Engagement is widely recognized as a critical element of business success and employee wellness. While measuring it will continue to be important, I predict that belonging, which is one of the biggest drivers of engagement, will be used as a leading indicator of overall corporate and employee heath.

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 Marie Unger.

As Chief Executive Officer, Marie Unger leads Emergenetics® International, which partners with leaders and organizations around the world to apply Emergenetics theories and cognitive diversity to build positive, productive workplace cultures. An expert in the ways people prefer to think and behave, Marie empowers others to navigate the future of work through optimized communication, enhanced team dynamics, increased inclusion and improved employee retention. Marie is a classically trained pianist and avid sports fan who enjoys spending time with her family including her husband, daughters and grand dogs.

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.

My first job was as an elementary school teacher. I was very ambitious, working around the clock to prepare for classes and accepting every opportunity to participate in the committees at my school. In the summer, I decided to work for the Colorado Department of Education rather than take time off.

I think a lot of people start their careers with the aim to advance quickly, and some never get out of that mindset of being completely devoted to the job. I am grateful that I had a mentor early on who witnessed my actions, stepped in to guide me and helped instill a powerful mantra to find balance: You can only be as good at your job as you are at your life.

What those words celebrate is the fact that congruence is vital. To find success at work, it’s important to look after your mental and physical health as well as your social and emotional wellness through your hobbies, personal interests and relationships.

My mentor also reinforced the idea that there will be times when certain aspects of your life must take precedence. For example, when there are important transactions or impending deadlines, work may take a lot of time and focus. That is not inherently a problem as long as you intentionally plan breaks to restore balance.

These two lessons have been so important to me as I’ve advanced in my career. I am very mindful of striking harmony between work and life and regularly encourage my team to take time off. I have learned through my own experiences that when you feel happy and healthy in your personal life, your work output and productivity will naturally improve.

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 Emergenetics International, we define wellness as feeling a strong sense of belonging. There is a fascinating longitude study also from Harvard that underscores the role of belonging in wellbeing. Specifically, it revealed when individuals have strong relationships with others, it leads to greater happiness and even longevity.

Applying the concept of belonging to work, we focus on creating opportunities for our staff to be their authentic selves and build community with their colleagues. It starts with using our very own product suite. Our company’s services are designed to help people recognize their strengths, value the inherent assets of others and learn to work positively and productively with people who approach things differently. When employees have the tools and insights to understand themselves and others, it creates healthy workplaces where people are engaged because they are welcomed, appreciated and respected by their colleagues.

In terms of measurements, we assess belonging through internal surveys that ask employees to rate how connected they feel with their colleagues. We also look at external survey data with third parties to understand wellness. I’m particularly proud that in the past two years our employees say the word that best describes our work environment is supportive.

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 Google search can uncover so many statistics about the impact of workplace wellness on employees’ physical health, productivity, absenteeism and retention, among many other metrics. When I think of my own organization, our work from the past two years speaks volumes about the impact of taking care of staff.

As we all navigated the pandemic, a lot of people were obviously very unwell from a physical standpoint and from a mental, emotional and social perspective as well. At Emergenetics International, we were intentional about our practices to reduce potentially harmful impacts. Like many businesses who had the choice, we started working remotely. Unlike many businesses, we also immediately put a significant focus into wellbeing.

We introduced a weekly centering activity and offered time off every other Friday in the summer to support staff’s mental health. We created optional opportunities for remote team building and connection on at least a monthly basis, usually more frequently, to support social wellness. We also emphasized the importance of giving employees the latitude and support they needed to take care of themselves and their loved ones first.

Through all of that, we saw more than 90% of our employees report that their connections with their colleagues remained strong, despite physical distance. We managed to innovate and remain extremely productive, introducing a new workshop, an eLearning course and reformatting our offerings to support virtual delivery. We are also on the verge of offering four new digital courses to support teams operating in the post-pandemic world. Our ability to innovate and develop products at a pace that far exceeded prior years is a direct result of taking a holistic approach to caring for our people.

