I think the trends will be more jargon, failed initiatives, and well-meaning ideas that don’t get off the ground. Rebel Leaders will focus on the things I mentioned earlier. They’ll engage in the incredibly difficult work of building thriving, engaged, and aligned cultures that put people first. Many others won’t.
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 Michael Sonbert.
Michael Sonbert is a bestselling author, speaker, performance coach, educator, and the founder and CEO of Skyrocket Education and Rebel Culture. He’s turned his passion for educational reform into a global call to action for corporate leadership transformation.
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 started my career working in schools in urban areas in the US. These schools were often located in economically depressed areas where violence, trauma, and poverty are high. I became obsessed, very early on, with how two schools, just blocks from each other, could have wildly different adult cultures. Despite a narrative that the work was so hard that being happy and healthy and engaged was impossible, there were examples of places where this was happening. I observed those leaders. I studied them. I coached others to do what they were doing. I told myself, I need to show every employer on earth how to create cultures like that.
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?
I read that too. I’m skeptical though. Rather, I’m skeptical that it’ll happen without a major paradigm shift in the workplace. I read a study recently that revealed that 74% of leaders think they are inspiring their employees, but only 27% of employees agree. Why the disconnect, right? This disconnect comes from leadership not providing both formal and informal opportunities for employees to give feedback. Or, providing them and not acting on the feedback they’ve received. Maybe because they disagree or maybe because it can be really hard to take action. Either way, using wellness metrics sounds great. I don’t think most companies will do this, however. Those who do need to act on what the data is telling them.
On our teams, we don’t measure wellness. We do, however, take action daily to ensure our teams are taken care of, set up for success, and celebrated.
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?
The research is staggering. It’s estimated that disengaged employees cost U.S. companies up to $550 billion a year. Highly engaged teams show 21% greater profitability. Disengaged employees have 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity, and 15% lower profitability. But no one reading this needed me to share that data. It’s easy to see in the workplace. Happy, healthy employees accomplish more. They’re more excited when speaking to team members and clients. They’re more willing and able to problem-solve. Simply put, they get more work done and done well.
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?
This reminds me of one of my favorite expressions. These employers are “too busy driving to stop for gas.” A healthy and engaged workforce will lead to greater results long term. A word of advice for these companies, though. Programs meant to address organizational misses won’t solve much. Meaning, that if employees are overworked, spoken to unkindly, on the receiving end of late and unclear communication, and subjected to the whims of erratic and unpredictable leadership, all the programs in the world won’t help.
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?
We don’t have any wellness programs on our teams. Instead, we treat our people incredibly well. We invite feedback consistently. We have zero politics. Systems are clear and when they’re not, we fix them. We celebrate staff, but we also have incredibly high expectations. We support our teams in meeting them. They’re rarely left on their own to figure things out. We coach our partners to operate in this way as well.
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.
I actually disagree with the premise of the question. My research and coaching have shown that employees don’t really care all that much about the stuff you mentioned when other things aren’t in place. When their boss communicates late or not at all, when they’re unclear on all the details of their role, when gossip and in-fighting are tolerated, when accountability is low, when politics and bureaucracy rule, and when vision and values and the impact the organization is intending to have are missing, all the innovation in the world won’t lead to increased employees health or engagement.
I speak with employees all the time who want to be fully remote. When I ask why, it’s never about how productive they’ll be or how this is the best thing for the company. No, it’s what’s best for them personally. When I push harder, they reveal that their workplace is littered with all the things I just mentioned. So I get why they don’t want to be there. I wouldn’t want to either. I just haven’t seen an example of bad leadership being fixed through new programs, four-day work weeks, etc.
We have multiple people on our teams who came from companies that had unlimited PTO. We don’t offer that. They chose to join us because of the culture we’ve built. Not because of the perks.
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?
If employers want healthy, thriving cultures, they should remember that their team members spend 33% of their lives working for them. Employers have a sacred responsibility to the people on their teams. Ping pong tables won’t cut it. Summer Fridays won’t solve it.
Employers need to get clear on why the work they’re doing matters. Why it’s impactful. They then need to share that with everyone, constantly. Values should be lived daily and not just be some bullet points on a website that no one on the team can recite anyway.
How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
It’s embedded in our DNA. We’re lucky that we’ve always operated with people and their well-being at the top of our list. With our partners, it’s a different story. Many leaders are used to focusing on profits, which I get, but also on themselves. On their successes. On their wants and needs. We coach leaders to shift this. To focus on what’s best for the team. We coach them to put themselves last.
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?
Every leader reading this can do this tomorrow. Start by acknowledging your people. Genuinely acknowledge five people on your team tomorrow for something specific to the work they’re doing. Don’t tell them “Good job” as it’s not specific enough. Don’t tell them, “I like your shirt” as it’s unrelated to work. Tell them something that sounds like, “Your idea in our meeting was really strong. Thanks for modeling our value of being solutions-oriented.”
Do that five times tomorrow and then five times the day after. Get used to celebrating people. Get used to putting their needs first.
What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
Sadly, I think the trends will be more jargon, failed initiatives, and well-meaning ideas that don’t get off the ground. Rebel Leaders will focus on the things I mentioned earlier. They’ll engage in the incredibly difficult work of building thriving, engaged, and aligned cultures that put people first. Many others won’t.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
Employees are no longer willing to tolerate being overworked while being under-cared for. This will force employers, even those who are resistant, to pay attention.
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?
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.
Thanks for the opportunity. Same to you.