Sleep. Not getting enough sleep can make it hard to focus, increase fatigue and the likelihood of making errors, and make people more irritable and prone to stress. Poor sleep can also increase the risk of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. I think with advancements in apps and trackers for sleep, employers will be able to pair these tools with education about good sleep hygiene, tips on how to adjust one’s environment to increase alertness, and tailored recommendations based on employees’ sleep habits.

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 Marissa Alert, Ph.D.

As a licensed clinical psychologist, consultant, and highly sought-after speaker, Dr. Marissa Alert has spent over 10 years providing research-based mental health and wellbeing care and solutions to individuals and organizations. She is the Director of Clinical Innovation at TadHealth and the founder of MDA Wellness, a company dedicated to helping employers prioritize mental health, and address stress and burnout. Her experiences have uniquely positioned her to serve in advisory and consulting roles in the development of digital health products to improve healthy habits and mental health services. A unifying theme in her work is her commitment to helping people live a life in line with their values in a way that’s authentic and meaningful to them.

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.

One of the best jobs I’ve had was at the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. My time at BHI taught me that work didn’t have to be a place I dreaded or a place that drained me. It could be a place where I can learn, grow, excel, and feel happy and fulfilled. When I reflect on why I enjoyed it so much, I realize it had everything to do with the people and the culture.

There was a sense of camaraderie and each person looked out for the other’s best interest. I had the support of my boss and the institute’s leaders to take the time to acquire the skills I needed to excel in the next stage of my career. Employees’ accomplishments, birthdays, and work anniversaries were recognized and celebrated. We also had team lunches outside of the office every week and were encouraged to take time off for vacations, professional development, and volunteering. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t perfect in every way, but as my first job right out of college, it set a precedent for what work could look like and clarified for me the environment in which I could thrive.

Overall, this experience shaped my job-hunting approach and influenced the positions I accepted.

While work is important, I strive to not let it impede my ability to focus on my relationships, hobbies, and health.

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 TadHealth, we’ve adopted the Global Wellness Institute’s definition of wellness, which is the “active pursuit of activities, choices, and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.” What I love about this definition is the inclusion of the word “active” since it suggests that there are steps we can take on a consistent basis to care for our overall health. This is empowering because despite the many aspects of our environment we can’t control, we can make healthy choices about our nutrition, what we do to stay active, and how we cope with life’s challenges.

For our wellness assessment, we hone in on the health choices employees are making, their mental health, the company benefits they were using, and their perceived barriers to engaging in healthy behaviors and using available resources. Specifically, our assessment focuses on:

  • Physical health (e.g., presence of chronic conditions).
  • Emotional and mental health (e.g., symptoms of stress, burnout, anxiety, depression).
  • Health behaviors (e.g., physical activity, sleep, eating, substance use).
  • Perceived barriers to engaging in healthy behaviors and using available benefits.
  • Social support.
  • Resources employees need.

We try to use reliable and valid instruments in our surveys as much as possible and conduct our wellness assessments bimonthly. These surveys are relatively short and employees have shared that the brief check-ins at a higher frequency keep their health top of mind. We’re also intent on making sure employees feel like they’re getting something out of these assessments. At the end of each survey, employees are reminded of available resources, how they can access them, steps to take if they want further assistance, and that we want them to do what’s necessary to take care of their health.

Our small company size, the strong sense of cohesion among our teams, and employees’ buy-in to our survey and how we intend to use it have contributed to its success.

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?

Some of the metrics we focus on are our wellness measures, employee and job satisfaction, weekly hours worked, the number of sick days and mental health days taken, deadlines met, and milestones reached. As our company continues to grow, we plan to evaluate and modify these metrics to ensure they are relevant and allow us to quantify the impact of our wellbeing initiatives.

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?

I’d encourage organizations and leaders to take the leap and invest in their employees’ wellbeing. People are the most valuable part of the organization. If they don’t feel cared about, especially during these challenging times, many may leave. The ones who do stay and continue to struggle mentally, physically, financially, and socially will be less engaged and productive and more likely to burn out, according to a recent Gallup report. With the stress employees have faced over the past few years, many of them want to prioritize their wellbeing. At this stage, leaders have an incredible opportunity to create an environment and systems to enable employees to do just that.

Organizations can also gather data to determine how to invest in their employees. For instance, they can:

  • Survey employees to find out how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, and what they can benefit from to avoid misunderstanding and underestimating their needs.
  • Take a look at the numbers that matter to you. This could be how many employees have left the company, how much it is costing to hire and train new employees, how much is spent on health care, and trends in these data.

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?

As a mental health company focused on increasing access to care and resources, we are committed to ensuring that mental health and wellbeing are highlighted during our recruitment and hiring processes. Additionally, we share the boundaries we have in place for maintaining work-life balance and the strategies we use to encourage breaks during the workday. For example, we remind employees to leave at least 10 minutes between meetings since doing so could keep them more energized. Candidates also learn about our mission, how the work we do connects to that mission, and the initiatives we have in place to help employees take care of their health and wellbeing.