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?

Employers need to think about the commitment they can make to staff to create symbiotic relationships. From my view, the Great Resignation is making it very clear that individuals want to work at a place that values and supports them, so it’s not enough to simply pay a living wage. To be competitive, businesses must invest in holistic benefits.

To start, companies need to be honest about how employee-centric their culture is. Evaluating the employee experience is a good first step to understand what discrepancies there are between your employee value proposition and staff’s experiences in the workplace.

To inspire leaders to act, I recommend looking at metrics that have a high dollar value associated with them such as employee retention, engagement and productivity. If these measures are sinking, that could be a sign that some aspect of employee wellness — whether it’s social, emotional, mental or physical health — is out of balance. When leaders realize the impact to the bottom line, it’s easier to make a case for wellness initiatives using a projected return on investment.

While I recognize many leaders innately want to support wellbeing, I do not think there is harm in approaching these investments like a business case. In that sense:

  1. Identify the pain points in your company and your big picture goals.
  2. Determine wellness initiatives that can influence these opportunities.
  3. Get feedback from employees to take their perspectives into account.
  4. Prioritize your investments.
  5. Map out a plan, including your timeline and evaluation metrics.
  6. Review outcomes and determine what needs to change to meet your targets.

When you connect wellness to an organization’s objectives, provide opportunities to gather input and build consensus as well as a thoughtful plan of action, you can advance employee wellbeing — just like any other important initiative.

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 is baked into the DNA of our culture. As an organization, we help businesses learn to recognize individuals’ strengths and appreciate others for their different perspectives and gifts. Through our tools and programs, we empower people to interact with greater empathy, communicate positively and collaborate productively by honoring each person’s needs, which creates a more psychologically safe workplace where people are supported and cared for.

Internally, we do our very best to use these same strategies and tactics with our staff. When we hire, we can showcase the application of our own programs and how they’ve helped to build and sustain our positive, productive workplace. We also highlight our benefits and culture initiatives that give employees opportunities to grow, learn and connect with their colleagues. People are drawn to our environment because we do appreciate every individual, honor their needs and interests as well as give them an opportunity to apply their strengths.

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: One initiative we’re piloting is called Mindful May. Throughout the month, our culture committee will provide daily tips through a chat channel to help staff integrate simple mindfulness practices into their routine. At the end of the month, we’ll ask for their learnings and impacts. Mindful May is a great example of wellness programs that are not costly. By providing consistent, tangible practices and encouraging application, you can support your staff’s health.
  • Emotional Wellness: From an emotional wellness perspective, we utilize what we call the Language of Grace, which is the employment of positive, affirming language in everything we do. Studies have shown that words grounded in positivity lead to improved rapport, trust and a sense of psychological safety. Through our training programs as well as daily exposure and feedback, staff apply the Language of Grace when they interact and communicate with one another. By using strengths-based language and focusing on how our assets can help us overcome challenges, it supports positivity and emotional wellbeing.
  • Social Wellness: Promoting strong relationships between team members is fundamental to social health. We certainly support these connections through events and team building, and we also invite our leaders to think small to make larger impacts. We recommend having a check-in question to encourage people to learn about each other at meetings. We’ve created chat channels to support team celebrations and shoutouts. Finally, we have our staff participate in our workshops and host learning sessions to help employees better understand the Emergenetics Profiles of their colleagues, explore biases through the tool and learn to communicate and collaborate with empathy to inspire greater social wellbeing.
  • Physical Wellness: We recently introduced Health Advocates into our benefit offerings. These individuals can help our team members work through “doctor speak,” serve as a translator to support staff as they navigate medical billing challenges and support employees in finding resources for their care. These Advocates are available to all staff, even those who are not currently using employer-sponsored insurance.
  • Financial Wellness: Investing in growth and development is a great way to support financial wellbeing. From the World Economic Forum, we know that the skills people will need by 2025 are vastly differently from the skills most people are bringing to the workplace today, which will impact team members’ ability to earn a livable wage in the long-term. We provide internal learning opportunities as well as make investments so employees can attend outside trainings and conferences to support their growth. Providing pathways to gain new skills is extremely important to improving the financial futures of individuals.

