Demonstrating your commitment to employees in ways that go beyond a paycheck. Extend your purview to include a holistic, lived-life view of your employees.

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 William Donaldson.

Dr. William (Willy) Donaldson is an Associate Professor of Management at Christopher Newport University. Dr. Donaldson is the Director of the CNU Luter Business Institute and Director of the Biotechnology and Management Program. Willy has over 35 years of experience as a board member and CEO, has been President of 8 companies, helped start dozens of companies, and has over 30 years of experience in higher education. Willy is the author of Simple_Complexity: A Management Book for the Rest of Us: A Guide to Systems Thinking, and Estimated Time of Departure: How I Talked My Parents to Death: A Love Story.

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.

Early on a mentor helped me realize that my personal philosophy drove my happiness and success, how I thought about myself and the world around me was at the root of my behaviors and my happiness, whether it was at work, home, or play. He told me that what I became in life was much more important than what I got. He assured me I was, most likely, going to get through life, but more importantly, he told me to get from it, to learn from it, and become something I would be proud of and not regret. He said if you want to have nice things and be surrounded by good friends and people of value and substance, you have to become someone who is nice and who is a good friend and who has value to others! He taught me to be a servant leader and help others as much or more than they helped me. As a leader, if you do that, they will ask you to lead them. Good advice!

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 work with my clients and encourage them to take a holistic, whole-person, approach. I encourage them to truly get to know their employees and to realize the totality of their employees’ lived experiences affects the time they spend at work. The old admonition of leaving your problems at the office door and just sucking it up doesn’t work anymore, and it never really did. Employees’ issues with child-care, caring for elder parents, mental health, and physical well-being are going to impact their productivity. Telling them to ignore that will not help them be the best they can be at your firm. If you help them deal with those issues proactively, then you can ask them to put the firm’s needs first when they are with you.

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 have found the only way is to constantly assess employee wellness and engagement through one-on-one conversations, regular surveys, and charging HR with being sensitive to employee wellness. Also, assessing employees’ connection to the purpose of the enterprise, their why, and to opportunity within the firm is a leading indicator of perceived wellness at work.

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?

Believe in the research and take the leap of faith. As the research has shown, the activities to assure employee wellness do pay off. However, they cost in the short term and pay off in the long term. Conversely, not doing them pays off in the short term and costs in the long term, so employers and so owners, and managers don’t do them. They refuse to take the leap. Leaders must think long-term.

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?

Make them visible! Show new recruits your commitment to wellness. Show off your Zen, recharge, and childcare rooms if you have them. Tell new employees about wellness culture, resources, and spaces. Develop a total compensation calculator that shows the value you provide in benefits, PTO, gym memberships, tuition reimbursement, etc. Show them their value in more than just dollars.

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: Having senior management open up about their own struggles with wellness and mental health helps employees feel empowered to talk about the same. One example is a series of photos of leaders with quick messages about wellness and mental health visible all around the facility, and encouraging employees to speak up.
  • Emotional Wellness: Training everyone in the organization on empathic listening, listening with your eyes and your heart for real meaning and understanding. Most of the emotional clues are discernable in body language and tone of voice, even if there are no words. Leaders and managers have to sense those, especially if you do not have a corporate culture that encourages speaking up about such issues.
  • Social Wellness: Designated social time and activities to get to know others in ways beyond the office. An example here is a firm that had an employee who was very introverted and dressed in biker attire. People assumed he was anti-social, and threatening, and avoided him. In a non-work social session, they found out he was a math savant and a steel artist who could disassemble and reassemble his motorcycle and improve it at will. Learning about him away from work revealed him to be a different person. He now teaches their mechanical drawing take-off skills class! Consider allowing employees to bank and share PTO and other benefits to help others in times of need.
  • Physical Wellness: Turn your meetings into standing or walking meetings. Get up move around, and view the company from different perspectives. The old adage of management-by-walking around still works!
  • Financial Wellness: Teach financial literacy. There are great tools and simulations available to show employees the way to financial security.

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?

Companies I have worked with have installed Zen Booths and rooms where employees can get away and gather themselves. There is a fantastic company, Studio Elsewhere, that is constructing immersive biophilic private spaces, Recharge Rooms, in hospitals for front-line employees to recover and recharge. Game spaces, cafes, and basketball nets can be added to almost any environment. Adding blue sky days or meetings where employees can dream together about improvements or new ideas that advance the purpose of the firm and the engagement levels. Setting up a lending/learning library and encouraging a book club to discuss wellness. Partnering with day-care providers to assist employees with one of their hardest challenges. Break off work early and bring in a series of food trucks and micro-breweries to celebrate friendship and life events, not just business successes. There are many more.

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

By training and developing managers to recognize and value this important part of work. In the past organizations just ignored the implications or wished them away. Great organizations will lean into the need to think holistically about their employees.

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?

Commit. All change starts with a change in philosophy that embraces the new behaviors. Rather than viewing wellness activities as a cost, view them as an investment in your people and commit to them. Just start!

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

  1. Viewing employees as assets, not costs. The Gallup poll results indicating upwards of 80% of employees are “disengaged” or “actively disengaged” at work should be a wake-up call. The opportunity to turn the above stats around and unleash the pent-up energy that is already available to your organization. If you don’t do it your competitors will.
  2. Elevating HR to a strategic position in the enterprise and viewing the enterprise through the lenses of attractiveness to current and potential employees.
  3. Demonstrating your commitment to employees in ways that go beyond a paycheck. Extend your purview to include a holistic, lived-life view of your employees.
  4. Proving the non-pay benefits that truly enrich the employee experience and connect them to a rich engaging purpose.
  5. Using these techniques as differentiators in your hiring and retention strategies.

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

That we can start valuing wellness immediately and then start doing it. There are no laws or regulations that prohibit management and owners from doing these things.

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 work — William Donaldson, Associate Professor, Christopher Newport University

LinkedIn —

My Book — Simple_Complexity

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.