Employee Well-Being in a Time of Uncertainty

This week, VelocityEHS features a conversation with Tad Mitchell, president and CEO of WellRight, on the topic of well-being. Tad has authored five books on wellness and is a sought-after speaker and thought-leader in the field.

This interview is part of our continuing celebration of National Safety Month, as sponsored by the National Safety Council. A key focus of Safety Month this year is mental-health, a critical topic considering the events of 2020, and the psychological toll it has taken on so many. It is especially important to employers, whether they are beginning to bring employees back into their facilities, or are trying to sustain an engaged workforce operating under elevated stress loads.

VelocityEHS’ increased focus on the topic also follows closely on the heels of our first virtual conference back in May (The Short Conference) which brought together 2000 EHS professionals. Wellness and stress management were top of mind for both our customer panelists and attendees.

Thank you for joining us to talk about a topic so important to so many of our customers and people in the EHS space.

It’s my pleasure to speak to you and your audience. I’ve always thought there should be more of an overlap with health, safety and wellness…certainly more integration. But we can boil that ocean another day.

Let’s start at the beginning. How would you describe wellness?

I tend to be a little more theoretical. Most people go to fitness and nutrition. I think it’s a much bigger thing. I like to compare people to plants. What does a healthy plant look like? A healthy plant is always growing, it’s growing roots and creating more leaves…a person that’s well is always growing and they’re becoming a better person. If you look at your life over the last five years and you haven’t grown at all, you’re not well.

You talk about the six dimensions of well-being. Can you walk us through those?

Of course. There are a lot of different models, but the one we use has six considerations:

  1. Emotional
  2. Social
  3. Physical
  4. Occupational
  5. Financial
  6. Purpose (also called spiritual)

To really be well, you need to be well in all of these areas. You might be just fine physically, but you may be a mess because other areas are not in line. Historically, wellness has been focused on fitness and nutrition, but with these stressful times, it has really pushed people to the edge, and some of the social and emotional aspects are coming to the forefront. And not far behind are the occupational and financial stresses that are on the rise.

On the social side, this isolation thing drives people nuts. People are like horses, people need to be with other people, they need to talk to other people. Remote meetings and video calls, they can help. But on the emotional side right now, it’s just rough.

From a wellness standpoint, the first thing people think about, when they think about stress, is mindfulness and breathing deep and all that. And that’s good, it is important. In fact, I was on a panel recently where 3 out of 5 wellness experts, when asked what’s the most important thing you’ve ever learned about wellness, they brought up meditation. In my mind, breathing can help, though I see it as more of a first aid thing. Meditation may be more of a long-term thing.

But when you think more broadly about the emotional aspect, when we think about being healthy at work, it might be as simple as creating a to do list every day. Just the daily practice of asking, “Okay, what am I going to get done today? What do I plan to do?” and then marking those off. Something as simple as that, whether you’re at home or moving into the office, with so much going on — can help keep you focused. It helps you be more well and helps you get more done.

Another challenge is to minimize your news time. If you’re spending too much time watching the news, it’s going to bring you down. The news does not make people happy. It’s good to stay connected to a degree. But if you overdose, you will feel the effects of it, and it will bring you down. So, if you just set a personal limit, and only watch so much news a day, it will make you feel better.

What I hear you saying is its important to pay attention to your inputs and outputs, that makes a lot of sense.

At this time, it seems like we have kind of a perfect storm, with Covid and the protests and the great uncertainty, it’s really affecting all six dimensions all at once. Is there anything beyond what we’ve already talked about that you think people, especially employers, should be paying attention to?

There was so much going on at the beginning of the pandemic, and the HR people had to shutter their windows and focus on their internal policies. Such as, “How are we going to get through this?” And, “How are we going to mandate and organize work-from-home?” And that took maybe 4-6 weeks.

But then they realized, they also have to make sure that their employees are healthy at home. And that includes their employees’ workspace at home — is it ergonomically set up so they are not getting aches and pains? Are they watching too much news? Are they getting depressed because they are not socializing?

What surprised me is how quickly employers recognized that, and how quickly our customers turned to us for help.

Luckily, we can turn on a dime. Most companies like ours will give you a wellness program for the entire year, and they won’t change it until that year is up. We can update your program in real-time so employers can respond to the demands and needs of their employees in the moment. We are grateful to be able to stand with our customers at this time and provide them with real assistance.