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’m happy to be a broken record when it comes to investing in employee development! LinkedIn’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report noted that the top driver of a great culture was having opportunities to learn and grow.

When you consider your learning and development programs, you can create win-win scenarios for your business and your employees. Companies have significant skills gaps that they need to fill, and the pace of change is only going to accelerate those discrepancies. By investing in development, you can fill these holes and create a talent pipeline.

From the employee perspective, you can support wellbeing by baking it into your learning and development initiatives. As I mentioned, upskilling and reskilling programs support long-term financial wellness. You can also invest in programming that enhances emotional, mental, physical or social wellbeing.

For example, our Emergenetics programs empower employees to learn about how they innately prefer to communicate, collaborate and lead. They also offer strategies to help individuals work productively with people who think and behave differently from them.

With these insights, organizations can create workplaces where their staff feel valued and connected to their colleagues, contributing to their workplace happiness. The companies benefit because their team members build stronger communication and collaboration skills, which contributes to productivity.

By focusing on how your business can use learning and development effectively, your investment will pay off in terms of employee wellness and company success.

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

As a small business, we tend to offer learning sessions that everyone can benefit from. In addition to Mindful May, which will support skill building in mindfulness, we are hosting learning sessions every other month designed to strengthen belonging and inclusion in our organization.

The sessions ask team members to explore the ways they innately prefer to think and behave and reflect on biases that may exist. Through activities and discussion, we empower teams to rethink their assumptions and build greater trust with colleagues. In doing so, we look forward to enhancing social and emotional wellness by being even more effective at embracing differences.

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?

Get to know yourself. Through self-awareness, individuals can better understand when they are experiencing stress as well as identify motivating approaches to supporting their welfare.

While it takes time to be self-aware, you can take small steps each day. To start, you can use assessments like the Emergenetics Profile to learn more about your innate preferences, needs and tendencies.

You can also practice a simple daily reflection, asking yourself:

  • What gave me energy today?
  • What was deenergizing for me today?

Your responses can help you uncover how you can lean into your strengths to feel more fulfilled at work and provide insights into when you may need to take a break and recharge.

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

  1. Learning and Development Is a Driver of Wellness.

Learning and Development (L&D) is essential in a healthy workplace because it can impact so many aspects of wellbeing. When L&D is funded and supported, it can provide upskilling and reskilling to help individuals feel confident in their long-term futures. Companies like Pixar do a brilliant job of that with required trainings and optional classes to encourage staff to explore different disciplines.

L&D teams can offer trainings and experiences designed to improve mental and physical wellness through mindfulness, stress management and resiliency initiatives. They are also able to impact social and emotional health. By investing in programs like Emergenetics that encourage individuals to uncover their strengths, interact authentically, communicate positively and extend empathy to their colleagues, L&D can foster a more positive, productive work environment.

I predict that L&D will also provide targeted support to company leaders, so they are equipped with more tools to help themselves and their people thrive. Individuals in a supervisor role are in a unique position to identify when staff are struggling, offer help, provide one-to-one coaching or even suggest they take some time off. Delivering targeted development to empower managers to work with empathy and understanding will support the welfare of the employee base and business.

2. Empathetic Leadership Takes Center Stage.

Command-and-control leadership is so 2019 (probably even earlier!). Employees are increasingly unwilling to sacrifice their own wellbeing for their job, so executives and managers will need to adopt a more empathetic approach. Compassionate leaders are open to hearing differing opinions and have a genuine interest in understanding their team members’ perspectives. They suspend judgment when they are listening, embrace curiosity and care about the wellbeing of every individual.