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: To support employees in this area, we have quarterly seminars on mental illness, stress management, and burnout to equip them with the knowledge and skills to better care for their mental health. We’ve learned about the misperceptions employees have around these topics so we’re hoping the seminars will address some of these beliefs and create a space for them to get their questions answered.
  • Emotional Wellness: We’ve made plans to do virtual check-ins twice a month to understand how employees feel about their work and life since our team is 100% remote. We made sure to get employees’ buy-in and scheduled check-ins on a day of the week that worked well for everyone. The virtual check-ins will have three objectives.
  • They will be a space for employees and our founder and CEO, Ben Greiner, to share how they’re doing and what challenges they’re facing.
  • We hope the check-ins will create a safe space for talking about mental health and reduce stigma around this topic.
  • The check-ins will also give our CEO a chance to model being transparent and reinforce the importance of prioritizing wellness regardless of the intensity of our corporate goals.

We plan on anonymously asking employees how helpful these sessions are to see if they find them useful.

  • Social Wellness: At TadHealth, we recognize how vital meaningful friendships and relationships are both in and outside of the workplace. We have virtual hangouts where we don’t talk about work and chat instead about our hobbies, family, and funny videos or memes. We also offer perks for community events and have resources (websites, videos, podcasts) we recommend for those having a tough time in their relationships.
  • Physical Wellness: Physical wellness is very important to us given its impact on wellbeing. To tap into our employees’ competitive nature, we have a step-count leaderboard. Participation is optional and winners are announced each week.
  • Financial Wellness: This is one area we’re paying more attention to given the financial disruptions created for many families during the pandemic. We’ve started offering financial tools for budgeting, planning, and retirement to help employees manage their money. As we learn more about their financial needs, we’ll expand our offerings.

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?

There are so many great ideas surfacing on how to improve employee wellness. The thing to keep in mind is for any wellbeing initiative to work, it has to make sense for the organization and address employees’ needs. Ideas that are great for one company may be impractical for others. I’m a huge fan of evaluating whether initiatives are working as intended so I’m not relying on assumptions.

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

We’re focusing on improving our skills in several areas including emotional intelligence, leadership ability, effective communication, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. We believe training on these topics will be foundational to supporting our diverse workforce and sustaining an environment for employees to thrive.

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 simple step is to get clear on what needs to be changed and come up with a plan for how to take action. Without having a plan, people may find it difficult to implement the ideas in their heads or ones that arise during discussions about wellness and wellbeing.

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

  1. Mental health care. I think we’ll see a shift towards preventing mental health conditions and crises by equipping employees with the knowledge and tools to seek help sooner. A few of the reasons people wait too long to get help is they often don’t recognize the early signs of a mental illness or they don’t know what actions to take if they notice their mental health is worsening. Since a lot of companies are strengthening their mental health offerings, I think there’s a huge opportunity to increase awareness of mental health conditions and educate employees on when to reach out for help.
  2. Coping skills training for stress management, burnout, and emotion regulation. Employees could access the training via apps, in-person or virtual workshops, or on-demand courses. Knowing how to use healthy coping strategies is linked to increased resilience, improved wellbeing, and better quality of life. Companies that provide such training could benefit from a workforce that knows how to effectively deal with work and life’s challenges.
  3. Sleep. Not getting enough sleep can make it hard to focus, increase fatigue and the likelihood of making errors, and make people more irritable and prone to stress. Poor sleep can also increase the risk of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. I think with advancements in apps and trackers for sleep, employers will be able to pair these tools with education about good sleep hygiene, tips on how to adjust one’s environment to increase alertness, and tailored recommendations based on employees’ sleep habits.
  4. Data-driven wellness programs. As companies continue to expand their wellness programs, it will be necessary for them to track how valuable, sustainable, and helpful they are. This will prevent them from launching and maintaining programs that seem like a great idea but don’t actually move the needle on key workplace wellness metrics.
  5. Caregiver support. About 20% of employees take care of a loved one who is an elder, has a chronic condition, or has a disability. Many of these workers’ caregiving roles were negatively impacted by the pandemic, making it difficult for them to be as productive as other employees. Research has also shown that caregivers tend to experience higher levels of stress and health issues. With increasing awareness of these challenges, I believe that employers could expand their resources to better support employees in their caregiving roles.

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

Change can bring about a lot of fear and uncertainty, especially when it comes to transforming the workplace. What gives me hope is that leaders and employees want a work environment that’s conducive to living a healthy lifestyle. I believe their desire is strong enough to lead to meaningful change. In fact, we’re already seeing these changes and people are having more conversations at work about their wellbeing. This is pretty encouraging!

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’d love to connect with readers who can reach me via email at [email protected] or on LinkedIn

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