Employers will want to provide education and structure expectations so that early morning or late-night expectations are not a regular part of people’s days. It goes back to discouraging behaviors that reduce wellness, like having 15 weeks of PTO or only getting four hours of sleep, and treating them as unhealthy choices rather than promoting people who make them.

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 Peter K. Stewart, Ph.D., a sought-after wellness expert stemming from his formal training as a clinical psychologist and years of consulting and coaching executives and organizations in achieving both people and business results. As Managing Partner of Stewart Leadership, Peter leads firm activities to provide and develop solutions to help organizations recognize, develop, and align their most critical asset — their people!

Peter K. Stewart, PhD, is Managing Partner at Stewart Leadership. An experienced business psychologist specializing in leadership consulting, coaching, and training, Peter oversees Stewart Leadership’s family of assessments, including the LEAD NOW! Self-Assessment and LEAD NOW! 360° Assessment. In addition to individual leadership coaching, consulting, and delivery of training for clients, Peter also supervises assessment integration and certification for coaches within coaching services for Stewart Leadership. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and business at Brigham Young University and completed his graduate studies at the University of Kansas and The Ohio State University by earning both a master’s and doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis on organizational systems, change, and human behavior. See more about Peter on LinkedIn.

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.

For well over a decade, before I joined Stewart Leadership, I was a practicing child psychologist and ran a group practice working with kids and adolescents. It’s tough work helping kids through anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, autism, significant traumas, life stressors, challenging family dynamics, etc. That’s what my whole day was. As I came home to my children, I found that they were getting the worst of me. Other people’s kids were experiencing my patient, understanding side, and my kids were getting irritated and frustrated Dad. Literally, all of my patience was being given to my patients!

I knew I needed to figure something out. I love all kids, that’s why I went into psychology, but I’m biased and love my kids the most. I needed to make sure I put myself in a position where I could make sure my kids could feel that and see that.

I wanted them to get more than the leftovers. So, that was a primary catalyst for a shift when I sold off my practice and transitioned more to the corporate-coaching and consulting side of the house. I find that it pulls from a different side of me, and my empathy for other adults is different than my empathy for kids. Doing this restored my font of empathy for my children, and it’s a change I am glad I made.

I had to recognize what I prioritize and value most — and then take action to ensure that I enabled myself to show up as best as I could, never intending to be perfect; we’re all human and we all have emotions. I dramatically increased the likelihood that my kids get a better side of me.

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?

One of the strongest definitions for wellness is “quality of life.” Back in graduate school, when we were studying, we did a lot of research on pediatric hospitals and the populations there, especially pediatric chronic illnesses. One of my fellow grad students was doing a lot of work on the idea of “quality of life.” Back in the early 2000s, this was a hot topic in medicine because it broadened the focus beyond whether or not a patient was getting better or whether treatment was effective by also asking about the impact on the overall quality of someone’s life. That element of looking at the sum total of everything somebody is experiencing really contributes to their quality of life.

Translating that idea into the workplace means taking a holistic look at the employee and the overall employee experience and tuning into that to understand the quality of life your employees’ lives beyond just what they need to survive. It encompasses more of the mind, body, and soul, elements such as: What is your relationship with your body? How are you taking care of your mind and strengthening it? And on the more intangible soul side of things, how are you expressing your creativity or connection with something greater than just yourself?

Measuring wellness in your culture and your employees gets a lot more challenging, and part of what makes it difficult is that it is a broad construct. So, defining that as an organization, we care about all aspects of wellness as a necessary starting point. Organizations should use it as a lens to examine different interactions that employees have. How does a focus on wellness guide conversations at work, such as those between an employee and a manager, in which they are talking about wellness goals they are setting? When you set up that structure, you can measure how often those conversations are happening. If the conversations are frequent, and if the organization is prioritizing wellness.

Then there are other indicators like paid time off (PTO). In some organizations, having all this banked PTO is a badge of honor, like “I haven’t taken PTO” or “I have 27 weeks banked!” In organizations that prioritize wellness, that’s not a badge of honor. It’s a badge of stupidity. Managers would have conversations with their staff, saying, “look, you need to take this because we care more about your long-term health and viability than your immediate productivity.” So, what is the water cooler conversation like? What do you hear around the organization? Are people talking about their vacations, or are they talking about not using any of their PTO?

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?

I haven’t looked specifically at the research on wellness but looking at the research on empathetic leaders can tell us a lot. A recent Catalyst survey looked at the benefits of empathetic leadership, and 61% of respondents reported higher innovation when working for an empathetic leader and 76% reported higher levels of engagement.

You can even look at this from a neurological level. Empathy, when we feel like our voice is heard and our status is validated, produces the same neurological response as a monetary reward. Conversely, when we feel the opposite, our brain responds the same way it would if we were experiencing physical pain. Organizations will be more profitable and productive if they are filled with empathy.

As we seek to quantify the impact of a well workforce, we know that happy people work better, and healthy people work better. They can get their entire head and heart involved in what they are doing. We know that engaged employees produce better work, so we can look at measures we already have in place like engagement scores and measures of psychological safety. When we look at those two, in particular, they provide a clear picture of what is happening on an individual team.

Another thing to look at is the number of employee referrals. How many of your current employees were referred by someone within your organization? If you are genuinely promoting wellness, that is not an attribute that likes to live in isolation. It welcomes others like, “Hey, I found something special here, and other people should come to experience it!”

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 that old story of the CEO arguing with other senior leaders, saying, “Why should we invest all of this money in developing our people — what if we invest in them and then they just leave?” And the other leaders respond, “What if we don’t invest in them and they stay?” A healthy workforce is an engaged workforce, and there are plenty of available metrics for that.

Another way to look at it is that we are now entering territory where wellness programs and initiatives are standard enough that people expect them. If you don’t have them available, then the cost of not doing them becomes more apparent. People will leave for places that offer those incentives, so you have turnover and positions that need to be filled. If you are not filling the position or not keeping people long enough, you constantly have to onboard and retrain. It gets expensive. It’s estimated that at the lowest level positions, it costs $100 a day for every vacant position, so $3,000 or so each month — and that’s just at the lowest levels; it extrapolates exponentially with the more senior an individual is in their salary level.

Employees will vote with their feet, and they will let you know where they feel valued. This is the Decade of the Employee, and if organizations are not paying attention to those needs, they’re not going to be relevant or even exist over the next ten years. When it’s truly an employee’s market, there won’t be any golden handcuffs keeping people at jobs they hate. Instead, people will look at all of the potential opportunities and decide to go somewhere where they feel valued, feel like they are contributing, and feel that there is a future and purpose for them.

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?

One of the things we highlight is the autonomy we provide our team members. With our affiliate consultants, we operate very much on a gig economy. We ask them to tell us about their availability and capacity. It’s a partnership, so it’s not us telling them, “You must go and do this.” Then, as opportunities arise, we reach out to them and say, “Hey, this seems like something you would be great for. Do you have capacity? Are you interested?” We talk through all of the details of the opportunity so they know the demands that will be placed on them, what level of expertise will be required, who are the people they will be partnering with, what support will they have from Stewart Leadership, who the client is, and what the work environment is like. We give them as much information as possible, and there is absolutely no penalty if they say no for any reason. Then we have that conversation repeatedly throughout the contract. If it isn’t exactly what they were expecting, or if they need additional support, we want to know to provide that.

Our business takes us into organizations of all sizes, and what we see that works well for many is taking a similar approach by highlighting what it means to work for them. What is a day in the life? Communicate the details people want to know and the details you want people to know. What is the leadership philosophy that team leaders are supposed to espouse? What kind of atmosphere will you provide? If you have particular wellness-based programs like onsite yoga classes, support groups, interest groups, and so on, make sure candidates know about them. What you want to communicate is that you are not just an organization concerned about your financials; you’re an organization concerned about the people who work there.

There are still many companies out there that are not offering much in the way of wellness, so if you are not actively promoting what you are doing, candidates are likely to assume that you don’t have it. Tell people (including those who already work for you) about the great investments you are making for them.

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:
  • Emotional Wellness:
  • Social Wellness:
  • Physical Wellness:
  • Financial Wellness:

I don’t know that we have anything we offer right now that I would classify as innovative outside of our emphasis on autonomy — which is not yet the case at many organizations. We want to make sure that people can make the choices they need to, like if they need to be done by 3:30 every day to pick up their kids, then we let them work the hours that make the most sense for them.

I have heard of great programs that our clients are running, and I can speak to those.

Mental Wellness

The ideas I have heard for mental wellness aren’t necessarily innovative in approach, but they are in scope. Many companies have long offered some sort of tuition reimbursement program for college courses that apply to an individual’s current position. Now I am seeing that expand to cover certification-type programs and even enrichment courses like gardening or online Master Class-type opportunities. There are ways the organization can sponsor learning that enriches a person’s life.

Emotional Wellness

You can always focus on what the employee assistance program offers and expand it with resources like giving everyone a subscription to Calm or Headspace. Even better is when active coping skills are publicly practiced and discussed. Like in a weekly team meeting, having managers share one coping skill for the week, and then everyone can learn about and practice a skill like belly breathing or participating in a guided meditation. The organization and team can do more than teach employees tactical skills; they can teach coping skills, social skills, or tools for emotional wellbeing and build the EQ of everybody collectively. And when leaders and managers model healthy emotional behavior, the impact is more significant. If the manager excused themselves to go to the calm room instead of blowing up or becoming visibly frustrated, their employees would know they could bring their whole selves to work. It creates a psychologically safe team environment when leaders model the way.

Social Wellness

The transition to remote and hybrid work models will make social wellness interesting. Whether you have people come to the office or whether your social engagements are entirely virtual, the critical question is, what are you doing to engage employees as humans? If you are having in-person or virtual happy hours, who is going to them? An interesting metric would be to measure whether managers and team leaders attend. Another way to engage employees on a social level is to create interest-based forums on chat apps like Teams or Slack so that people who share hobbies or fandoms can connect. You could also host idea labs where people are given time and a small budget of resources to build out a prototype of something. These are all great ways to connect people.

Paid time off to engage in social wellness activities is another great option. Many organizations already give employees time to volunteer in their communities. For hybrid and remote organizations, this is a great way to connect your employees with other humans and with the community they are a part of.

I also want to mention the idea of pets. If it’s possible to bring pets to the workplace, they bring emotional comfort and are a great icebreaker. It’s not possible in every office, but you have opened a whole new avenue for people to connect if you can create space for it.

Physical Wellness

Many organizations have been offering help with physical wellness for some time now. Perhaps they have an onsite gym or virtual classes for which employees can sign up. Many organizations have a reimbursement fund for things like gym memberships too.

One idea I always like is seeing the lunchtime walking groups where people meet up at a particular time and take a walk together. It’s an excellent way for people to connect socially while also addressing physical wellness.

One physical wellness opportunity for organizations to pursue is around the idea of sleep. More and more information keeps coming out about the benefits of sleep and offering tools and resources to improve sleep hygiene would be an innovation that would benefit all stakeholders.

Financial Wellness

For financial wellness, education is the clear path forward. Workshops and classes on how to manage money, run a budget, understand credit scores, buy your first house, and how to invest — these are the sorts of things employees are craving.

Another idea all companies should take advantage of is offering people career-development workshops. Teaching people how to advance their careers and increase their income potential benefits your organization by having employees who know how to have promotion conversations with their managers or who can set a goal to change departments. Growing your internal people is a financial-wellness benefit to them and a company’s bottom line.

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?

The main thing companies need to do to see a benefit is to make sure employees know about the wellness offerings and take advantage of them. When you are rolling out something new, don’t send a single message; send continuous messages to help people know about these resources. Have managers point workers in the direction of the benefits by asking questions like: Do you want to attend a career development workshop? or how are you using your volunteer time this month? There’s no way to see a benefit from the programs if people are not using them.

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

The first thing is to make sure that you are actively skilling your leaders. An interesting thing about leadership is that we all have to learn how to do it, but it has to be learned on the job. Investing in skilling your leaders is a wellness benefit on its own because an individual employee’s quality of life is more likely to be impacted by the quality of their manager than the presence or absence of wellness benefits.

Teaching managers to support a “Work Well” culture starts with understanding psychological safety. When managers can create psychologically safe environments, they create a healthy environment. So, organizations need to understand what an emotionally intelligent leader looks like and promote them while removing toxic managers. Having psychological safety and emotionally intelligent leaders paves the way for creating high-performance teams aligned and focused on their targeted purpose.

You also want to empower managers to give their employees as much flexibility as possible. For many people, the preference for remote work is a preference for flexibility and autonomy. When this is taken from people, it feels as though their freedom is threatened, and at some level, the brain will react to that threat. It requires extra cognitive power to do so. When you instead provide an atmosphere and environment in which they do not feel threatened, employees won’t waste mental effort and energy figuring out ways to identify what they have lost and how they will get it back. Instead, they can just focus on completing the work that needs to be finished.

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 thing that every individual can do is to set a goal they can achieve on a daily basis to improve their personal wellness. Here are some examples of what that can look like:

  • I will take a walk each morning before I look at my email.
  • I will do deep breathing for three minutes every day.
  • I will drink 64 ounces of water each day.
  • I will allow myself to listen to music for pure enjoyment every day on my commute home instead of taking calls.

Have everyone select a goal and then talk about it often and check in with each other. Find out how it is going.

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

  1. Coaching

The first trend is coaching, which stems from the idea that institutionally, we now have a couple of generations in the workforce that we raised on societal programs provided and managed by schools. Prior to that, families or churches took on the bulk of that work, but now that structure isn’t as available to many, and employees are looking to their job, their institution because that is the type of place they have always gone to get it. So, this trend is inclusive of various forms of coaching: career coaching, health coaching, financial coaching, and so on. The idea is that a job is more than what an employee does for you; it’s where they obtain guidance, advisement, and development opportunities.

2. Schedule Autonomy

This is where we will continue to see which people want to be able to keep and maintain personal boundaries. When they have that flexibility and freedom of how they want to schedule when they are working to maximize their time and take advantage of natural daily cycles when they are most alert, it becomes more customized. I think that is going to continue to be an expectation, and if people can’t control their schedules, they will look for a place they can. It’s not a pushback on working in general; people generally want to work because there is something they want to do, and work meets these personal and financial needs, but people want degrees of freedom around when they work.

3. Active Stress Management

There will be a reasonably intense focus on active stress management teaching. Whether that is looking at how a day is structured, the resources provided, or engaging in meditation, workplaces will need to consider this. There is a growing trend of even bringing in nature-type activities and creating a technology-free zone for people to go that is very analog. This encourages people to disconnect mentally and promotes the use of stress management whether employees share a physical space or whether it is an opportunity and time for remote workers to engage in stress management activities.

4. Awareness and Promotion of Higher Quality Sleep

I remember hearing that Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan would brag about only sleeping four hours a night. Now we know that if you aren’t getting eight hours of sleep, your brain isn’t getting washed, leading to an increase in beta-amyloid proteins associated with impaired brain function and Alzheimer’s disease — which Reagan and Thatcher both suffered from.

Our bodies need sleep to be well. When you don’t sleep your full eight hours, your hippocampus is not fully downloading all of your short-term memory information. So, you are waking up with a “flash drive” that’s not entirely empty, so you cannot retain all of the new information in your day. You are also not processing all the emotional information you have just experienced because that is part of what the brain does when you sleep, and it sorts through what’s important and what isn’t.

Employers will want to provide education and structure expectations so that early morning or late-night expectations are not a regular part of people’s days. It goes back to discouraging behaviors that reduce wellness, like having 15 weeks of PTO or only getting four hours of sleep, and treating them as unhealthy choices rather than promoting people who make them.

5. Volunteerism

We touched on this a bit earlier, but I think there will be an ongoing trend of volunteerism with organizations actively sponsoring, encouraging, and promoting their employees to be contributing members of society. There is growing recognition, particularly among younger generations, that we’re here to make a difference in the world around us. They want to be part of organizations that promote that not just by mission but in how they choose to spend their time.

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

My biggest source of optimism is the fact that these conversations are generating momentum. As I look back to when I was getting my graduate degree, there was a budding field of psychology called Positive Psychology. It was, in many ways, poo-pooed and considered unimportant. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania had been trying to get this off the ground for years. At Kansas, where I was studying, C.R. Snyder was doing this groundbreaking research on hope and how to look at it, and there was a publication about it called The Handbook of Positive Psychology. The whole idea was to move beyond looking at psychology as this deficit-based approach of focusing on what people were struggling with to looking at what successful, productive, happy people are doing and what we can learn from that.

This was over 20 years ago, and it feels like it’s just now finally taking root in the broader society. Daniel Goleman published his first book on Emotional Intelligence in the mid-nineties, and his ideas were laughed at. Now we have Brene Brown being invited into businesses, and she is a champion of vulnerability. We’ve made a great deal of progress.

It took a crisis like COVID-19 and social justice movements that have in some ways rattled the ivory towers of businesses to say, oh, we can’t just be worshiping the almighty dollar forever; we need to care about the people producing that dollar. It used to be that if our golden goose got sick and stopped providing eggs, another one would come along. There’s a shortage of geese, so we better take care of the ones we have.

I was at a conference two weeks ago, and the keynote speaker for this large event didn’t have an MBA; she had never held a corporate leadership role. She was an artist who, 15 years ago, as a young woman, was burned head to toe in a car accident, and a man ran through a wall of flames and pulled her burning body out of this vehicle so that she could live. It was her recovery story and what she has done personally to learn and grow and thrive in many ways, and how she has given back to others and promoted a message of hope. So, that was the keynote for this large corporate event, and while she gave this presentation, the slides behind her didn’t feature a single financial chart. There were no words or tables. Instead, there were images of the art she created in various mediums, which further illustrated the message she was trying to convey. We are human beings, connecting and aligning and breathing together. This fantastic moment would have never happened 20 years ago.

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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.