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Ann Walton Of Voices On 5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees

An Interview With David Liu

As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Walton, Vice President of People & Operations at Voices.

With more than 25 years of experience, Ann Walton has an extensive track record transforming human resources & operations from ordinary to extraordinary by instituting and fostering a high-performance culture. Through her passionate and unique leadership style, Ann develops and mentors the Voices team to realize its “why” and plan its “how.” Ann is recognized as an expert in human relations, process engineering, and Organizational Change Management and is certified in (ADKAR) Prosci® (Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement), ITIL/ITSM (Information Technology Institute Library/Information Technology Service Management), and STORM Process Engineering.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to work within organizations that promoted, and in many cases required, an all-hands approach to leadership. This allowed me to understand each business holistically and to develop a dynamic skill set across many core disciplines. Landing in People & Operations came out of my passion for and expertise in fostering an inclusive and creative approach to leadership, cultivating a performance and people-driven culture, and my relentless desire to seek out opportunities to continuously evolve people, processes, and myself.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I have so many interesting stories and experiences that I’d love to share with you and your readers. Unfortunately, I can’t share the really interesting ones out of respect for confidentiality. Maybe I’ll write my memoirs one day!

One story or experience that comes to mind is of a personal nature and might be beneficial to anyone who’s feeling stuck in their career. I had been working for a large company for 20+ years. I was achieving great success, my job was secure, the compensation, benefits, and perks were amazing, and I had built strong relationships with my colleagues and our customers.

But there was something missing. In addition to an extremely heavy workload, I was traveling every week and I was exhausted. I was missing out on valuable family time and compromising my health, but I felt that I had no choice but to stay and make it work. Then in early 2014, my father lost his eyesight, I had a health scare, and my daughter got engaged. This life trifecta forced me to slow down and reflect. I wanted to be home more for my dad, I wanted to take better care of my health, and I wanted to help my daughter plan her wedding.

After much consideration and consultation with my family, I decided to resign. Many people thought I was making a big mistake. My boss told me I’d regret this decision.

I won’t bore you with the details of my journey from that decision to where I am today, but I can tell you that I’ve never felt more fulfilled. And in case you or my former boss is wondering, I haven’t regretted my decision for one minute!

If you pay attention to the signs, life will steer you in the right direction. You just have to be open to listening and brave enough to dance!

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Get rid of the concept of work-life balance. That may sound shocking, but allow me to explain.

We need to start embracing work-life harmony.

Especially in remote / work-from-home environments, our personal and professional lives intertwine with each other on a regular basis. Allowing yourself more flexibility and avoiding hard stops creates more harmony and less pressure.

Trying to take everything on all at once is a recipe for burnout, so understand and be intentional about what you’re doing every day. Have a task list that is realistic and prioritize those tasks in terms of importance and effort required. Ask questions when people loop you into things, like “What will my role be in this project?” or “How can I assist in this meeting?” It’s more than alright to ask for clear expectations and set boundaries so that you can set yourself up for success, not failure.

Of course, there are also the very practical components, like getting enough sleep, monitoring your media and content intake, reducing your stress where possible, and taking the time you need to do what you need to do to be your best self, both at work and in your personal life.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Long gone are the days when you could hang motivational quotes on a wall or put free candy in the lunchroom and point to those as culture creators. Those things are nice to have, but culture they are not. Culture is palpable. It’s how working at a company feels to the people who experience the work environment day in and day out.

Cultivating and fostering a strong and healthy culture requires authenticity. Though it’s become a buzzword in recent years, authenticity remains a necessary pillar in any successful work culture. The truth of the matter is that it takes genuine belief in and commitment to building and upholding quality culture from a company’s leadership team. Don’t talk about things you don’t actually believe in or proclaim about things you don’t invest in, and avoid advocating for behaviors and values that you yourself don’t live day to day.

A very simple way to make people feel valued, cared for, and seen is to have conversations about the things that matter to them. Don’t be afraid to ask them what those things are — you’ll likely find you have more in common with more of your colleagues than you may have previously imagined.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Our greatest responsibility in life is to continuously evolve.” Full disclosure, this is actually my own quote, but it shapes the way I interact with myself and those around me every single day.

Growing up in a very strict Irish Catholic Navy family — say that five times fast — meant I was raised with beliefs and values without the possibility of questioning them or developing my own. The problem is that we actually stop evolving as people if we don’t look past “how it’s always been” or “what we know” and start thinking for ourselves.

This quote serves as a reminder to myself when I find myself with people who may not feel open to embracing others’ opinions or points of view. I try to listen to understand and ask myself “What’s something I can take away from this conversation? What can I offer them so that we can continuously evolve?”

Approaching interactions in this way helps to focus my energy on hearing the perspectives of others in order to better appreciate where they’re coming from — and why — rather than getting frustrated that we don’t see things in the same way.

