… In managing over 40,000 Cast Members at Walt Disney World, my number one goal was to make sure that everyone mattered and they knew they mattered. I put a focus on individuals, their aspirations and what they wanted out of their time at Disney. I wanted them to wake up in the morning and actually want to come to work. I never wanted my team to go home at the end of the day and feel like they hated their jobs. That feeling causes stress and raises your anxiety levels.

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 Lee Cockerell.

Lee Cockerell is the former Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World® Resort. “As the Senior Operating Executive for ten years Lee led a team of 40,000 Cast Members and was responsible for the operations of 20 resort hotels, 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, a shopping & entertainment village and the ESPN sports and recreation complex in addition to the ancillary operations which supported the number one vacation destination in the world.” Post-retirement from Disney, he dedicates his time to public speaking; authoring books on management and service excellence; and creating online courses for people looking to improve their time management skills, culture and leadership effectiveness.

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 worked all the time when I first started my career at Hilton and Marriott. I worked day and night, and even on the weekends. My constant stress from work led my team to believe that I was aggressive and lacked trust in them. I tried to do it all and control everything in the workplace. After being approached about this several times, I started to attend leadership seminars to understand how to improve my relationship with work.

Through my learning, my situation improved. I started to create balance with work and I learned how to trust my team and delegate. Through this, I learned the importance of hiring well and creating clear expectations for employees. Overall, the culture I created improved drastically which made my team excited to work and assist me with projects. I no longer felt I had to do it all.

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 Walt Disney World, we defined wellness as an all-encompassing aspect that effects your internal system, your external appearance and how your treat your peers and customers. If wellness is not prioritized, it greatly effects ones self in many ways and the quality of work that’s provided.

An easy way to measure a Cast Member’s wellness state was in monitoring their productivity and energy levels. I could tell a lot about someone’s health by their attitude and eagerness to work hard. I made it a priority to get to know my team so I could address if there was a change in their attitude and overall wellness.

If I noticed a Cast Member was down or not very productive, I would check in on them and encourage them to check in on their health. I’d ask, “how are you sleeping?” “Are you exercising?” “Are you eating well?” I strongly believe that sleep, diet and exercise will control your overall wellness which will impact your work ethic and how you treat customers.

During my time at Walt Disney World, we offered incentives and benefits to Cast Members that would put a focus on their health and wellness. We offered company-wide wellness events, discounts on gym memberships, medical benefits and more.

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?

A well workplace means less sick days taken, lowered turnover rates, minimal distractions from work and more productivity. If people are happy, healthy and emotionally stable, they have more brain space to complete tasks and stay productive, which in-hand increases profitability.

You can create a “well workplace” by committing yourself to caring for your team. And caring for your team means getting to know each individual so you can identify when they’re dealing with an issue and encourage them to handle it before it impacts their mental, emotional and physical health. All things that will negatively impact productivity.

When your team is happy and healthy, they’re more positive, more helpful and more productive. These are all things that help your customers have an excellent experience with your business.

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?

For businesses that are struggling with the cost of these wellness incentives, I just say to try it. Offer incentives for six months to a year and see what kind of impact they have on your organization. Leaders can also set a good example by talking about wellness with their team and showing them that they prioritize it in their own lives.

The main recommendation I have is to reach people through relationships. Show your team that you care for them. Get to know them on a personal level. When employees see that they’re cared for and that their role matters, your team’s mental well-being and confidence will improve at no cost to you.

Leaders who feel stuck need to understand, bottom line, the negative impact that the lack of health and wellness has on their team, their organization and their profit. It’s a matter of life, relationships, energy and job performance. Wellness effects all of that. I guarantee organizations will off set the cost of wellness programs due to the productivity and customer service improvements that will occur in prioritizing these programs.

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 wellness offerings at Walt Disney World are improving day-by-day. More and more is being added to increase the focus of health among Cast Members. This includes a free workout and mindfulness app, health benefits, incentives for Cast Members who visit the doctor on a regular basis for check-ups and more.

Walt Disney World is seeing the positive impact that these programs are having on the team and so I encourage all organizations to offer similar programs.

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.

Speaking to mental, emotional and social wellness, in managing over 40,000 Cast Members at Walt Disney World, my number one goal was to make sure that everyone mattered and they knew they mattered. I put a focus on individuals, their aspirations and what they wanted out of their time at Disney. I wanted them to wake up in the morning and actually want to come to work. I never wanted my team to go home at the end of the day and feel like they hated their jobs. That feeling causes stress and raises your anxiety levels.

Now, for mental wellness specifically, online counseling services are offered to Cast Members. This is an industry that will continue to evolve and benefits all organizations and their team members.

I encourage leaders to tap into technological opportunities available now to positively impact employee wellness in all areas. There are many apps and online programs that offer corporate discounts for financial, mental and physical programs. Start researching and choosing what you can provide to your team.

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?

In investing in overall wellness programs, organizations will attract more young talent. Young talent is conscious of wellness and its benefits. We need to provide more benefits to our talent.

In prioritizing your team’s wellness, you’ll help them to improve their attitudes they have with their co-workers and customers. You’ll help them to be more productive and they’ll actually enjoy coming to work. If your team is happy, your customers are happy. And that happiness leads your customers to spending more money.

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

At Disney, I knew setting an example in this area would be effective. I shared my health and wellness accomplishments with my team. I encouraged them to do the same. We learned to enjoy sharing our accomplishments and we all started to see the impact that the focus of wellness had on us and everyone around us.

We offered health club and gym access to the leaders at Disney and I encouraged them to leave on time at 5 o’ clock everyday to use those facilities.

Keep encouraging your leaders who will encourage your team to work and live well.

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?

My number one piece of advice is not to worry about what your company as a whole is doing. You can start on these initiatives with your department team today. Just start.

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

  1. Paying attention to it in the first place — Addressing that wellness among your team is important.
  2. Diverse Options for Exercise — You can do it anywhere, at anytime. Utilize technology.
  3. Group exercise days — Schedule a year’s worth of wellness activities to improve wellness and relationships among your team.
  4. The integration of mental, emotional and physical wellness benefits in the workplace — We’re starting to focus more on not just exercise incentives but psychological as well.
  5. Larger variety of healthcare benefits — There are more companies creating programs specific to business size and industry.

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

Younger demographics are now starting to prioritize wellness earlier and earlier in life which is great news for the future of employment. I’m hopeful that upcoming generations will be healthier, happier and more excited to grow and learn in the workplace.

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 touch on these topics in my courses within the Cockerell Academy. You can find these courses at CockerellAcademy.com. I also welcome you to join me on Instagram at @leecockerellmagic and on LinkedIn under “Lee Cockerell.”

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