Burnout Prevention

Everyone is in trauma and everyone is exhausted. We need to abandon the belief that people’s only value to us is their productivity, and in doing so, this will allow for longevity.

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 Dr. Kristen Donnelly.

Kristen Donnelly (MSW, M.Div, PhD) is an award winning, four-time TEDx speaker, international empathy educator, and researcher with two decades of experience in helping people understand the beauty in difference, and the power in inclusivity. She is one of The Good Doctors of Abbey Research, COO of their parent company, and an unapologetic nerd for stories of change. Kristen lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, where they are surrounded by piles of books and several video game consoles.


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 so much for having me; it’s an honor. In 2016, my father had a significant cardiac event that put him in a medically induced coma for five days. At that point in our family, he was the sole owner and operator of our family network of companies and my brother and I realized several things all at once. First, that we could not run things like he did if we wanted a different health story than he had. Second, that his way of running everything from the wisdom in his head wasn’t sustainable. Finally, we needed to prioritize the humanity of our employees over their productivity more than we already had been.

Since then, we’ve also created a division entirely focused on training other organizations in their employee engagement endeavors. It’s called Abbey Research and it’s run by Dr. Erin Hinson and myself. We focus on empathy education — helping people understand themselves and others so that we can all have richer human experiences. The workshops and keynotes we provide are based both in our academic training and in what we have seen work (or fail!) within our other divisions over the years.

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?

Measuring wellness is a slippery slope that I’d encourage people to view as a malleable goal rather than a static one. For example, measuring physical wellness is really tricky — are you accounting for ability or chronic pain? Is your measure of physical wellness some sort of weight loss challenge? That’s not great! We prefer to see our role in this process as providing the environment for employees to develop and determine their own understanding of wellness for themselves.

We define wellness as wealth and see our mission as impacting lives and generating holistic wealth. How do we serve our employees as they pursue holistic wealth for themselves? How do we make sure they can pursue education goals, or be available to care for family members, or even just make sure they’re drinking enough water every day? As owners, this is what my brother and I focus on in terms of wellness.

As Abbey Research, Dr. Erin and I often ask companies the same questions. What does wellness mean to your folks? How are you helping them achieve their goals, rather than force them to achieve yours?

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?

In our parent company, our turnover rate over a 30 year period is single digits. But honestly? I measure it in how our team responds to a customer’s last minute needs, or how they rally around each other when someone has something going on at home, or how they have learned to resolve conflicts without management stepping in. I measure it in how they bring their kids to parties and ask for branded gear to wear out and about in public. I measure it in how the building feels as you walk around it; I trust my team and my team trusts me. It starts and ends there.

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?

It’s so hard to balance people and profits, and one of the reasons is that we focus on how hard it is too often. It’s absolutely a challenge and I don’t want to say it’s not. In my recent TEDx talk on the topic, I make the point that the true solution to this problem is to center the humanity of your employees. They’re people first and not interchangeable cogs in a profit machine.

Create a culture where they know they’re safe, heard, and understood. It’s hard, but it’s simple. Just treat them like humans and they’ll respond like 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?

Because of the low turnover rate in our parent company and our small size as a division, we don’t have an active talent recruitment process. But I will tell you that we’re incredibly upfront about our culture during the hiring process and that we give every employee a chance to interact with a prospective hire on some level. We’re under 30 folks, so that’s easier to do, but no one is shy about telling us their opinion or how the person would vibe within the existing team.

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:
  • Emotional Wellness:
  • Social Wellness:
  • Physical Wellness:
  • Financial Wellness:

One of the first things we teach clients is that you actually cannot separate any of these things from each other, and our push to do so is part of the problem. Physical wellness is tied to emotional wellness which is tied to financial. While there may be activities that can help focus one or the other — none of them exist in a vacuum. That being said, here are a few programs or activities that our clients have found success with.

  • Create opportunities for food to be shared together. For example, if you have Muslim employees, ask them if they’d like an Iftar feast. Instead of automatically buying birthday cake, ask what desert each employee would like shared to celebrate their birthday.
  • Partner with a local non-profit organization committed to a cause important to your employees. Perhaps even allow votes for which non-profit to support and switch on a quarterly or yearly basis. This could mean fundraising, volunteering, or advocacy work.
  • If you host lunch-and-learns, host some that have nothing to do with work. Maybe invite a local author to come and do a book reading, or a park ranger to come and share about the things happening in your local parks.
  • Understand that introverts may not be interested in corporate parties, but may still be very invested in your organization. Work to create a community that doesn’t require in-person participation.
  • Double check all your policies and procedures that they are not only in compliance with ADA regulations, but that they perhaps even exceed them.

Can you please tell us more about a couple of specific ways workplaces would benefit from investing in your ideas above to improve employee wellness?

I would love to. There’s so many answers to this question, but the base of it all is this; when you treat your employees like humans, everything gets better. Morale is improved, loyalty is solidified, and ingenuity is increased.

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

This sounds ridiculous, but we don’t have to reskill them since it’s been a corporate value from the start. Instead, it’s an ongoing journey as all wellness should be viewed as.

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?

Make less assumptions about others and ask more questions.

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

  1. Hybrid Work

Any company not prepared to integrate a hybrid work environment will be left behind as we all create the new future post-lockdowns. Allowing people to determine their best work environments and then working with them to meet both their needs and the needs of the team will ensure success for all.

2. Burnout Prevention

Everyone is in trauma and everyone is exhausted. We need to abandon the belief that people’s only value to us is their productivity, and in doing so, this will allow for longevity.

3. Investigating Language

Words matter and how we use them has to shift as the people that are on our team shift as well. Pronouns matter, the way we talk about political opponents matters, the way we talk about religion matters. A key step to wellness is an environment where people can feel safe to express themselves without judgment or shame.

4. Employee Ownership

This could mean financial stakes, but more often means emotional ownership. A key element of wellness is when people feel they matter and are integrated into the vision and mission of the organization.

5. Support for Care Givers

It’s not just parents who need flexibility and support. Millennials are increasingly caring for their aging parents and need it as well. The definition of ‘family’ keeps evolving, and so our definition of support for care givers must as well.

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

That it has become a general conversation and something that’s considered up for discussion these days. The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that there is one in the first place!

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.