Empowerment: Supporting employees to manage their state of being regardless of what is going on around them. Offering inner tools is very different that enablement training.

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 Kristen Oliver. Kristen Oliver is an accomplished author, coach, and speaker, and the Chief Empowerment Officer at AcuityAds, where she focuses on cultivating a strong culture of personal and professional empathy within an actively engaged and thriving AcuityAds community. Oliver has a Masters degree in Occupational Therapy and has worked in the personal development field for over 20 years.

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.

When I was in my late 20s, I faced some severe health challenges that resulted in feeling sick most of every day, being winded going up even one flight of stairs despite being fit, and feeling desperate to find answers even though doctors could not find the problem. This ultimately led me down a path of self-empowerment. I took a much more integrated approach to my health, as I realized somewhere along the way that the emotions, thoughts and beliefs that I wasn’t even aware I was having were playing an unknown but important role in influencing my health. I’ve since found out that our emotions account for up to 70% of our energy, which is just astounding. By incorporating integrative food and supplement choices and practices to shift my state of being, I experienced a full recovery. These days, I make sure to take my feelings and emotional state into account when I go through the work day or week. Whether it be proactively planning breaks or remembering to just breathe, it’s so important that those of us who teach empowerment and mindfulness, take our own advice.

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?

Wellness is a state of “being” — one in which a person feels whole and complete. When we are fulfilled, physically, emotionally, personally and professionally, we are well. It is my belief that wellness is an ongoing, multifaceted and ever-changing process. Measuring wellness is a conundrum. How can one datapoint measure the impact of mourning the loss of a loved one or the financial burden of having two children while in university?

That being said, at AcuityAds, we measure what we can. Compiling anecdotal verbal and written feedback is one way to qualitatively measure the well-being of our employees. Additionally, we document the instances of empathic communication and creation of psychologically safe environments. Examples of quantitative data collection can be:

  • Use of various surveys.
  • Tracking employee requests for 1:1 and small group coaching sessions.
  • Tracking attendance at optional wellness programs.
  • Attendance and employee participation in company-wide empowerment training.

Although I firmly believe in measuring what we can, I am more passionate about being present with an individual or team during a time of challenge, disruption or change.

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?

We see mental health being touted as important and top-of-mind all the time, but just as the WHO found, we don’t see nearly as much implementation as we do buzzwords. My advice to organizations that want to make a difference is to do their research and fully commit to a plan that fits the company’s mission and focuses on emotional and mental empowerment. To really go “all in,” I recommend creating a role like mine (Chief Empowerment Officer) within the company. In-house support integrates into the business function of the organization and demonstrates the company’s commitment to their people. If this is too large of a jump, attempt a mental and emotional wellbeing pilot program. Survey the attendees before and after through quantitative and qualitative measures. Measured outcomes will subsequently indicate the influence of the offering. In either option, empowerment coaching for executives is one of the top priorities, in my opinion. I was actually first introduced to AcuityAds through my business that did just that: coached executives and other leaders on how to put mental and emotional well-being first. I was eventually brought in-house, full time to continue the work I love to do, supporting everyone in the AcuityAds family to be the best version of themselves.

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?

In terms of our recruitment and hiring process, our director of Talent Acquisition, Adam Hewey shares his own personal wellness journey with candidates, stating how he feels 1:1 sessions with me, empowerment offerings, and our emphasis on physical health and mental wellness positively influence him and others in the company. He has told me on a number of occasions that having a position like mine in the company helped candidates make their final decisions to join the AcuityAds family. Having a Chief Empowerment Officer demonstrates our mission to invest in company and employee well-being. We have monthly talks open to the entire company during which we discuss topics like stress management, meditation, relaxation, effective communication and more, all encouraging our AcuityAds family to live in a balanced way. In fact, as a Canadian-headquartered company, we’re right in line with Ontario’s recently-passed Right To Disconnect legislation, which encourages employees to give themselves a no-work-after-work-hours policy. Even prior to this, we were discussing and implementing concepts based in self-care and personal empowerment in Canada, the U.S and Spain.

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: Our monthly company-wide talks address various surveyed topics like: stress management, communication basics, sleep strategies, relaxation techniques, and more. The format is informal, interactive, optional and open to anyone in the company. We have noticed a very positive response to these offerings with regard to attendance, engagement and remaining on for the entire session. I have received multiple emails/messages from attendees who have incorporated techniques from the sessions into their everyday lives. One employee even shared that he used a technique shared in a relaxation talk with his daughter and she is now sleeping better than ever.
  • Emotional Wellness: Along with our COO, Neil Phasey, I’ve co-created our company’s Empowerment Foundations program, consisting of four 90-minute sessions, that are delivered live to our entire company, team by team over the course of the year. We’ve also rolled out a 12-module program for executives and others in leadership roles that focuses on empathy, connection, emotional maturity and compassionate communication. During these sessions we teach how to create psychological safety and how to be vulnerable. When leadership exhibits these traits, it flows down into the company. The goal is personal empowerment through accountability of how one thinks, feels, speaks and acts.
  • Physical Wellness: We’ve recently hosted a yoga week in the office (with a virtual option as well), which is something I’d love to do again! Additionally, we have an in-house massage therapist who comes on a weekly basis to our dedicated wellness space we call the ZenZone. It’s important to address all aspects of self, and our physical bodies are just as important as our minds and emotions.
  • Financial Wellness: We typically offer annual financial wellness sessions. We also have a financial training and assistance program and candidate referral program.

