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Employee Wellness Is The Way Through

Six months in to the global crisis, we've gotten used to the new routine—but the risk to our collective mental health is significantly higher. How one CEO is coping.

The coronavirus pandemic—and the resulting breakneck pivot to remote work—didn’t just illuminate the fact that achieving so-called “work-life balance” is far easier said than done. It suddenly and universally made social isolation, anxiety, and burnout very real threats, bringing the importance of mental health into sharp focus. As the world collectively hit pause, we were forced to think about what really matters—and what it means to truly be “well” in all senses of the word.

Work hard, play hard, eat well and amaze the customer. It’s the phrase that appears on our company’s branded coffee mugs and a mantra I take seriously. Since starting the business, I’ve always placed a high value on living life in balance. Covid-19 challenged me to walk my talk.

Our team is globally distributed so most staffers had experienced working remotely from a hotel or airport lounge. That didn’t make the swift shift to all-remote much less jarring. Ensuring the team had the right tools to effectively work from home was, of course, top priority, but I knew it was only the beginning. As the divide between personal and professional suddenly coalesced, I became fixated on figuring out what needed to happen within the organization to keep performance, productivity, and spirits high.

Here’s what I realized: Our success in surviving the pandemic (and beyond) depends on our ability to support the whole-person well-being of our staff, both inside and outside of the work environment—no matter where that is.

• If you love your employees, set them free.

Research consistently shows that autonomy is a major determinant of health inside and outside the workplace. Our colleagues are smart, capable adults. Treat them as such by trusting them to manage their own schedules and workloads as they see fit.

Without physical separation between work and the rest of life, the risk of staff binge-watching Netflix on our dime is slim. The real danger is that they won’t stop working, increasing the odds of costly and health-compromising burnout. A July survey from Monster found 69% of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home during the pandemic—a 35% increase since early May.

Remember, control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.

• Be thoughtful about how your company connects and unplugs.

Remote work wiped out hallway hellos, impromptu one-on-ones, and water-cooler conversations overnight. Missing these casual yet meaningful interactions, we made a point to implement virtual lunches and happy hours (dogs and kids welcome!). Photo contests, meme sharing, and recipe exchanges have helped foster social connection and much-needed levity.

The physical distance also forced us to be more deliberate about how we communicate. Zoom fatigue is real. Leaning on Agile methodology, we streamlined and optimized agendas for more focused, results-oriented meetings across the board. A weekly all-hands meeting keeps us aligned on updates and goals, plus opens the floor for discussion of roadblocks and wins.

Though technology enables collaborative work and communication, it can also create expectations of constant accessibility. Against this always-on backdrop, teams must know that they can and should disengage for their physical and mental health.

I earnestly urge employees to leave their desks for meals and physical activity throughout the day. They’re frequently encouraged to take “mental health days” or extended time off. Unlike many companies in the start-up and tech spheres, we’ve resisted offering “unlimited PTO” because research suggests that employees with “unlimited” vacation actually take fewer days off on average. Instead, establishing a minimum number of mandatory vacation days ensures everyone gets their fair share of guilt-free breaks.

And let’s not forget the importance of leading by example. If I’m not modeling sustainable healthy behaviors, I’m making it hard for others to do so.

• The perks of the future promote 360° well-being.

Once coveted employee perks of office centricity—think chef-prepared meals, chair massages, and on-site fitness training—were rendered worthless by COVID-19. And it’s for the best. These types of privileges are effectively “golden handcuffs” that incentivize staff to stay tethered to the workplace.

While we never subscribed to that approach, our pre-pandemic perks program needed a reboot when the outbreak forced us to send staff home for the foreseeable future. Subsidized gym memberships? Pointless with facilities shuttered. Travel “bennies”? Useless on lockdown. Faced with the choice of putting in-person parts of the program on hold or rapidly reimagining them, I chose the latter.

The yearly gym allowance can now go to exercise equipment, online classes, or other pursuits entirely. Some staffers have purchased musical instruments, LEGO sets, video games, and rock-climbing gear. Others used the stipend to embark on home improvement projects and artistic endeavors. It’s all good! Face-to-face foreign language training has gone virtual, and we’re matching employee charity contributions. Flexibility is at the heart of all these changes and will remain at the center of those to come. One benefit that’s stayed constant (and much appreciated): the company’s 100% coverage of employee health insurance premiums.

As good leaders and good humans, it’s our responsibility to keep asking questions about how we can best support the total well-being of our teammates in their personal and professional lives, especially now that the boundaries are blurred.


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