Better workplace design. The physical design of a workplace, including a virtual workspace, can have a significant impact on employee health and well-being. In the future, expect to see more attention paid to creating healthy, ergonomic workspaces that promote productivity and well-being. This could include features such as standing desks, natural light and green spaces.

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 Suzanne Kinner.

Suzanne Kinner is Group Vice President of Human Resources at Blackhawk Network, where she oversees the global human resources function for the organization. In this role, she is responsible for driving and executing Blackhawk’s people strategies in support of the company’s overall business plan and strategic direction. She leads the Talent Management, Talent Acquisition, Total Rewards, HR Operations & Compliance, and Facilities teams.

With more than 20 years of executive-level HR experience prior to Blackhawk, Suzanne has served as Global Head of HR for many technology companies, including Tellme Networks, Procket Networks, Actel and S3. She has a B.A. in Business Administration and Management from Holy Names College.

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 think many professionals can relate to the most impactful experience I had. Like most young people who are very ambitious, my work used to be my life and I put it first before almost everything, including relationships. Many of my friends were also focused on their careers, so that mindset worked for me. But once I had children, I reassessed my priorities and figured out how to balance my life.

My ambition and passion for my work didn’t change, nor did my ability to perform and produce well in the workplace, but being a mother changed how I did those things. I was fortunate to work in organizations that were progressive for their time, and they were extremely supportive — allowing me to have flexibility to leave at certain times to pick my kids up or take them to appointments. Those little details were important to me as a working mom and I appreciated the support from my employers and leadership teams. Those experiences positively impacted how I viewed work-life balance from that point forward.

It’s draining to have those little stressors, like worrying about whether your child is being cared for properly while you’re at work. But having support from your organization (as well as a strong family unit) can make a huge difference in your ability to blend your personal and work lives to feel confident and healthy in both.

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?

Wellness in the workplace is absolutely one of the topmost metrics HR professionals and organizations in general need to track, effective immediately. Most businesses have always set a baseline to provide healthcare and allow time off for illness, but they need to bring holistic wellness to the forefront and take it to the next level.

Mental health has taken a front seat and has really come to the forefront in the last three years — likely due to the fact that our lives turned upside down with a global health crisis. Stress levels were high as we were isolated from our families, workplaces, friends and usual routines. It was difficult to transition and focus on our mental health with these newfound sources of stress; they piled on to everything else we had to balance, like succeeding professionally while make sure our children were educated when they were learning at home. Many of us, including myself, had a hard time adjusting. Thankfully, smart businesses recognized the threat to their people and their businesses, and did something about it. And more join the movement every day.

My organization and I bucket wellness into four categories: emotional and mental health, social wellness, physical wellness and financial wellness (more on those later). Measuring those different pieces of the wellness puzzle is a difficult task. Overall, we rely on a combination of metrics such as employee surveys, usage data for our wellness resources and feedback from our employees. We have a wellness committee that meets regularly to discuss the needs and concerns of our workforce and explores new ideas for promoting wellness within our organization. Focusing on wellness is essential for the overall health and success of our employees and our organization, and we continually look for ways we can improve our wellness initiatives.

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?

Our research has found that fewer than one in five respondents is happy at their current job, and it’s likely wellness plays a major role in that metric. In general, research agrees that high morale leads to high engagement, which then drives productivity and ultimately affects company performance and sentiment. It starts with having happy and healthy workers and offering a healthy environment. With the right system in place, people can come to work to be their best and thrive — and are more likely to be loyal, contributing members to your culture and organization as a whole. We see this at within our own workforce; people appreciate and value our efforts to support wellness, and we receive very positive feedback. However, measuring the various pieces of this process will continue to be a challenge as new trends and best practices emerge. It will be important for businesses to monitor the correlation between wellness and productivity/profitability as a fluid, ever-changing narrative.

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?

Businesses have to believe in the foundational wellness journey and view it as something that is essential to workplace success. We make trade-offs all the time when determining what to invest in and what not to invest in, and if you believe that healthy employees and a healthy environment lead to more productivity and success, then you can’t afford to skimp on that initial expense since it will pay dividends down the road. Many companies may not even realize there’s a high ROI on wellness initiatives and may just see the short-term out of pocket expenses. I’d encourage organizations to research the topic and familiarize themselves with success stories so they can be more educated in making decisions that support wellness and the direct tie-in to the bottom line.

Commitment and passion toward your company’s wellness journey can be likened to peoples’ personal fitness journeys. For example, we also know that exercise is important for our health, but when we get busy, it’s one of the first tasks many people throw out the window. A similar case could be made for the workplace; as organizations look at their accounting ledgers for opportunities to cut expenses, we must prioritize and understand the importance of employee wellness in the long-run so programs and initiatives aren’t slashed from budgets as a short-term knee-jerk reaction.

Successful programs can start small — you don’t need to boil the ocean. Start with initiatives that have the potential to grow if they are successful. Don’t be afraid of falling short; what works for one company may not be the right solution for others. Try, evaluate, measure what is working, and adjust and evolve your strategy and offerings accordingly.

