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Wellness in the Workplace - Inspiration from the Welcoa 2022 Summit

grief support partnership workplace wellness Sep 28, 2022
peaceful image of stones stacked on a palm frond, in front of bamboo sticks

Wellness in the Workplace: Inspiration from the Welcoa 2022 Summit

By: Ilana Yahdav & Kim Hanlon

After years of many virtual meetings and canceled in-person events, it was exciting to fly out to Chicago last month for Welcoa’s 2022 WellnessSummit! Welcoa (The Wellness Council of America) is a leading resource for workplace wellness professionals and programs. This summit was an opportunity for members to come together to learn and explore new relationships. Unfortunately, we did not have much time to explore Chicago as we were super focused on the summit, but hope to go back sometime (especially so Ilana can try to have a Kelly Severide sighting - Chicago Fire fans anyone?).

We were honored to be invited to teach a breakout session, which was even more exciting as this was the first time that we - Ilana and Kim - got to present together IN-PERSON. We have given countless talks together via zoom, but never in person, in the same room. It was super fun to present and spend time together without a computer screen between us. This was the longest amount of time that we have been in person and we determined that we still like each other and want to remain partners. Win-win!

There is some truly inspirational work being done in the wellness space. It was really exciting to see how in-line our work is with the mission and visions for corporate wellness others shared. We found ourselves making circles around keywords when taking notes in other’s sessions each time we felt in alignment. It is a great feeling to see how our work fills in a gap and to see our passion validated by others in the field. We’re going to share our top takeaways - which were difficult to narrow down!

Wellness Programs are More Than a “Benefit”

Welcoa CEO, Sara Martin, spoke of how there is no capitalist demand for employee wellbeing, unless there are tangible measurements around productivity or retention or other metrics to justify the ROI (return on investment). However, we need to value wellbeing in and of itself, with a vision of every company being a wellness company someday, as David Hoke, Chief Well-Being Officer of Thrive, spoke to in his keynote address. This was echoed again by Jess Von Bank of LeapGen as she started her keynote by stating that wellness programs should not be offered as “perks”, but as a social responsibility to take care of the basic human needs within one’s workforce. This is incredibly in-line with what we believe as grief specialists. Grief support should be valued in and of itself - hopefully, we will see that realized one day. 

Wellness Culture

A key component of achieving this goal of each company being a wellness company is by addressing the company culture. The more that wellness is embraced as part of the company culture AND modeled by leadership, the more successful the initiatives will be. Hoke called for companies to expand beyond the benefits plan, and one key reason is to address the burnout that is so broadly impacting all levels of organizations. This global problem is a business priority as stress impacts productivity, wellness, decision-making, and many other facets of life - at work as well as at home. 

In our session, we took this a step further and shared how grief also plays a role in burnout and stress that can negatively affect all aspects of life. It is important for leadership to model what grief support can look like, whether it be by them being open with their own grieving experiences, and/or giving employees the space and support that they need to grieve. This is not to say that leadership needs to become grief specialists and give the support, no. We are saying, however, that leadership needs to be able to recognize the symptoms of grief and provide support by offering and pointing employees in the right direction (this is where wellness programs/benefits including grief support become especially important). It is also up to leadership to create a safe environment where employees that are grieving can get the support they need to succeed. Some examples we provided were flexible hours, help with deadlines, temporarily lessened workload, and longer bereavement leave with no penalties or repercussions

Self-Care IS a Business Strategy 

Deya Smith-Taylor spoke passionately about how the foundation of all of our work is SELF. If we are not taking care of ourselves, how can we take care of others? If we are not motivated ourselves, how can we motivate others? She said, “you can’t impact what you don’t understand or practice.” 

Self-care is not only important but imperative. So, what can self-care look like in the workplace? It can look many different ways, including: closing your eyes for a few breaths before going to a meeting, wearing clothing that makes you feel good, listening to relaxing music, and if permitting, smelling aromatherapy. 

How can employers help with self-care? They can limit meetings, especially in the mornings so that people can actually get work done, have flexibility in hours and location that one chooses to work, and create an environment that people feel safe and want to be in. Organizations have to match what they say with what they do. They need to create a safe container for employees to best contribute.

