Cultural acceptance of wellbeing will continue. Now that we can see into others’ homes in meetings — and for example, for me, it’s my 2-year-old coming into play — it has enabled far more relaxed employees to thrive. Before, it was a guarded persona of how do we pretend we don’t have children? Or how do I pretend that my husband isn’t at home too? If we have the right cultural construct at work, these masks can fall away. This element of diversity, equity and inclusion — bringing your whole self to work — has meant that a lot of barriers have been broken down.
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 Rachel Fellowes, Chief Wellbeing Officer at Aon.
Rachel is Aon’s Chief Wellbeing Officer, a role that further advances Aon’s internal wellbeing strategy, as well as accelerating Aon’s client solutions around resilience and human sustainability. Previously Rachel was founder of Yoke, a wellbeing consultancy that helped businesses create sustainable cultures in a data driven and strategic way including the Human Sustainability Index, an approach which Aon has acquired.
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.
There’s a tendency to tell a Big Bang story, which I do have. However, I’d love to plant the seed that our relationship with work is a subtle, constant renegotiation.
Wellbeing is very real, and I don’t think many of us know what a good design looks like yet. I want to set an expectation that it will oscillate now and forever — this is a really lovely way of thinking, so we can make peace with change.
I’ve had two very significant moments that made me listen harder. It’s going to sound dramatic, but I was run over by a car while cycling a few years ago. Not being able to do the physical things — say sitting down for the hours I used to — made me rethink how I deliver the same output at work. I was doing a Masters in Organisational Wellbeing and working full time. I needed to find a different way, which opened my mind to the fact that we don’t have to use the standard model anymore.
And then more recently, I had my little girl. Suddenly, it’s about how to work with no sleep. The parenthood thing is very real.
Your perspective is really your energy and how you can drive different things in your life all at once. It’s all an equation to think through.
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 love this. When I was running my previous business, Yoke, it was almost what I thought would happen. Previously, I had worked at Accenture in the sustainability practice; we measured governance and environmental factors. Then DEI came into play so the measurement got broader. That’s when I took a handbrake turn. I undertook my Masters because I was convinced wellbeing would come next.
There’s now a sentiment of ‘whole perspective on performance’ which offers a richer experience for colleagues and clients, plus ensures we design better ways of doing things that help us bounce back and innovate over time.
In practice, Aon as an employer, is committing to using our Human Sustainability Index (HSI) tool. This tool is working for us, and it’s in use at our clients too.
It measures wellbeing, resilience and sustainability at individual, team and organizational level, providing data-driven insights to make decisions with clarity. This means we are beginning to use numbers behind our intentions, driving a data-led approach in how we respond to what’s going on with our humans. Capturing this data helps employers (including us) to understand practicalities — for instance the extreme cultures that drive someone to a divorce or experience ill health or the awesome elements of what enables great environments.
We have started by rolling HSI out to the top 350 Aon people globally, gaining a phenomenal 98% engagement. We are now rolling it out to every new joiner three months into starting here.
Globally, our people are getting a moment to pause and reflect on how to create a sustainable life. As a business, we also have a brilliant data feedback loop. We are learning which of our practices and solutions are supporting people if they are struggling — even things like how they manage in a global environment and time zones. It’s anonymous so there is an element of separation, and people feel they have full permission to deep dive.
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?
If I take a step back to view the sector, everyone has been trying to retrospectively validate and measure wellness. For instance, because of attendance at a webinar or high utilisation of an app, we can infer that this has a positive impact on wellness. We can also infer, through the use of academic research, that this has an impact on profitability or performance.
But very few have got that real data. It’s exactly this that we’re helping clients with, and what we want to understand within Aon.
For us, as we start to gain generic onboarding data through the Human Sustainability Index tool, on new starters for instance, we can overlay this with assessment information. By combining these, we start to look at different personality types and gain a better understanding of performance and productivity, vital to thriving profitability.
However, the wellness journey is on a maturity curve, say from one to five. A lot of companies are at a level one or two, perhaps taking tactical steps in the pandemic. A level five is where personalization, data and integration of wellness into the employee value proposition (EVP) work in harmony — but no one is there yet.