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?

Businesses now have five generations working alongside each other professionally — and we see quite a difference in terms of what is important to those different generations when it comes to work and life balance. While health is one topic younger generations are often more confident discussing openly, the conversation around the importance of wellness is one that needs to happen at a company-wide level.

At Blackhawk, we heavily promote our culture and focus on engagement, wellness, and appreciation as part of our employee value proposition (EVP) showcased in our recruiting efforts. Instead of a one-sided examination of whether candidates would be a good fit for our business, our EVP allows candidates to understand whether our culture will be a good fit for them.

This is a shift from how recruiting and hiring used to be done because more companies are realizing wellness and other factors directly contribute to attrition, retention, productivity and engagement. Businesses that prioritize and understand the importance of mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationships with their employees can better meet the demands of the labor pool — and benefit from better retention of the best talent in their industries, no matter which stages of their career employees are in and no matter their age.

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? What are you discovering? We would benefit from an example in each of these areas.

Emotional and Mental Wellness:

Although it’s hard to measure its success beyond anecdotal feedback, we also offer a successful benefits package that includes a generous time off policy. This policy includes maternity and paternity leave (the latter of which is unfortunately not common the United States), as well as other opportunities for employees to step away. Our employees are offered discretionary time off to encourage balance, and we encourage them to use their vacation days.

One of our unique initiatives is our annual holiday break, which has been in place for about a decade and a half. It was genius of our founder to realize years ago that although the holiday season is the most important time of the year for our business, the work leading up to it is extremely stressful and exhausting. To celebrate our employees and recognize the need for a much-needed break, our entire company shuts down the week between Christmas and New Year. Our leadership prioritizes this mental break from the top down; knowing that if the CEO and executive team are stepping away for a mental break speaks volumes to the rest of the company’s employees. Vacations are lovely but re-entry can be taxing since you’ve stopped working but no one else has; if the whole company hits “pause” then no one forced to play catch up upon returning.

A couple of other unique traditions we started include “Hawk Appreciation Day,” where the entire company is given a random day off with almost no notice (people love the surprise), and two days off to volunteer each year on company time. We understand that our employees are happier in the workplace when they feel good in their personal lives, and when they volunteer for a charity or give back, they feel more positively toward our company and themselves.

Social Wellness:

We prioritize our company’s culture; our beliefs-driven mentality guides almost everything we do and empowers us to work together as a supportive team on a global scale. This unity drives incredible, high-performing productivity because while we work hard, we also work collaboratively. We actively seek out innovative solutions to problems and hold ourselves and each other accountable to our own high standards in supportive ways.

We also focus on nurturing a culture of belonging and inclusion — which are foundational necessities for building the psychological safety nets that empower employees to be their authentic selves in the workplace without fear of being who they are and coming forward if they need help or have a special need. We track morale and engagement via quarterly, multi-dimensional polls that directly ask our employees how they are feeling, whether they have the resources to do their job and more. This transparent communication helps our employees feel heard and seen and heard, and helps us factor our employees’ voices into most decisions that affect our workplace.

Our research1 found more than three-quarters of respondents (77%) feel that it’s important to recognize others for their positive contributions at work, and 82% respondents would be interested in leveraging an employee recognition platform where they could send and receive recognition to or from anyone in their company. Our employees prove our research is spot-on. People also want to recognize and reward each other — which further builds social wellness. We have a platform in place at a global level that enables employees to easily reach out to anyone within the company, no matter where they are; with just one click, our employees can recognize and commend the work being done by their peers in a visible way. This tool makes us all feel like we are a small company even though we are quite large and dispersed. It has helped us stay connected in a positive and inspiring way and has been especially important during times when we have only remote and hybrid work settings.

Physical Wellness:

We offer standard healthcare plans with telehealth and mental health services on demand — and it’s not a surprise that we’ve seen an increase in the usage of these services over the past couple of years. In addition to our standard offerings like gym memberships and quality health insurance, we have implemented new initiatives such as virtual yoga and meditation classes, which are well-attended and help our employees handle stress. We also have wellness programs where we encourage healthy behavior, like walking challenges where people earn rewards like ever-popular prepaid and gift cards for participation. With the rise of remote and hybrid work, we now offer ergonomics trainings to make sure office setups are not causing health issues now or down the road. While these offerings should be standard and are important contributors to health, many companies do not provide them.

It’s a little hard to measure whether physical wellness is improving and stable because the information is categorized as medical and we must be very careful to comply with HIPAA laws and protect the privacy of our employees. As a non-invasive workaround, we created the “Know Your Numbers” program, which offers a biometric test employees can use to measure our main categories of health. It is completely confidential, and we have strong participation. Employee can use the program to get information on their health metrics, and receive coaching on how to improve and manage their lifestyle, diet, and habits in a healthier way. Besides tracking participation in programs, it’s hard to measure personal mental health because there is still a strong right to privacy and we want to make sure employees feel comfortable.