A huge component of self-care is as the airlines always say, putting your own oxygen mask on first. In our grief work, we talk about how important it is for everyone to do their own grief work. It has such a profound positive ripple effect on everyone around. When leaders do their own grief work, modeling it, it is beneficial in many ways including their increased empathy and healing, and openness to others healing.

As our colleague and friend Jay Westbrook says, “hurt people hurt people.” This applies in and out of the workplace. 

We strive to practice what we preach and are continuously using our own tools to work on our grief. How can we expect those we serve to be open to grief support if we aren’t? We support each other and encourage each other to continuously dig deeper and face our own grief head-on. As Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Leadership is a Responsibility - You Need to Own Your Impact

Everyone is a leader regardless of your role in your organization (or home). Your impact makes you a leader. Angela Howard explained how thoughts lead to words and words lead to actions and the importance of knowing as well as owning your impact. When things are going well, it is easier to be empathetic. However, when things are stressful, and one is in survival mode, the tendency is to turn inward which usually leads to a lack of empathy and subconscious bias’ becoming more visible. Bad behavior flourishes in stressful situations.  It is crucial to practice and build our leadership muscle by looking outward and serving others. You need to build awareness of when you are on autopilot and falling into bias. Learn your blindspots. Learn what you default to under stress and chaos. Once identified, you can then start to take action to change and improve your responses. 

We love that by doing your own grief work, you can also learn your own blindspots and biases. A lot of grief work boils down to unresolved hopes, dreams, and expectations that we are holding onto. When we can work through them and “clean the slate” so to speak, we then have the ability to be more open, present, forgiving, and open-minded.

A True Boundary is Being Interested in Your Own Life - Put Yourself on the Calendar

Eve Rodsky, the author of Fair Play, gave a powerful keynote on the antidote to burnout. It is important to have an ownership mindset and bring back trust and accountability- both at home and at work. We (especially women) must ask for what we need and start with our why. We ALL need to practice communicating just to communicate so that we can all get better at it. Communication is not just transactional, it’s also relational. 

She talked passionately about how ALL time is created equal and that society doesn't (but MUST) value women’s time like men’s time. “Women’s time is diamonds, NOT sand,” she shared.  She explains how not having ‘time choice’ leads to poor health. Yes, yes, and yes. 

Rodsky stated: “true mental health is having the appropriate emotion at the appropriate time and ability and strength to weather it.” We couldn’t agree more.

A huge complement that is not talked about enough is the role that grief plays in mental health. Just as we would seek support for a broken arm or any sickness, we can and should also be able to receive support for a broken heart. Just because it’s not always physically visible, does not mean it’s not there. And just as a broken arm can make working difficult, so can a broken heart when one is distracted, depressed, and depleted. 

Everyone Deserves to take Good care of Themselves and Enjoy Physical Health

Maggie Gough, COO of Welcoa, shared about the importance of refocusing on physical health. She outlined the Self-Determination Theory:

  • Autonomy - You need to be able to decide and choose what is right for you.
  • Relatedness - Relationships matter for behavior change- if one doesn’t feel like they belong, it is hard to change behavior. Are there relationship influences impeding one’s ability to practice healthy behaviors?
  • Competency - Assess whether you have the knowledge to change behavior. 

She encouraged all to imagine what it would be like if you were at peak health. What would you feel like? What could you accomplish?

Everyone deserves to take good care of themselves and enjoy physical health. If it is not happening, we need to figure out why. Employers need to provide a suite of services - not just one program - and allow and trust - employees to take care of themselves, without requiring that they prove it via measurement and tracking systems. 

Everyone deserves access to an array of options for support, including grief support. It is important that employers offer these options, for all types of needs AND make sure that their employees know about it and how to take advantage of it. If employees are not taking advantage of the benefits, it’s up to the employers to explore ways to actively rectify the situation. 

The Mind Believes What We Tell it

Celeste Viciere, The Therapist, discussed the importance of how and why to create mental health consistency. She had us repeat, “My mind believes what I tell it.” What we tell ourselves, our self-talk directly impacts our actions, and in this case our consistency. Viciere shared specific actions to build consistency: get clarity on goals, create a schedule, strategically place reminders such as a post-it note, make realistic commitments, and celebrate the moments. “Enjoy the journey - be in the movement and don’t focus on the future.” Add gratitude and celebrate the small moments.