The bottom line is, this is an immensely stressful time for your workers, and unaccounted for it can drive losses in productivity, drops in engagement, and rob your people of creativity. Worse, stressed employees can get into unhealthy habits, like overeating, not exercising, sleeping poorly, and even turning to alcohol and drugs for relief. This behavior, unchecked, leads to chronic diseases such as depression, obesity, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal issues. So we have to think about our people beyond the tasks they carry out for us.

What I hear you saying is, not only do people (employees) need to be able to ask for help, but a company should also be able to ask for help. They don’t have to do it alone. Companies shouldn’t be afraid to turn to experts who can help them get through this time.

Is there anything special companies should be thinking about in terms of wellness as they focus specifically on “returning to work.”

I think the first thing, obviously, is all the safety stuff. I know of companies that are making people sign forms saying they are going to keep all the rules. But those policies are not just about the individual. Doing that makes everybody else feel safe too. That way you can go back into the office knowing everyone is trying to be safe, with you.

It makes me think of another dimension we should talk about, the managerial role. In this environment, a manager can make a big difference. Managers reaching out to all of their team members, making sure they have what they need. Just checking in on how people are feeling…simple things like this. And expressing gratitude toward people so they feel connected.

Even here at WellRight, since this all happened, we used to have monthly all-hands meetings, but now we’ve been doing them weekly. And people are glad for that; they feel like they are in the know. So I recommend communicating to employees on a more frequent basis, and setting up meetings to work through problems and brainstorm how things can be better.

VelocityEHS leadership did the same thing, and it was amazing how well employees have responded to it. So much goodwill that comes from standing with your people and saying, we are in this together.

What is gamification, and why is it important to well-being, especially at the corporate level?

Our software is a corporate wellness platform that gives people challenges and activities to stay engaged. People are given these challenges every week, every month. And our system makes it very easy to track participation via desktop, text, mobile — and with the tracking, we’re given points that nudges us towards these healthy behaviors, and then these points turn into gift cards for us.

There’s a whole science around the rewards – around giving too little or too much. These gentle nudges, through the gamification, help you turn the behaviors into daily routines. All of it helps you build up resiliency and tips for operating in stressful times.

In other words, your software is helping people take responsibility for their self-care. That way they can just focus on the practices, instead of having to also focus on remembering to do the healthy behaviors and manage the process of self-care. The software is interacting with you in a personal way, almost like training wheels, so you can just focus on the healthy behaviors…so you can just have the experience.

That’s not unlike the way VelocityEHS helps folks with environment, health and safety activities. The software doesn’t replace the personal agency required to get things done, but the software does provide guardrails that make it more likely that the right things get done, the right way, at the right time.

When I look at what our program does to nudge people, I think about four things:

  1. Education – Helping employees understand why they might want to make a change
  2. Tracking (or nudging) – It’s one thing to say you’re going to do something, it’s a whole other thing to track it each day. It’s the training wheels until it becomes habit.
  3. Coaching – Are you really accountable to technology? We offer unlimited telephonic coaching via the platform. They never tell you what to do. They help you think through what you’re going to do.
  4. Gamification – In its simplest form, as you track activities, you earn points toward rewards, and it makes it more fun.

As an example: as we work from home, maybe we don’t get enough exercise. A challenge can be to get 5000 steps a day in. You can also do something as a group challenge, so you get the social aspect and folks are depending on you to perform. For example, we have one called Walkie-Talkie. You self-select a group of friends, and you set a call time, everyone calls in to a number, and you walk around your neighborhood. You’re simulating office environment when you don’t really have it, and making it fun. Making it a game.

We also have challenges geared toward different people in the organization. As I mentioned, this is a hugely important time for managers. So we need to make sure we’re not just engaging with our frontline employees. We need to make sure we are taking care and engaging the people who are looking after them. It’s a no-brainer.

VelocityEHS takes employee well-being very seriously. Our HR team and leadership are always rolling out activities and initiatives that address the six different dimensions. But sometimes it’s a “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” situation. Some opportunities go unused by all of the employees that might benefit.

It seems like the gamification could be the missing piece for companies to ensure the things they are already doing are taken advantage of. It helps you get the return on investment for the things you’re already doing.