Financial Wellness:

Financial well-being absolutely affects peoples’ well-being and stress levels. We have a generous, competitive retirement program that we automatically enroll employees for (more of an opt-out than an opt-in), and match employees’ contributions up to 3%. Additionally, we arrange for our investments provider to hold quarterly sessions on financial management and similar topics to help our employees make educated decisions; our provider also provides online tools and resources to help guide and coach individuals in their personal financial situations.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to financial well-being, so we try to give people the tools to manage their specific situations. In addition to retirement, we also offer standard financial protection, such as life insurance and emergency support in the event of a personal crisis.

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?

Quite simply, investing in employee wellness can improve productivity and boost the bottom line for your business — and it’s the right thing to do for your people. Consider implementing different types of wellness initiatives like those I’ve previously mentioned to support holistic health (mental, physical, social, and financial) and encourage, reward and recognize employees for participating.

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

The role of leaders is evolving now more than it has in the last several decades due to changes in the workplace and the shift to physical, hybrid and remote work settings. Leading dispersed and virtual teams is a new challenge for many leaders and maintaining a healthy environment is more difficult now.

Smart leaders are doubling down on understanding what a healthy environment means and how they can create them. We don’t have all the answers yet, but forward-thinking businesses are trying to learn. For example, we have essential management training that ensures we are checking in with employees about their wellness. Employees are change-fatigued from the events of the last few years, and we are actively trying to understand the change process so we can better lead our team through the journey to become a more resilient 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?

I suggest starting small and at least taking a step toward improving wellness in the workplace. Even if you can’t fund or get support for major change initiatives, there are plenty of low-cost, high-value ideas you can try — evaluate your options to determine which is best for your organization.

For us, it has been extremely helpful to really open the lines of communication between employees and leaders, and we now factor employee feedback into our decision making more than ever before. If there is any resistance or hesitancy, I would encourage you to ask employees to participate and share their ideas for how they can get — and stay — well. This will help overcome fear of change and ensure you understand what is most important to them.

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

  1. The rise of remote work. The pandemic has led to a significant increase in the number of people working remotely, and this trend is likely to continue in the future. Employers will need to focus on supporting the health and well-being of remote workers, including providing resources and support for maintaining physical and mental health while working remotely (like, for instance, our virtual yoga and mediation classes).
  2. How to make a more direct correlation between engagement, health and performance. We already track certain metrics, such employee morale, attrition and productivity; our data analytics team is currently working on understanding our data on a deeper, more predictive level. We want to understand if there is a more direct link between health and performance so we can identify and act on opportunities quickly and effectively. For instance, we track our healthcare plans’ performance on a quarterly level — tracking whether there are any peaks or spikes in how people are using the programs. While the information is anonymous, our broker partners can tell us if they are seeing any indicators that suggest a change or trends in factors related to stress or mental health that we should be aware of. This deeper understanding helps us actively look out for our employers and adjust our initiatives to support their wellness in a fluid, ongoing way.
  3. Ability to explore change. Like other businesses, we felt the effects of the “Great Resignation” and saw an increased turnover rate as people were offered shiny opportunities at other companies, However, as the labor market became less competitive, we have seen a significant spike in our re-hire rate. This metric has always been high for us, as people who left our organization for new (sometimes too-good-to-be-true) opportunities often returned once they realized other opportunities weren’t as fruitful as they seemed — or when they saw how their new companies treated them. With a tight labor market, many organizations offered hollow promises and/or opportunities that were enticing, but with the great resignation came the great regret, as people realized these new opportunities were either not a fit in the long run and/or weren’t as advertised. We are proud that we offer a company culture, benefits package and workplace that makes our people feel free to try new things — and safe to come back to us when things don’t work out. Strong employee relationships — even with former employees — are rare at other companies, and we value these rare bonds.
  4. Better workplace design. The physical design of a workplace, including a virtual workspace, can have a significant impact on employee health and well-being. In the future, expect to see more attention paid to creating healthy, ergonomic workspaces that promote productivity and well-being. This could include features such as standing desks, natural light and green spaces.
  5. An increased emphasis on corporate social responsibility. Companies are increasingly recognizing the importance of corporate social responsibility and the role it plays in attracting and retaining top talent. People want to work for companies they believe in. As such, expect to see more companies prioritizing employee health and well-being as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts. This could include things like offering wellness programs, promoting sustainable practices, supporting charitable causes and even supporting the wellness of our planet. At Blackhawk, we recently announced our intention to support our partners to convert a meaningful percentage of our globally distributed card products from virgin plastic to paper-based materials by the end of 2024, and the majority of our suite of original content and multi-store gift cards to eco-friendly, biodegradable and paper-based materials by the end of 2023.

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

I’m optimistic that we’ll reach a point where wellness is a higher priority. Organizations are becoming more aware of it, and once more start to have visible, continued success, the emphasis on wellness will be more commonplace. The key to this is empowering your employees to prioritize their health and wellness — and to do the same on their behalf. Your people are your greatest resources and showing you care about them and have concrete ways to support them will be immensely appreciated. In the long run, investments in employee health and wellness will not only help your employees feel and be well, but will positively contribute to the health of your business.

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?

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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.