It is hard to be grateful AND struggle at the same time. If we are only focusing on our hardship, it is extremely challenging to feel any gratitude. Conversely, if we focus on gratitude, it can really reframe our perspective on our own hardship (and that of others) and help to lessen it in some ways. It’s hard to show up for people if we're NOT serving ourselves. It’s hard to be empathetic if we have not experienced something ourselves or given ourselves the space to work through it. However, empathy is also a muscle that can be built and is especially important for leaders. 

Our goal is to encourage and help leaders do their own grief work so they can build this muscle and have the reserves to support others as well. When leaders model healthy behaviors, appropriate boundaries, and emotional support, it truly can have a positive impact on all. 

How to Improve Engagement in Corporate Wellness Programs?

There were many ideas about strengthening engagement, including: getting Leadership buy-in, evaluating program design to improve simplicity, and also including everyone in the organization- from part-time workers to all employee loved ones as well. Hoke shared that there is increased engagement and better outcomes when programs are thoughtfully designed and more inclusive. 

Simplifying Programs Can Improve Engagement

  • Hoke prompted reflection on how can we incorporate breaks and check-ins into the workflow.
    • One suggestion provided by Von Bank was a “red, yellow, green” check-in tool incorporated into Slack meetings - a simple way to provide insight into one’s mental/physical/emotional wellness without having to share more than what feels comfortable. We love this idea and it is a great non-invasive tool to gauge people’s mental state and normalize emotional authenticity.
    • Hoke also asked what micro steps one can take, such as making one (just one!) better choice each day. This can be drinking a glass of water upon waking or setting a phone reminder to do 10 mindful breaths before turning on the car for your morning commute (or turning on your computer if your commute is just to the home office!)
  • Again, including families and communities helps improve engagement and removes barriers from participating if one can more easily involve their families in their personal wellness goals
  • Gough emphasized the need to address barriers to wellness.
    • For example, do employees have access to healthy foods or safe places to exercise outdoors? Are programs inclusive of different ages, abilities, and cultures? 

The Importance of a Wellness Mindset Within Leadership

If Leadership buy-in improves engagement, how do we encourage this mindset? Per Katina Sawyer from Workr Beeing, mentality is key. Part of this is incorporating authenticity and vulnerability when appropriate - sharing one’s hopes and dreams as well as fears and concerns. She shared what we know from our work with grief as well - people will know that stress is showing up, and will appreciate having some insight as to why. Emotions are there whether they are acknowledged or not. Furthermore, leadership modeling these conversations will create safety for others to join in. 

Sawyer shared some important components of a wellness mindset: 

  • Understand one’s own responsibility and agency in serving others as well as modeling wellness. What can you do yourself to support employee wellness? 
  • Embrace active learning and be open to new ways of thinking. 
  • Be flexible and adaptable while recognizing that everyone has unique wellness needs. 
  • Accept employees’ boundaries and view them as an opportunity versus a challenge. 
  • Prioritize the humane by leading with compassion and care. 

The Role of Grief Education

Sawyer's words on the wellness mindset tie in beautifully with what we encourage as well - being mindful and offering grace with the understanding that people do well when they can. This is why we are so passionate about providing grief education, so more understand the role grief has in wellness as well as how one shows up at work. This understanding will help leaders hone those empathy skills and connect with their team with curiosity and collaboration to meet organizational needs from a compassionate place. We also have a powerful tool, the Emotional Inventory Guide, to help leaders build this skill. 

Want to learn more about our programs and grief education in the workplace and/or download the resources that we referenced? Please review our links page as well as the “Welcoa Summit Resources'' link for access to our White Paper, Welcoa breakout room slides and handout, and more. You can also listen to Welcoa member Jen Arnold’s podcast interview with us. 

We are Inspired as Grief-Awareness Ambassadors

It was a wonderful experience learning and meeting so many new allies in the wellness arena. We are excited about integrating what we learned and growing new and old collaborations. Thank you, Welcoa, for a great summit. We look forward to next year’s Wellness Summit in sunny San Diego, CA! We are already planning the side trip to LegoLand with our families.

Upcoming Webinar with Wellable - October 26, 2022

We are invigorated and looking forward to sharing more about grief in the workplace with Wellable during a webinar on October 26th. Join us to learn some insights and tools to more easily navigate grief in the workplace. Learn more and register here.