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?

One of our pillars here at AcuityAds is to continue to create, maintain and grow our connected, engaged, and thriving workforce. How do we do that? We build trust through our everyday conversations and show empathy and compassion to others when they need it. Something I’ve noticed that truly works is asking those questions that you wouldn’t typically ask in passing — questions that get the other person to really open up. Once this happens, we feel a deeper connection that will continue to lead to increased trust and likelihood of opening up about personal or professional matters. I recently received feedback from a team manager that her team is having deeper personal discussions following the Empowerment Foundations program. This type of camaraderie means that when she needs something, like coverage for a day off, her peers will cover for her unquestioningly.

Investment toward an in-house and dedicated position like mine, at the C level, makes it clear that wellness is a priority. Our employees know that I am here for them and in for the long haul. When someone shares a challenge they are facing, I often don’t need a great deal of background. They can simply jump in and ask for support. I am also here to join in celebrations at the individual, team and company level. Sometimes we forget to “mark” the wins and take the time to celebrate. I am here to support either way.

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

Through our executive training program, we’re guiding the leadership at AcuityAds to be more in tune with their feelings and the feelings of others while navigating daily demands. Our 12-module LEAP (Leadership Empowerment and Advancement Program) focuses on teaching those in power how to utilize empathetic behaviors when interacting with coworkers. Feeling seen, heard, understood and appreciated in the workplace can do wonders for company morale.

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 very simple and small step to take when looking to jumpstart your wellness journey is to practice breathwork. The most common feedback I’ve received from people who take part in our foundation program is the importance of slow and rhythmic breathing to calm oneself. Our fight or flight response is something we’re all familiar with — but do we realize that this response makes us take quicker and more shallow breaths? The thing about stress hormones is that they’re ironically addictive — the more we stress, the more likely we’re going to continue to be stressed. The only conscious way we can influence our unconscious bodies and minds is through controlling our breathing. I suggest taking a 90-second break to focus on relaxed breathing to create a reset of sorts. During this time, the stress hormones are reabsorbed and the body and mind return to balance. Likewise, members of our Acuity family have shared that proactively completing a breathing exercise prior to a possibly intense or demanding meeting can have the same de-stressing effect!

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

At AcuityAds, our top 5 trends are:

  1. Empowerment: Supporting employees to manage their state of being regardless of what is going on around them. Offering inner tools is very different that enablement training.
  2. Creating a culture of compassionate communication and psychological safety: One of the biggest difficulties for those in the workforce today is transcending the stigma to ask for help. In my role, I have experienced dozens of employees coming to me because their manager or peer suggested they reach out. This could only happen if they felt safe to share and request assistance.
  3. DE&I: We have a very diverse culture at Acuity. That said, growing our DE&i team is a priority. Currently, Tony Vismas, our VP of Marketing is developing an offering around use of inclusive language in the workplace.
  4. Proactive — rather than reactive — Stress Management: Stress is not inherently a bad thing. Too much stress leads to overload, but not enough leads to atrophy. What we aim for is a balance of stress and recovery. I often suggest and even challenge employees to proactively block off time in their calendar for a walk, snack, meditation or whatever might help them to rejuvenate. I also share the importance of slow and intentional breathing. I recall receiving an email from one employee that he takes two minutes to breathe prior to demanding meetings and has noticed that he is now able to remain calm during intense business situations, simply by incorporating this habit.
  5. Employee Engagement and Connection: We have a quarterly social opportunity called “The Best Event Ever.” The Toronto-based employees are split into four groups who compete to design and deliver the best social event. Our final event of the year includes all North American Employees. We also have an online group called FROG (Fully Remote Office Group) for those that are not within driving distance of an office. We meet every other month to participate in discussions, connection exercises and online games. This is a way to get to know others who may not be in your department but have in common the circumstance of a fully remote environment.

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

I’d say I’m most optimistic about a position like mine — Chief Empowerment Officer even existing. My hope is that this will become a staple in all businesses — as it should be. Within the next five to 10 years (possibly less!), I imagine that this position and similar roles will become more commonplace and prioritized. I’d like to think we’re heading in the right direction for this to become a reality. Do we really have another choice?

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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.