in the workplace. These groups don’t require large budgets or funding and offer leadership opportunities to those who may not have those opportunities otherwise. In addition to supporting social wellness, it can double as a career development opportunity.
  • Physical Wellness: Different people have different needs so it’s hard to design a one size fits all initiative. Offering a wellness stipend to join a gym, take classes, or purchase equipment can be an excellent perk. At a very basic level, offering employees the opportunity to leave their desk for brief wellness breaks (an outdoor walk, for example) is beneficial. Taking outdoor wellness breaks were important to me when I was in corporate sitting, and regularly in back-to-back meetings. I tried to keep my calendar open around 3pm, so I could step out for a 10–15 minute walk. Knowing I had the freedom and flexibility to do this was important. This small break helped me stretch my legs and clear my mind before my final meeting(s) and before my end-of-day commute.
  • Financial Wellness: Money and finance seminars are nice, but let’s just pay people more money. Employees are our greatest asset. Pay them near or at the top of pay ranges. It’s a bit sad that this suggested approach is considered innovative. We all know companies have budgets to manage and paying at the top of ranges is perhaps controversial. My suggestion is to pay well and hold employees accountable for delivering good performance. This dynamic will create improved personal wellness and again, deliver excellent ROI to organizations.

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?

If organizations create, maintain and improve upon wellness programs that make employees feel seen and heard, they’ll retain more employees and empower them to do better work. Additionally, talented employees usually have network graphs filled with other high performers. As employees share their joy in working for your organization, that will attract interest in your company from those powerful networks. This makes finding new high performers much easier. Additionally, building fulfilling workplaces helps with diversity, as candidates always want to work in places where they know they’ll be safe, seen, heard and valued.

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

A work well culture will mean something different at every organization. Caring about the topic must start at the top of the organization. Identify what this means at the leadership level and determine the goals and plans. From there, it’s about implementing the education piece so we’re all rowing in the same direction. Reskilling requires education and then holding everybody accountable.

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?

I love the approach of working toward one small step. Small steps lead to great change. Each of these group mentioned above should identify their one small idea, document it, and then commit to its execution, refinement and success. For example, as shared in my example earlier, one small way that I supported my individual wellness by committing to a 15-minute walk once during the business day. That’s something really easy anyone can do — or offer — and ensuring wins (even small and seeming insignificant ones), lead to more and bigger wins.

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

As I stated before, there is much work to be done and plenty of critique for what’s being done now, but workplace wellness is now on the radar of more leaders and employees than ever before. Employees of all generations rank wellbeing as one of their top three employer search criteria. This is a need, a requirement now, and not just a request that will fade away. Employers must have greater awareness and accept the challenge to make positive, lasting changes in their organizations. The Great Resignation has shown us that employees are leaving companies in droves to seek out the new and best employer who meets their needs. Knowing organizations are starting to realize wellness is necessary for survival, means it’ll happen a lot more. Still slowly, perhaps, but the march is forward and cannot stop.

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?

I’m on LinkedIn at Kate Walker, SPHR or on Instagram @thekatewalker. I’m personally accessible by email at [email protected]

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

Thank you, it’s been such a pleasure to spend time with you.