Gamification really is a game changer. Engagement is everything. All you have to do is offer a reward. A little bit of money. $50, $100, $300 over the course of a year – but you’re giving it out a few dollars at a time for different challenges. Which equates to just a few cents at a time, since people have to do an activity 30 times or so to meet the challenge. It’s so powerful for so little money. Why not?

As we head back into work, you could have the challenges related to return to work. Why not have a challenge to keep social distance or do a desk wipe down every day? The same gamification can be applied to occupational activities.

That makes a lot of sense to me. We know in EHS engagement is key. And it’s important that the health & safety person is not just the person keeping track of errors or mistakes. We know it’s important for engagement that you make sure you are catching employees doing the right thing, and that you acknowledge it and honor it.

I can hear some people thinking…we’ll that’s all well and good. I’m sure my people would love a little money to do the things they should already be doing. But, I don’t have an endless bank. What are some of the ROIs for me and the company?

It’s all about where you invest your efforts. When wellness started, it was all about reducing medical claims costs. Depending on how you structure your program, you can structure it to be very focused on getting people healthy and reducing medical claims costs. And we can do that with our program. But I would argue, you might save 10% on your medical claims’ costs, which may equate to 0.2% of your payroll.

But, if we’re helping employees become better people, we’re going to increase our topline growth, and then we’re going to be talking about 10 or 100 times the return on our investment. How do you measure that? It’s hard. Because if people are happy at work, we have no idea what’s going to happen. A person may make that one extra call that closes that ten-million-dollar deal because they were happier and more dedicated to the company.

If you have healthy employees, within all six dimensions of their well-being, they come to work more present and accountable and available to their colleagues. It’s human nature they are going to be more productive and engaged. Here are just a few stats I can share:

  • 6X better engagement when employees have strong overall well-being
  • 72% of employers that offer wellness programs reduce their cost of healthcare
  • $350 annual savings per employee when wellness programs include coaching, due to fewer sick days
  • $1.50 ROI generated for every $1 employers invest in wellness programs
  • 63% of employers that offer wellness programs experience financial stability and growth
  • 85% of employers offering wellness programs with rewards see greater employee participation

What we hear from folks, especially people running their company’s wellness activities, is that they appreciate the freshness of activities and challenges. Being able to respond in the moment. One customer has over 2000 employees, and they wanted people to back into their parking spots so that there were less accidents when they were leaving at the end of the day. And they said it was amazing, over the course of the challenge, to see it resulting in a direct and immediate change. They could look out over the parking lot and see that it was working.

Another big thing is it’s a great way to create a “Culture of Caring.” That’s a big thing and huge for retaining top talent.

I noticed that you offer your program not just to the employees of your customers, but also to their families, at no extra cost. Why is that, why is it so important to engage the family?

You could make everything perfect at work, but then they go home and if they don’t have the support, it’s all going to fall apart. To get everyone in the family onboard is hugely powerful and the chances of success will go up.

I think one of the things this pandemic and shelter in place has made clear is just how interdependent our well-being is. It’s always true, but it’s just more evident today. Any last thoughts?

I think a lot about how do you become a better person. One habit at a time. We are a culmination of a bunch of habits, and to improve ourselves we have to get rid of these bad habits and add these good ones. How do you figure out what you’re going to work on next? Ultimately, everybody’s wellness journey is different.

What I like to do is ask myself, “What do I need to work on next?”…and the answer comes. I work on that thing until I’m ready for the next thing and then I ask myself the question again. Since I’ve been doing this, I feel like I’m in a speedboat instead of just floating down the river. I feel like I’m making progress. It’s fun. It’s invigorating.

Wellness is about personal growth. One of the best things a company can do is help people understand that. If growth is the goal, then big problems like the ones we’re experiencing aren’t problems. They are growth opportunities. They are the “weights” in our “workout” to become better people.

Tad Mitchell is a thought leader in habit-based, holistic wellness. He is currently the president and CEO of WellRight, a leading provider of employee wellness solutions. Mr. Mitchell is the author of 21 Habits, 101 Challenges, 102 Challenges, 103 Challenges, and 104 Challenges. Prior to joining WellRight, Mr. Mitchell was the President and CEO of Compliance11, a software company that was sold to Charles Schwab in 2011. Mr. Mitchell also authored the children’s book Where Is the Sears Tower? Mr. Mitchell completed his B.S. in Computer Science and MBA at Brigham Young University.