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Cheryl DeSantis Of SmileDirectClub On 5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees

An Interview With David Liu

…Empathy, Empathy, Empathy: Leading with Empathy is extremely important and a priority for our leadership team. During the brink of the pandemic, we had to revisit the way we approach work and one another. We learned that we had to approach each Team Member with empathy and with grace during these uncertain times, and this has carried over today as we have woven this into our culture.

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 Cheryl DeSantis.

Cheryl DeSantis is the Chief People & Diversity Officer at SmileDirectClub, the fast-growing telehealth pioneer with the first medtech platform for teeth straightening. With more than 20 years of experience in strategic people and organizational development, Cheryl enables the growth of the business through its Team Members, striving to maintain SmileDirectClub’s strong company culture through values-based leadership. Cheryl has global oversight of talent acquisition, compensation and benefits, team member relations and engagement, business partnership, and learning and development for SmileDirectClub’s business across the globe.

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?

I grew up an athlete and played competitive sports in college. I always wanted to be part of a winning team. Early in my career, I had roles in marketing communications and enjoyed the creative side of sharing stories with people. As my career advanced, I realized I loved the coaching side of being on a team and made the switch over to human resources where I could be in service of making great teams and helping people thrive. I came to SmileDirectClub because I wanted to be in the business of making smiles and transforming the lives of our Team Members and our customers. Growing up, my stepdad always asked me “who did you make smile today?” He asked that every day after school. When I saw the mission at SmileDirectClub, to democratize access to quality oral care, I knew I could live out his dream for me by helping make millions of people smile — 1.5 million, to be exact.

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

Well, this is a wide-open question! I have had a gift of travel through prior roles and have learned so much about other cultures and people. My role with Mars took me around the world, from Europe, to Asia, and to the Middle East. When I first started traveling internationally, I was afraid to travel by myself and would rearrange my itinerary to make sure someone would fly with me. As I got more comfortable and confident in myself and my ability to navigate travel in non-English speaking countries, I soon relished the opportunity to travel by myself if needed and instead of fearing the unknown, I embraced it. I also learned that curiosity and opening my mind to the values, norms, and practices of others was vital to my personal growth. My most interesting travel story was a trip to Vietnam with Mars. We were going to learn more about cocoa farming and to be part of a ceremony for a company sponsored Cocoa Education Center. Getting out into our supply chain taught me more about our business and the conditions in which the cocoa farmers endured to ensure the world has chocolate. It was also a trip that I could connect to my father, whom I was not very close to. He had served three tours in Vietnam, and my travels there allowed us to connect and have conversations about his experience. My trip there unlocked him to open up because we now had this shared destination, which helped us grow closer.

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

This past year has taught us that the wants and needs of the workforce are changing at a rapid pace and we are approaching a seismic shift in work. Burnout is widespread. So, what do we do? We must bring our focus back to the human. A human-centric approach to work is critical and the workforce demands it. Here are my recommendations on how to avoid burnout:

  • Connection is key: Go out of your way to personally connect with people. We need to push past the easy answer of “I’m fine,” to see how our teams are really doing. Set up coffee breaks. Ask questions. Really, really listen to the answers.
  • Celebrate big moments and recognize wins: Acknowledge that some things may have changed for the better. Many people stepped up with leadership and innovation to deliver results this year. Make sure you’re celebrating every one of those wins!
  • Boundaries and balance: Understand and respect that boundaries are different now. On the positive side, the many Zoom glimpses of each other’s personal lives have brought us closer and more authentically together. At the same time, there’s growing evidence that work-life balance has become harder for many and that Zoom fatigue is real. We need to talk about this openly and make sure we’re empowering and supporting people to thrive and not let burn out quite literally burn out your workforce. Ask your people what is important to them and then help them honor their boundaries.

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

Team Members make up the foundation of any business. You cannot have happy customers without happy Team Members — full stop. To create a fantastic culture, you need to listen, learn, and provide. The only way to understand how you can improve your internal culture is to ask. Don’t be afraid to survey your Teams.