So generally, the sector is at a number three, with some leading, driving or creating. I think there’s going to be a long term ‘how do we define best practice through data?’ moment so companies can move along the journey.
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?
Pre-pandemic, wellness was seen as ‘really nice’ academic information. It’s shifted in the last few years — or even the last few months with many people leaving their roles because they’re burnt out. In fact, many people are leaving their jobs with no other role to go to, because they are so in need of a break.
So wellness used to be an esoteric opportunity story and that’s not the case now. Leaders are seeing the cost hit their P&L. They’re getting burnt. There’s a vividness to it that reflects on wellness. They can see how people are managing and the effect it has on the team as a whole, so even if they lose one person, the cumulative effect is very real — cost to re-recruit, the down time, team impact, wage inflation, etc. Employers want to stop that happening through proactive measures, shifting from tactical to strategic.
We can ask the question, do you want your workforce to be resilient, and the obvious answer is yes. The challenging answer is how do we get there. We’re far off having wellbeing targets for leaders, and although this is a contentious approach, it’s the philosophy of the stance that leaders and managers own, not disregarding the environmental factors that impact each employee.
Even if a leader perceives their own culture as a wellbeing laggard, it’s phenomenal when the penny drops. For instance, it might be when their daughter is deeply affected at her job, or a member of their team, or they’ themselves have been personally impacted.
The advice for leaders is therefore to acknowledge it, lean into it and listen. By taking time to hear how people are really feeling, leaders can start to understand what to pay attention to, so they start to build resilience as a team. Whether it is in the ways that leaders work or the decisions they take to curate resilient teams, the time to take note is now.
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?
It’s about the full journey. So if you consider my internally-focused Aon role — I’ll be careful how I say this! — My role as it currently stands should be made redundant in four to five years’ time because our aim is for wellbeing to be impregnated into everything we do.
One of the key elements is talent acquisition and it needs to be considered very thoughtfully. For instance, we are currently mapping out how wellbeing has different touch points throughout an employee’s journey with us. When someone applies for a role at Aon, they will soon have communications about mental health in the recruitment process. Three months after onboarding, a new employee will use the Human Sustainability Index tool.
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’d like to change the perspective that things fit into neat wellbeing compartments, because it is all very messy and holistic. It’s why we need a new way of measuring each experiment or pilot, because every organisation, and every person is unique.
At Aon, at the start of a new product or training programme, we now gain data by measuring employee stance using our Human Sustainability Index, then we launch the pilot and then we measure again.
It means that very specifically, we can see how an idea impacts employees. For example, it might be to support employees with financial wellbeing and cost of living. Within this we’ll be able to understand surprise impacts — perhaps on employees’ relationships with their partners because they can talk about money better, or there may be a positive impact on mental health and feeling more resilient.
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?
This is really all centres around pay. For one thing, no company can afford to keep competing on pay, and as humans, we know that pay isn’t the only answer.
The ‘whole performance’ approach feels more meaningful to us as people. Colleague experience, the types of conversations managers have, the culture we create, all of these things matter — as does the very real impact on profitability.
We’re finding that in Aon investor earnings calls we get asked questions about how wellbeing is handled in our organisation and what actions we take.
We can tell them that Aon’s HSI is rooted in academic research and it measures human sustainability in three interconnected ways.
Individuals use it to navigate the complexity of modern life, they gain a personalized plan to better understand their own resilience and maintain self-sustaining practices.
When teams use HSI, it provides a pathway to build collective change, raising awareness in the team for collaboration and support.
And for organizations (including us) it advances social responsibilities within sustainability ambitions. Employers gain insights to make strategic decisions, transitioning from tactical and peripheral changes to embedded changes for sustained organisational performance.
How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
This is something very real, something everyone is grappling with. Along with annual revenue targets, inflationary pressures, a recession looming, people are tired. We need a very fresh skill set to work in such a pressured environment. Offering better care for people is essential, but leaders are also burnt out.
Last year at Aon, we took our top 350 leaders through the Human Sustainability Index assessment and then gave them personal coaching based on their results. We felt at that moment in time, with the stresses people face, that it was a powerful way to pivot. The coaching element gave them full remit to think about themselves, but also how they think about their team, and how do we as an organisation think about wellbeing.