I believe it was renowned attorney and women rights activist Gloria Allred who was aggressively confronted by someone at a political rally and, instead of reacting in fear, frustration, or outrage, said something along the lines of “I appreciate that you can walk up to me and speak with free speech. I’m doing the same thing.” She was able to de-escalate the situation from a place of kindness instead of using anger or force to try to convince the other person that their point of view was wrong.

That’s the kind of thing that fosters continuous evolution within people. Acknowledging their right to their beliefs — and reminding them that you’re just as within your rights to yours — helps to create common ground rooted in compassion and understanding rather than judgment. When this occurs, the other person is more likely to be willing to listen and contemplate your point of view, too.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. Invest in benefits that financially support colleagues. This could look like mental health and wellness resources like providing a FEAP (Family and Employee Assistance Program) for your colleagues, a therapy and counseling benefit, a physical health benefit — think corporate gym memberships, massage and chiropractic, etc. — or even meditation and reflection opportunities.

As an example, Voices has recently launched a subscription to the Calm app for our colleagues, which allows them to make use of the entire Calm curriculum, at any time, from the comfort of their own devices and homes.

2. Create a physical work environment that supports mental wellness. Providing a variety of work models from which your colleagues can choose is a fantastic way to let them know you care about their needs.

Voices now permanently offers a hybrid work option, meaning the team is able to work from home, work from the office, or some blend of the two depending on their needs.

Thankfully, Big Brother-style management and time tracking is falling out of style. The flexibility that comes with a variety of work options means that if someone has a sick child, a doctor’s appointment, or something important that may impact their work day, in most cases we’re able to be flexible and support them. By introducing choice into the way we work, we’ve created an environment that prioritizes mental and physical wellness.

I would be remiss if I didn’t address the issue of becoming over-flexible with colleagues to the point of it impacting the business and our customers. As with anything, some people will take advantage of a flexible work environment. When the “tail starts wagging the dog” you know you have to address this head on with the person. My position is “where flexibility is given, flexibility is expected.”

As a quick aside, if you do have an office space for colleagues, it’s important to ensure it’s clean, comfortable, and safe. Natural light, greenery, designated quiet spaces, and communal spaces go a long way in this regard.

3. Provide connection and relationship building through both intentional and organic opportunities. This is more important now than ever, but it doesn’t happen as easily or as organically as it did when everyone was physically working in the same space.

So how does an organization create these opportunities for folks to connect? You can’t force social attendance or engagement because then it becomes another task or obligation, which is actually detrimental to your objective.

Voices has a dedicated Social Committee that works hard to put on both virtual and hybrid events for our colleagues, from virtual guided tours of Europe and macrame craft-making to tea tastings to meditation sessions. We also host monthly coffee chats, during which people can just drop in if they like. This removes the pressure but also offers a fun incentive to get involved.

4. Support mental health and wellness community initiatives. Be aware of what’s happening in your community, both in terms of events and of specific community needs. You can address these needs via corporate giving, awareness campaigns, providing resources, hosting webinars and guest speakers that might offer value to your teams, or even volunteering your time to important mental health initiatives.

Don’t just say you support something. Take action to demonstrate that you do.

5. Show up in the critical, yet often intangible, ways that demonstrate your commitment to mental wellness and the creation of an environment that supports it. Being able to say that you work with people who care about you as a human being is proven to lead to happier, more engaged colleagues. It’s even better if the care comes from a direct team leader, because it helps to foster an environment of inclusivity and support.

A leader who knows what’s important to you to feel safe, valued, heard, and appreciated can make or break a work experience. If your leader doesn’t know what you need, what your deal breakers are, or what your boundaries are, they can’t properly show up, so as a leader, it’s important to ask, and as a team member, it’s important to share.

It’s not always easy to find an organic moment to have these kinds of conversations, so conducting regular stay interviews is an excellent way to ensure you’re able to touch on these topics. We all know about hiring and exit interviews, but it’s a missed opportunity to not be having stay interviews throughout the tenure of someone’s career within the organization. These are arguably the most effective way to make sure colleagues are feeling good about being part of the organization and the team.

Finally, emphasize the importance of “Belonging” in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. People need to feel comfortable being and belonging because of who they authentically are.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

The first thing we need to accept and embrace is that supporting the mental health of your colleagues is not a “nice to have,” but a “must have.” If you believe your people are your strongest asset, then you have to invest in all facets of your people. Going back to the authenticity piece, it’s not enough to merely say you care about your colleagues. You have to actually do something about it.

This should be freely spoken about and integrated into the culture itself. If not, education needs to occur to begin to make that shift immediately. If people aren’t interested in educating themselves, then you have a serious issue in terms of creating a safe and supportive mental wellness environment.

The second strategy is simple yet often overlooked: ask. Ask your colleagues, through pulse surveys for a temperature read or regular one-on-ones for more in-depth information, what they need and how they’re feeling.

When you’re having these conversations, remember that one of the greatest strategies is to actually sit down and talk to people as human beings without necessarily always seeking to solve every issue. You don’t need to save everyone all the time, but you do need to listen without judgment and allow them to speak freely in a safe space.