Last year, we launched a Pulse Survey across our organization. This survey allowed our Team Members to provide candid feedback to our leadership on areas where we could make improvements within our culture and our Team Member experience. The Pulse Survey gave us great insight and we have been able to act upon the feedback given. We are continuously evolving our Team Member experience and culture to match the needs of our workforce.

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

My favorite quote is “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” I spent most of my life chasing this idea of being perfect. I thought I had to show that nothing hurt me or could throw me off course. I was afraid to admit my weakness and where I had failed. This was exhausting for me and created a wall between me and those around me because I didn’t create the space for others to feel fallible. Through the benefit of feedback and coaching, I learned that my allergy to vulnerability was going to be a career staller. It’s at SmileDirectClub where I began to open up and realize that my flaws made me more endearing and relatable. The areas that I tried to hide were my superpower to be more empathetic to others. I share this quote whenever I can to ensure people know that perfection is overrated, unattainable and exhausting. Let others in. Ask for help. Be willing to share your true self.

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?

  • Listen and Learn: The first step we always take is to listen with empathy. This is critical to any organization, especially right now as we navigate our way to a new normal of flexible and remote work. As I mentioned, we recently launched a Pulse Survey across our organization to allow for Team Member feedback. One of the main areas noted for improvement was wellness. In response to this, we have launched our Team Member Wellness strategy entitled SmileWell. The program offers our Team Members various resources including a subscription to the Shine Mental Health App and virtual fitness classes with P.volve. Listening allowed us to make these improvements in our Team Member experience.
  • Be Flexible: Work-life balance is a common buzzword but is not commonly accepted or looked at as the “norm” within many organizations. According to a survey by the eCommerce Company, 60% of Americans say they have poor work-life balance, mostly due to a lack of boundaries between work and home life. As a working parent myself, I can say from experience that it can be extremely trying to balance emails, meetings, soccer games and carpool line, especially within a 24-hour day. Many of our Team Members also shared in this sentiment when providing feedback in our Pulse Survey. Based on this feedback, we introduced a new flexible and virtual work policy in April 2021, giving many of our Team Members the opportunity to work remotely, in person, or a combination of the two as they choose. This new policy allows our Team Members to attain a better work-life balance, whether that means attending their kids’ soccer games, enjoy family dinner or sipping coffee while they work outside — from anywhere. We work to live, not live to work.
  • Best Through Balance: Continuing with the theme of balance, I would ask “how can you weave balance not only into a policy, but into your organization’s culture?” We have a set of Team Member values that we call Truths. These Truths are ingrained in our Team Members’ experience from onboarding, to your one, two, or three-year anniversary. We’ve listened to our Team Members, we’ve created a wellness program to meet their immediate needs, we’ve implemented a new flexible and virtual work policy, now what? After conducting the Pulse Survey, we created a Senior Leader Forum, comprised of a group of senior leaders who help solve our most pressing and critical challenges. The forum realized that we needed to weave in balance through our Team Member Truths. From this group, two new Truths were born: Our Best Through Balance, which promotes the importance of wellness and balance to be our best selves at work, and the other is called We Smile Here and speaks to the fun and environment of inclusion we have created at SmileDirectClub. Since launching these new Truths in August of 2021, we have seen a tremendous response. Our Team Members feel comfortable to go to their kid’s ballet recital, take their full lunch hour, or take a walking meeting.
  • Lead by example: It’s true that authenticity starts at the top. As leaders, we must be willing to practice what we preach and set a good example for our Team Members. While it is often tempting to work from early in the morning into late night, or through holidays and PTO, we must remember that our actions set the tone for our teams. If you commit to launching a value proposition, you must make sure your leadership is aligned and modeling this behavior across the board. We shared a “Create the Space” memo with all Team Members in early 2021. We decided to block calendars to ensure that there are no meetings before 8 a.m. or after 5:30 p.m., during the lunch hour, or after 2 p.m. on Fridays. We also declared it acceptable to respond to any weekend emails on Monday versus immediately, and encouraged all Team Members to put down work while on vacation. Our leadership team has adopted this memo and truly leads by example to ensure that our Team Members feel supported and encouraged to adopt these behaviors as well.
  • Empathy, Empathy, Empathy: Leading with Empathy is extremely important and a priority for our leadership team. During the brink of the pandemic, we had to revisit the way we approach work and one another. We learned that we had to approach each Team Member with empathy and with grace during these uncertain times, and this has carried over today as we have woven this into our culture.