We practice empathetic leadership at Emergenetics International by embracing perspective-taking. We encourage idea sharing and create cognitively diverse teams to lead change, which promotes an environment where people know they will be heard and appreciated for their differing insights.

Neil Blumenthal, CEO of Warby Parker, is another great example of an empathetic leader. He and his co-CEO have designed a culture of open, honest communication that limits top-down orders. Instead, they prioritize bringing multiple perspectives to the table to improve decision-making, create greater engagement and generate buy-in.

When leaders embrace empathy, their companies and people will benefit from greater innovation, higher engagement, decreased burnout and better work-life integration.

3. Belonging Becomes an Essential Employee Success Metric.

Engagement is widely recognized as a critical element of business success and employee wellness. While measuring it will continue to be important, I predict that belonging, which is one of the biggest drivers of engagement, will be used as a leading indicator of overall corporate and employee heath.

When team members know they can be their authentic selves and feel connected to the people around them, they are more willing to express different ideas, admit to mistakes and have freedom to grow and learn. This environment contributes to emotional, social and mental wellness while also helping companies be successful by generating new, innovative ideas and building collaborative workplaces.

To assess belonging, start by surveying employees to understand how they would respond to the following questions:

  • Do you feel connected to your colleagues?
  • Do you feel like you belong at the company?
  • Do you feel your perspectives are valued in decision-making?

4. Employees Are Appreciated and Compensated as Whole People.

With the Great Resignation and the increase in Gen Z staff members, employers are rethinking their relationships with employees. Businesses are realizing that a growing number of individuals do not have an interest in neatly compartmentalizing work and home-life. Increasingly, staff members want to be part of an organization that honors them wholly. These shifts are causing businesses to reassess how they compensate staff.

In the past, corporations often focused on perks like ping pong tables and free on-site cafeterias. While these elements are often appreciated, employees are interested in compensation packages that care for their wellbeing as well as their families, pets and communities. Just think about companies like Boxed that pay for the college tuition of their employees’ children. In addition to supporting employees today, benefit packages will also need to position staff for future success through robust training, development and education.

While these offerings are more generous than some organizations may be able to provide, the important thing for leaders to remember is that you do not have to offer every conceivable perk. That is the trap companies fell into when millennials entered the workforce. To support employees as whole people, executives need to listen to their staff, get feedback on what sorts of compensation and benefits would best support them as professionals and people, and then build flexible offerings to honor those differing needs.

5. Creating Fulfillment Through Shared Values and Purpose.

When employees work at an organization where their personal values have alignment with the norms and principles of the organization, it can significantly boost their energy, motivation, engagement and overall happiness. As we look to the future, successful businesses will be the ones that authentically live their employee value propositions and provide a compelling purpose statement.

To be clear, not every company has to save the world to attract employees. Organizations will need to be open about the values that guide their decisions, and they need to walk their talk. One company that comes to mind for their values-driven culture is American Express. That business takes customer centricity and personal accountability to the next level as employees are given a green light to go above-and-beyond to solve problems for their customers. That’s motivating for many service-minded individuals.

By sharing your values and committing to them, you can create a community of employees who are deeply motivated and connected to your work. Through that dedication, staff members find a fulfilling, meaningful job, which supports their wellbeing, and businesses gain amazing employees.

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

Ironically, my greatest source of optimism is the Great Resignation. Leaders and organizations around the globe are witnessing that employees are no longer willing to accept an unhealthy company culture. They want to be part of a workplace where they can be themselves, feel valued for their perspectives as well as have an opportunity to contribute. Because of this shift, companies will have to make changes that support holistic employee wellbeing, which starts with a positive, healthy culture. Otherwise, they will not be able to hire great talent.

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?

If you’d like to follow me personally, I invite you to find me on LinkedIn!

Emergenetics International’s social media accounts and blog are the best way to keep up with our company. We post many resources describing how businesses can create positive, productive, engaging workplaces that take care of the whole person. You can follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram, or check out our website.

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