An Elementary Approach to Employee Wellbeing

I have sat on a number of panels in recent months discussing the need for greater mental and physical wellness in an increasingly frenetic business climate in order to create happier, more sustainable employees.  Quite simply, employee burnout is on the rise and the fear of that is palpable.  The consensus among these panels has been two fold:

  1. There is an urgent need for change – the debate is what is the right and achievable course of action and how much will it cost the organization?
  2. Change must come from the top – both in advocating and demonstration.  It’s the only way to drive meaningful action and adoption.

As a former senior executive and parent to a current Kindergartner, it’s become clear to me that there are key wellness techniques demonstrated everyday in the school environment – created to nurture, develop and drive success in our children – that we have simply forgotten as adults trying to create the same values in our corporate cultures.  Similarly, as a health coach, there are specific areas of development that I use to cultivate your overall wellness – in part, they include: positive relationships, creativity, joy, social life, education, and of course, physical activity and healthy home cooking.  When you think about it, these elements were all present in your primary school years and even the village working environments that our ancestors thrived in…so why have we let them get away from us?  Let’s revisit that experience:

  • Morning Intentions and Affirmations. American children begin each day with The Pledge of Allegiance and in some religious-based institutions, a prayer.  This has always established a clear connection, alignment and intention for the day as well as our place and course in life.  It’s a way to remember, “what and why are we doing this?”  In business, I see a great opportunity in this as well.  Whether that be your personal intention each morning, “What is my ‘why’ today?  What is motivating me today? What gift or learning do I hope to take away from my day? What am I grateful for today?”  Or, as an employee or manager in a larger organization, “What does my company stand for, and how do I proudly contribute to this shared pursuit today? How can I put my ego aside for the greater good I’m serving?”  I believe starting each morning as an individual or initiating the practice as a team lead with that quiet focus and intention can drive greater presence and success in your hours and years ahead.
  • The Lunch Room. Taking time to gather around a table to sit, eat, and have great engaging conversation is not just good digestive health, but mental health too (as these two are inextricably linked – please read “The Mind-Gut Connection” to learn more.)  When I was growing up we had dinner together as a family every day of the week – no exception.  Today, the late nights and disparate schedules have often left the family dinner on the cutting room floor which is a bummer.  While, perhaps, this is a more challenging family dynamic to solve for, organizations have an opportunity to offer their employees nourishing food options (especially in the age of pop-up chefs and even health-conscious food trucks if your office isn’t outfitted with a corporate kitchen), and strongly encourage employees take their lunch break, gather, laugh, discuss, humanize each other, and form greater camaraderie.  I have been in many corporate campuses where this is alive and well, but in ad agencies where I came from I’d say lunch at your desk…or not at all, has become far more the norm, and I can tell you (and suspect you know too) that it’s not good for your mental or physical health. Let’s gather at the lunch table, shall we?
  • The Guidance Counselor.  Just like employees, children bring a host of different backgrounds, experiences, varied family dynamics and traumas to the school environment.  In helping all children thrive, the school counselor has always offered a safe place to talk out feelings and process experiences happening inside or outside of school to help them stay better-focused on the task at hand.  Some individuals may be more vocal and others may be more internal-directed but often communicate their pain in other non-verbal ways.  It seems to me that the office environment isn’t much different.  When you provide employees with Executive Coaches – independent and non-judgmental support systems to help people better consider varied perspectives and agendas, learn positive and productive communication techniques, learn how to better take care of their physical and emotional health, or perhaps simply have a safe sounding-board, they provide invaluable support to incredibly stressful environments where many employees report feelings of isolation and loneliness – both recipes for poor performance and a negative culture-vortex.  The fact is it often costs more to replace employees than it does to train them (not to mention the potential for more horrific outcomes with highly disgruntled employees that you’ve seen play out in the news).  And, more importantly, business these days is hard and it’s often emotional whether you want it to be or not – so creating a safe and supportive environment lets all boats rise.  As organizational leaders, you must give this critical consideration.
  • The Playground.  When I landed my first big advertising job at J. Walter Thompson Detroit on the Ford account they set my expectations in the interview, “At this agency, we work hard, and we play hard.”  I was totally on board with that approach and they most certainly delivered on their promise.  But the operative word was “play”.  And for that reason, it is among my most positive and powerful memories in the business that bred the strongest camaraderie, business performance and results for our agency and our client.  In fact, at that time, we most definitely produced some of the most revolutionary work in the industry for our client and we happily did so late into most nights.  But, we made sure that we balanced that hard work with “playground time.” Sure, plenty of folks go out and grab a drink after work, but at this shop, my team (and a client or two) from coordinator level to SVP actually suited-up in protective gear and played roller hockey on an old, public tennis court after work a couple times a month if memory serves.  It was ridiculous and comical, as you might imagine.  But, in terms of our wellness – physically getting moving, burning off steam, genuinely laughing until our sides hurt, and getting some really important fresh air after being in recycled air (where people still smoked in their offices to boot!) in a high-rise building all day was so important for our working relationships and our health.  To that end, there’s a great book called “Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results” that speaks to the importance of play in the workplace and a key success-driver of the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle (which would otherwise be a cold and smelly place that no one would want to work).  I have always given this book to my teams to set the tone of our working relationship out the gate.  Taking a recess to play is standard in the schedule of every elementary school, and I believe the office environment could benefit greatly in this way as well.   
  • Cherished Summer & Holiday Breaks.  When you’re in school, counting down to holiday breaks and summer vacation is a joy we all shared.  If you haven’t sung some Alice Cooper on the last day of school in celebration, you have really missed out.  So when did it become a badge of honor to NOT take the vacation time you are offered at work?  And, I’m not judging, I’ve been that person too thinking that it proved I was a real team player and a model employee.  Actually, in California, it’s a law from the state government (or was when I lived there) that you can roll those days over and are owed the equivalent pay at the end of your employment, so when I left an agency I got a big fat check as a parting gift (wahoo!), buuuuuut, in most other states it’s “use it or loose it”.  So if you choose to lose it, I know better now that you’re doing your mind, body, family and friends a massive disservice by not taking that valuable, earned time.  You physically need it.  Like meditation, taking time to pause will make you better, healthier, more present, and more committed.  I promise.  Honor your boundaries.  And really, no one likes a martyr.  Take the damn vacation, and start singing some Alice Cooper at the top of your lungs.

I’ve heard the phrase, “everything you need to know you learned in Kindergarten”, and I believe that to be true more than ever.  Come on, let’s go play!

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Danielle is Founder of The Well-Intended® and a certified Executive Wellness Coach passionate about improving workplace dynamics and employees’ quality of life.  If you’d like to learn more about how The Well-Intended can help your organization and its leadership, please email danielle@thewellintended.com.

Danielle has a degree IN advertising from Michigan State University (Go Green!) and a degree OF sarcasm in life.  Her perfectly imperfect pursuit of wellness is rooted in the research and practice of wellness in efforts to revitalize her mind, body and spirit after 20 years as an executive in the advertising industry and a hobby of collecting home addresses in Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City and Atlanta. You can reach her on The Well-Intended social channels or at danielle@thewellintended.com.

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