Asking someone “Hey, is everything ok?” or “What’s changed?” has proven to be one of the most useful tools in my arsenal in my career.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious or having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

We talked about the importance of asking so I’m going to be succinct here: you’re asking, which is great, but are you listening? If people sense that you genuinely care about them and you’re not just checking off the “I touched base with Sally today” box on your To Do List, then they’re more likely to share with you.

If people feel psychologically safe and heard, it fosters a culture and relationships that promote and foster good mental health. Of course, you have to be careful not to appoint yourself as a “mental health professional” to avoid confusion or even potential legal issues for you or the colleague.

It can be a challenging line to walk as it’s often difficult not to try and always impart life lessons or wisdom, but A) it presupposes that person is just like you and B) it presupposes you understand exactly what they’re going through or how they’re feeling. The best way around this? You might have already guessed it, but it’s to ask them!

I’ve been successfully married for over 30 years, and this is the most important lesson I’ve come to learn. Ask people what they need from you. “Do you need to vent? Do you need advice? Do you need to just sit in silence? What do you need and what can I do for you?” You might be surprised at the answer, and it will allow both of you to show up honestly.

This might seem intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to spell it out. Can you help articulate a few ways how workplaces will benefit when they pay attention to an employee’s mental health?

I think it was Vidal Sassoon that had a string of commercials in the 80s with a tagline of “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.” It’s the same adage in the workplace. If you don’t feel good, the company doesn’t feel good.

If companies invest in their employees’ mental health, the health of the company also improves — the sum of all parts, if you will. Organizations that invest in the mental wellness of their employees are more innovative, emotionally intelligent, resourceful, provide better customer experiences, attract and retain top talent, and perform better. If you’ve got healthy people, you’ll have a healthier and more successful organization as a whole.

We speak frequently about the Employee Value Proposition (EVP), and one of the things that can greatly impact EVP and culture is a company’s investment in its employees’ mental health. Just like laughter is contagious, so too is feeling appreciated, safe, and valued. Psychological safety is extraordinarily important and that’s really coming out now amidst the Great Resignation. People are no longer willing to stay where they feel undervalued or mistreated.

Showing up for your colleagues creates loyalty and longevity. Essentially, not only is it a good moral practice, but an excellent business practice as it all contributes to the bottom line.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

As I mentioned earlier, Voices has recently launched a subscription to the Calm app that our colleagues can opt in or out of. We’re hoping it will be a valuable tool to our colleagues to assist them with breathing therapy, sleep hygiene, meditation, music therapy, masterclass wisdom, and more.

For me personally, it’s all about sleep and getting out into nature. I’m really big on a sleep hygiene routine that I have to adhere to every night and can tell if I don’t get enough sleep or sunlight. When this happens, it negatively impacts every facet of my day!

I find great comfort in routines, i.e. a morning routine, a nightly routine, a weekly review, etc. These help my mental health because I know my personality and what it needs, but also recognize that it may not be the same for everyone. As such, I’d remind leaders not to force what works for them as the only way. People need to be free to find what works for them.

I work in the communications industry, so I’m particularly interested in this question. As you know, there are a variety of communication tools such as video conferencing, phone, text, and push-to-talk. What changes or improvements would you suggest for these technologies to help foster better mental health?

I know this has been said so often by so many, but we need to rethink the number of communication tools we use and the frequency with which we use them. Just because there are 101 tools we can use doesn’t mean we should use them all.

It’s like having something running in the background of your brain all the time. We need to be able to disconnect, shut off, and walk away. By limiting the number of tools we use, limiting how often we look at them, and scheduling things in our calendars when we can, we free up some of that brain power and space.

I’d also suggest that we spend more time focusing on the reliability of the content we’re consuming. Be critical and take more responsibility for doing your own research to form opinions, not from Facebook, but from authentic and reputable sources.

Communication now, more than ever, is extremely important to a healthy state of mind, but it’s hard because it’s just this constant barrage of content. Set boundaries with yourself: “I will not watch that, I will not consume that, etc.”

Many years ago, I made a conscious decision to only allow very high quality people into my inner circle, and it has made all the difference. The same concept can be applied to content, media, news, and, of course, your own inner circle.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

This may sound trite, but I’ve seen the power that kindness can have on humanity. If you think about everything we do, everything we say, everything we take in on a daily basis, how much of it could we improve if we stopped and asked ourselves “Is this the kindest thing I could do right now? Is what I’m about to say/do a true reflection of my beliefs and values or is it rooted in fear and negativity? Is what I’m about to read, write, or watch healthy for my mind and wellbeing?”

Of course, this isn’t black and white, but think of all the change we’d see in the world if everyone asked and honestly answered those questions. No more war, abuse, fewer mental health struggles, and more genuine joy and kindness.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

LinkedIn is the best place to reach me for now, but wait for the book one day!

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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David Liu

David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication