Culture of Wellness — focus on instilling mindsets and behaviors tied to wellness across the culture.
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 Dr. Soren Kaplan.
Soren Kaplan is the author of the book Experiential Intelligence, a former corporate executive, founder of Praxie.com, an affiliate at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, and a columnist for Inc. magazine. He has led professional development programs for thousands of executives around the world, including Disney, NBCUniversal, Visa, PayPal, Colgate-Palmolive, Kimberly-Clark, Medtronic, Roche, Hershey’s, Red Bull, and many others. He has been quoted, published, and interviewed by Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Forbes, CNBC, National Public Radio, the American Management Association, USA Today, and Strategy & Leadership, among many others.
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.
During a goodbye “roast” party after I announced I was leaving my managerial position at a big technology company in Silicon Valley, no one had anything interesting to say about their experiences working with me. Normally these types of send-offs would contain speeches with humorous stories and jokes. But I had been so measured, so protective of my image, so in-vulnerable, that my colleagues were literally speechless. While they all said I had been “good” to work with, I realized they hadn’t gotten to know the real me at all. I had been a decent manager but was far from an inspirational leader. I never tapped into my full potential, and, as a result, I couldn’t draw out my own team’s full potential, either. The experience left me feeling empty, like I had missed out on creating deeper connections with the people in my organization I truly cared about.
I eventually realized the source of my issue ran deep. Growing up, my mother had a mental illness. My father was rarely home because he was consumed multiple jobs and his spiritual pursuits. By the time I was 15 years old, we had moved 16 times. I learned to look for cues to help me determine what was going to happen from one moment to the next. When I started to work, I had consistently and subconsciously withheld any opinions that could be seen as controversial because I held a self-limiting belief without knowing it. I thought that if I presented ideas people didn’t like, they’d judge me negatively. I kept things completely “professional” and did everything I could to protect my image. Without being aware of it, I feared the feeling of disconnection, the same feeling I felt growing up with parents who were less than present, emotionally and physically, in my life. My fear of disconnection led me to recreate the very thing I was trying to avoid.
On the other hand, my early life experiences helped me develop the unique ability to read people’s faces, voices, and body language to gain insight into the group dynamics at play. These were the same things that helped me survive early on in a very uncertain home environment. These skills served me well as I navigated the corporate hierarchy and facilitated leadership development programs in business. So, the same experiences in my life that stifled my development also delivered unique gifts.
And that’s what led me to write my latest book, Experiential Intelligence. I wanted to help others better understand how the big and little experiences in their lives, even the traumas, may have shaped them in ways they’re not aware, and then share how to go about discovering the hidden abilities that were created precisely because of their struggles. This dynamic has big implications for hiring, leadership development, and organizational culture.
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 have advised and consulted to about thirty of the Fortune 1000 over the past 25 years and worked with many startups as well. There’s indeed a big trend toward wellness and wellbeing in business.
Wellness isn’t just about physical health. It’s about much more than that, which can make it a bit difficult to measure in a single metric. Companies that take the most holistic view focus on various dimensions of wellness including things like physical health, emotional wellbeing, financial stability, a sense of purpose, healthy social connections, and challenging and meaningful work.
Because wellness looks like different things to different people and companies based on their needs, a single measure is hard to define, but you can look at things like employee engagement as an indicator of a well workforce.
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?
Research from the Society of Human Resource Managers highlights different benefits from having a well workforce. These include reduced health care costs, reduced absenteeism, greater productivity, and higher morale and employee retention. These things are indeed linked to productivity and profitability. But at the end of the day, these things are also about competitive advantage. The more well your workforce, the more competitive you’ll be long-term.
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?
It’s not surprising the World Health Organization’s work has focused on mental health disorders. Mental health has always been important, and following the pandemic it’s become an epidemic of its own in society, and the workplace. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 70 percent of American adults have experienced some type of trauma in their lives. That’s over 230 million people in the United States.
The first thing that’s needed is for business to recognize that people’s internal struggles surface no matter what they’re doing or where. They can’t always leave behind their mental health challenges when they walk through the office — or home office — door. Poor mental health can get in the way of daily performance or significantly limit contributions at the highest strategic level, or both. Until we recognize this human truth as something to manage, individuals, teams, and organizations will never reach their full potential.
It’s also important to recognize that investing in wellness isn’t about tradeoffs. Wellness in the form of ROI is hard to measure, which is why there can be tension between intention and perceived impact. If you take a short-term view of the ROI and don’t measure anything concrete, then it’s easy to miss the positive impact. Companies should quantify ROI for themselves, whether it’s absenteeism, retention, employee engagement scores, or something else. Then measure it over a period of time, starting with quarterly and then tracking ROI data annually. Organizations that embed wellness into their culture, don’t question ROI because wellness becomes part of a shared mindset around what’s important for the health of the organization itself.
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?
Organizations that approach hiring and developing people without emphasizing how they promote wellness in their programs and culture can miss out on reservoirs of talent, new ideas, and opportunities. People who care about wellness are often more well-rounded and bring new ways of thinking to the organization. They often contribute more than their formal skills to their work because they have other abilities that might not be part of a formal job description but might tie to more strategic assets needed for innovation and collaboration. One executive I worked with, for example, believes her focus on playing violin in an orchestra outside of work makes her a better leader, better able to collaborate, and more satisfied with her work, things that are all important for navigating today’s disruptive world.
There are two key strategies you can incorporate in your talent strategy and hiring approach. The first is to promote how you define wellness, how it ties to your mission and business goals, and how you support wellness through specific programs and benefits. The second is to hire people who possess what I call “experiential intelligence” tied to wellness itself. Look for people with specific mindsets that include attitudes and beliefs tied to balance and emotional intelligence. Don’t just hire based on work experience alone but also look for tangential experiences that illustrate a broader set of abilities that still tie to the job but indicate the person can grow and develop into future roles that connect to their interests and life experience. Doing this will create the context for future growth that supports social, emotional, mental, and financial wellness.
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: The consulting firm Accenture provides employee assistance programs to support mental health.
- Emotional Wellness: Facebook, now known as Meta, offers a bike-sharing program to its employees.
- Social Wellness: Mobify in Canada offers group Yoga classes.
- Physical Wellness: Chesapeake Energy provides employees with a 72,000 square foot fitness center to support their physical wellness.
- Financial Wellness: Zappos reimburses employees for wellness related expenses outside of the workplace.
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 first step in moving toward greater workplace wellness is to recognize the misguided and long-held assumption that people don’t, and shouldn’t, bring their full selves to the workplace. The reality is that everyone brings the whole of who they are with them, personal challenges and personal assets included, wherever they go. The question is how to foster an overall culture of wellness so you can unleash the inherent strengths that exist across people and teams where everyone feels accepted and supported.
At a very deep level, the type of organizational culture where people feel fully supported and emotionally is connected to providing psychological safety. Historically, however, there’s been a social stigma tied to sharing or acknowledging anything related to mental health for example. I was raised at a time when showing emotion signified weakness, especially for boys and men. Because of my unusual and difficult home life, I never spoke about my family to either my friends or colleagues. I feared that people would judge me because of my mother’s mental illness. I feared judgment because I feared losing emotional connection with others, something I longed for because of my parents’ limited availability as I was growing up. After I began sharing my story about my childhood and how I ended up caring for my mother toward the end of her life, however, I experienced the exact opposite of what I was fearful of: people actually moved toward me with empathy. They also begin sharing their own stories and struggles. My relationships both inside and outside work were deepened and strengthened.
Creating a culture of wellness, supported by sense of psychological safety, produces greater collaboration. But it’s also an important ingredient for innovation itself. So ultimately a culture of wellness is also about creating a culture of innovation that drives business growth.
How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
Leaders need to understand that embracing wellness themselves creates a broader culture of wellness. One of my clients which is one of the largest healthcare systems in the US, for example, incorporates a personal wellness component in their executive leadership programs. It focuses on mind, body, and spirituality tied to purpose. The goal is to embed a mindset focused on wellness into top leadership so it cascades throughout the culture. Leaders are educated around the definition of wellness, create personal goals, and develop an action plan to achieve the goals. They come together every three months to assess progress and discuss what’s working and not working. The cohort in the leadership development program support each other both during the sessions and between them. As they internalize what’s needed to support their own wellness, they become more sensitive to the wellness needs of others across the organization.
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?
It does take time to implement an overall culture of wellness. But it doesn’t take much time to get started. Just look at the dimensions of wellness and pick one that’s important to you. Create a little habit around it, whether it means exercising more, eating healthier, or doing a yoga class once a week. Finding a partner to do this with whether a life partner, friend, or colleague, can really help as well.
What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
- Wellness Leadership Development — including wellness programs in executive development to create experiences that foster a deep understanding of the value and importance of wellness for performance.
- Wellness Recruitment — seeking and hiring talent with broader mindsets and abilities beyond narrow job descriptions that illustrate a well-rounded approach to work and life.
- Wellness Branding — communicating the wellness programs and values of the company to create market positioning that highlights the organization’s commitment to employees.
- Wellness Metrics — defining and quantifying wellness to measure ROI and progress over time.
- Culture of Wellness — focus on instilling mindsets and behaviors tied to wellness across the culture.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
I’m encouraged that many organizations are starting to view the health and wellbeing of their people as inherently connected to their business success. It’s no longer about feel-good policies but about innovation and competitive advantage. When we view the health of people as synonymous with the health of our organizations, everyone wins.
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?
My latest book and other resources are on my personal website at www.sorenkaplan.com. I’ve made the first chapter of my book available for download for free, and there’s a full toolkit with assessment, discussion guide, and PowerPoint presentation available for free with the book as well.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.