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?

We have made great strides to remove the stigma of mental health in the workplace. Even just 10 years ago, most employers were nervous about mental health benefits because it may imply people were unhappy in the workplace. A good outcome from the pandemic has been normalizing this conversation and deepening our understanding around the nuances of mental health. It can look very different in different people. We need to keep the conversation going. No matter what industry or business you are in, you will not have happy customers without Team Members who feel supported and have the resources to thrive. There is no doubt that there is a direct correlation. Organizations must make the mental wellness of Team Members a priority. I would suggest surveying your population to gain a benchmark on how your teams are feeling. We specifically ask our Team Members about their wellbeing and if they feel supported by our company. From there, you can understand where there may be areas for improvement. Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you asked me back in 2019, I would have never thought that we would be embracing a flexible and remote work policy, but our world changed, and our Team Members’ needs have changed. We listened, but more importantly, we acted. I encourage your organization’s leadership to listen with empathy and get ready to make a game plan.

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?

I think the first step is to always be kind — kind to each other, kind to those around us and kind to ourselves. We never know what someone may be going through as we don’t wear our mental and emotional challenges physically as we would a broken arm or scrape. Always offer a helping hand and never judge, this includes yourself. I think we get so caught up in being the best, which in-turn can sometimes mean we end up being hard on ourselves. I have found that giving yourself grace is key to fighting stress or anxiety. Make it okay for someone to share their feelings in a work setting. Too often, people feel they must shut themselves off and be some type of corporate robot. Create the environment where people can share. There’s a reason why GALLUP has a survey that asks if you have a best friend at work. People need people, at home, at work, everywhere. Acknowledge that sometimes all we can do is show up and that is a big step. Give yourself and your Team Members grace, be kind to yourself and others, and take it one day at a time.

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?

What is the value of having happy and healthy Team Members? What’s the value of Team Members that are well-rested and present to get the job done? I would say the business value is HUGE. Like I have said before, there is a direct correlation between customer happiness and Team Member happiness. Your Team Members cannot be productive or provide the best customer experience if their wellbeing isn’t prioritized. Your organization will absolutely benefit from having a healthy workforce (both physically and mentally). When your people can feel that you care about them, they will give that back with loyalty and extra effort.

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?

Yes, I do. I am a single mom with three daughters, two dogs and a big job. I can get very stressed! I have a few things I do. I can always tell when I’m starting to get overwhelmed. My breathing gets shallow, I get very lightheaded, and my mind starts racing to the worst-case scenario. I actively use the 478-breathing technique: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold that breath for 7 seconds, and then outbreath through the mouth for 8 seconds. I also take a morning walk, which serves as my meditation, and I do yoga whenever I can. I also have no problem asking for help from a trusted friend to talk through my fears. Getting my fearful thoughts out of my body is often the practice I need most.

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 think we can all agree that Zoom fatigue is real. Due to the virtual nature of our world, we have somehow shifted into more meetings, which means more Zoom. It can be exhausting to be on camera all day long. Boundaries are important to ensure your Team Members don’t get burnt out by the end of the week. I had mentioned our Create the Space Initiative where we encourage Team Members to block their calendars for the lunch hour each day. This has been helpful to ensure that they are taking their full lunch break and can step away from their screens. We also block afternoons on Fridays from 2 p.m. on to give the same mental break. Overall, technology has been wonderful to keep us connected during the pandemic, but I would recommend creating boundaries to improve your team’s overall mental health.

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. :-)

I want to start a movement on heart-centered leadership. I want to normalize having empathy, compassion, and courage as key leadership traits. I also want to make a stand for working women that you can “work hard and mom hard.” There is room for both. There doesn’t have to be a stigma to ensure you are present in both. Too often working women are not welcomed in the boardroom or the PTA. I want to remove barriers to ensure that women feel they can make the right accommodations for both work and home and not have that impact their work trajectory or presence in their kids’ lives.

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

You can follow me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cheryl-desantis-813259a/

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 Liu

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