Although it was an initial part of our process, it felt very important. Setting that tone at the very top is important, and now we’re partnering heavily with all parts of the people team — learning and development, leadership programmes, management programmes — so we continue our work.
We’re a small wellbeing team at Aon but we don’t stand alone. We’re impregnating our work into all the great things people do here.
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?
I recently spent five hours with a thirty-strong team who work in a banking environment.
Fascinatingly, the action that they loved was learning how to breathe properly — and learning that in moments of stress, breathing properly before or after is a powerful tool. It takes people out of their stress response into a recovery response.
Perhaps more formally, I’d like to talk simply, in a ritualised way about the things that we do that support our wellbeing and the things that we do that we need to let go of. This could be in a team meeting, by simply asking what are we accidentally doing? For example, I have two phones. When on a Webex call, I can get five messages ping onto my screen. I can see my email inbox has 100 unread emails. As a team, we have started rationalising. We’re only going to communicate in two ways, with one as a priority. Another example is walking and talking, so perhaps I’ll walk to the nursery to collect my daughter, while talking with a colleague, but also knowing I’m getting some exercise.
Simple, practical ways to be present, practical and productive every day.
What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
- Wellbeing to date has been about ill-being not well-being. Take employee benefits, for example, do we understand which ones to offer? It’s been observed that simply adding more to the shopping list of benefit choices hasn’t necessarily increased engagement. So the first big trend I predict is personalisation of benefits. The HSI tool can help individuals understand not only that they’re tired, but why they’re tired. Is it an emotional health issue? Is it a relational issue, or a financial health concern? When knowing this, it’s possible to connect benefits to that assessment, helping the employee, but also enabling the employer to move away from a blanket, anonymous benefits approach. The end result is higher engagement with the right tools for diverse talent.
- Wellbeing is a green industry, whether we like it or not. And most of the time, we retrospectively use data to validate what we’ve done. For instance, by rolling out a menopause campaign and then understanding engagement with it. But is that the highest need for the people population? We need to ritualise data capture around ill-being and wellbeing, so we can confidently tell — and report on — the story.
- The employee value proposition (EVP) will increasingly come into play. There are organisations that still don’t appreciate that we have fundamentally shifted the way that we think about work. The laggards are not appreciating that wellbeing is very much part of the full employee proposition. People want to look through an employer’s shop window to see that the EVP is meaningful, and that what they see initially is actually experienced by current employees. For employers, this is about incorporating wellbeing into talent onboarding, training, how the managers work with their teams, the leadership. It’s a continuation.
- Wellbeing choice and hybrid working are at the heart of the changing way we engage with clients. How we choose to engage with clients, what format and when, matters now more than ever as it’s impacted by peoples’ values. For example, post-pandemic, there simply isn’t the same dynamic for conferences. If an event is organised in London on a Monday or Friday when many are not commuting in, it’s highly likely there’ll be a low uptake.
- Cultural acceptance of wellbeing will continue. Now that we can see into others’ homes in meetings — and for example, for me, it’s my 2-year-old coming into play — it has enabled far more relaxed employees to thrive. Before, it was a guarded persona of how do we pretend we don’t have children? Or how do I pretend that my husband isn’t at home too? If we have the right cultural construct at work, these masks can fall away. This element of diversity, equity and inclusion — bringing your whole self to work — has meant that a lot of barriers have been broken down.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
It’s the community of people who are genuinely dedicated to changing the wellbeing agenda. I was honoured to be asked to present to a roomful of chief medical officers and chief operating officers in the US, and the camaraderie and sentiment — that we’re doing things and genuinely trying to change the workplace for the better — made my shoulders drop. It’s times like these that I realise it’s not just a few of us at the grindstone, trying to do this on our own. We’re a non-competitive peer group, we’re collaborative, egoless, we share best practice, we lean on each other.
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?
LinkedIn please. I intentionally use the platform to push everything so I don’t spread myself too thinly. This plays nicely into my husband and I choosing not to be on other social media, so that we create more simplicity and manageability.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.