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Laura Chambers On 5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees

An Interview With David Liu

Identify and lean into strengths. Our HR team and internal StrengthsFinder coach are working across our organization to help our teams learn and celebrate their strengths.

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 Laura Chambers.

Laura Chambers is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Willow Innovations, the creator of the world’s first quiet, all-in-one, in-bra wearable breast pump. As a mom to three, she is deeply passionate about Willow’s mission to bring joy to motherhood, and their work of creating innovative solutions that enable mothers to live freely.

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?

My career is a bit of a jungle gym. What I mean by that is I have consistently taken what I call “half-steps” to broaden my experience and obtain different career opportunities. Growing up in a small town in Australia, I wasn’t aware of the various industries and companies, and I didn’t have many mentors. However, I knew I wanted to contribute to my community.

I volunteered in the nonprofit sector and thought that might be my destiny, but soon I realized that there would be a huge benefit to learning how to run a business. So, I spent some time in management consulting to broaden my horizons and discovered a love for understanding, growing, and transforming businesses.

I then moved to the U.S. to attend business school to earn my MBA and intern with the United Nations. Afterward, I joined eBay Inc. and soon realized that by choosing companies that stand for a bigger mission, I can contribute to my communities AND have tremendous fun building awesome businesses. That’s what led me to Willow — an incredible mission to create solutions for mom’s most meaningful problems and an enormous and fun business opportunity.

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

Earlier in my career, I was placed in a role and, looking back, it was a significant stretch. I was a new manager in a highly technical space that I wasn’t an expert at, with a very senior team and a lot of internal controversy about the topic. I am proud of what we achieved overall, but there was one particularly difficult moment.

While presenting our emerging strategy to the Board of Directors, a board member challenged me on topics I was not fully prepared to discuss. I became defensive, which did NOT land well (shocking, I know). But it’s what happened afterward that was truly impactful.

That evening, I was licking my wounds, trying to figure out where it had gone so badly wrong, and wondering how I could ever resurrect my career. My phone rang — it was the CEO. Now, I knew my situation was bad, but I didn’t think the end would come THAT soon. However, bracing myself for the worst, I heard the CEO say “Laura, I’m so happy with what happened today.”

I was in shock.

He clarified, “To be clear, today went objectively badly. But you learned so much more from today than what you would have learned in a dozen meetings that went smoothly. And that’s why I’m so happy for you … because that was seasoning, and that’s how you grow and improve.”

And you know what — he was right! And what an incredible example of leadership.

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

I wrote an article for Fortune about burnout in 2017, yet my thinking has evolved since then. Yes, being realistic and communicating clearly about what needs to be and can be done is a necessary foundation to avoiding burnout. However, investing in resilience is just as important.

It’s been a heck of a year in hardware, and we’ve all needed to find and create massive reserves of resilience.

Nearly every day, I check my handy ‘checklist’ and think about how I can do the following:

  • Create physical hardiness
  • Strengthen my relaxation response
  • Identify and use my strengths
  • Get into flow
  • Increase positive daily emotions (humor, gratitude, etc.)
  • Counter unhelpful thoughts
  • Create a caring community

And at Willow, we proactively work on scaling each of those elements for our broader team.

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

There are four things I would share with leaders about creating an excellent work culture:

  1. Listen with curiosity. In my first few weeks with Willow, I interviewed everyone in the company and asked them what we were doing right and wrong. The insights were remarkable and moved me to fix several things much more swiftly than I would have without insights from the team. I still meet with every new hire within a few weeks of joining Willow and do skip levels every week. I love hearing, connecting with, and learning from every single person in the company.
  2. Communicate openly. Due to the pandemic and remote work, there’s a risk of information gaps. I send weekly emails that cover how the business is doing, what I’m working on, listening to or reading, and quotes from our customers. We also have a weekly all-staff meeting. In addition, we thoughtfully iterate on our operating rhythms to ensure we give and receive regular, deep feedback.
  3. Engage in the hard stuff. When I hear an early whisper of discontent among teams or individuals, I take it very seriously and dig in. I don’t want Willow to have a culture of ‘admiring problems.’ If something is wrong, let’s pause, dig in, understand it, and resolve it. Even if (perhaps especially if) it’s a hard conversation to have.
  4. Be creatively intentional. In everything we do — revamping behaviors, rewriting mission and vision, changing cultural norms about ‘office hours,’ creating safety policies, deciding how to return to the office — we strive to be creatively intentional. The creativity piece is about challenging old norms with an open mind. Asking ourselves why do things the way we do them? Does it make sense? Is there a better way? What could we do if there were no rules? And the intentional bit is about being thoughtful about the things we do. For example, we’ve identified five tasks or activities that are helpful to do in a physical office — like ‘eyes on’ or ‘hands on’ work, strategic brainstorming, quick highly iterative work (eg design sprints), or spontaneous interaction. So let’s come in for those — but let’s not drag people in just for the sake of it.

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

You cannot pour from an empty cup.

Early in my career and life, I felt like work was all about pouring my time, energy, thoughts, whole self into my team and the problem at hand.

You’re rewarded for those heroics early in your career, which quickly reinforces your belief that it is the right thing to do. But then you start to burn out, and suddenly you have a team relying on you to solve everything, even if the team might not want or need to. Instead, what the team needs is for you to have the energy and presence of mind to support them.

I clearly remember sitting in the audience of my MBA reunion as the guest speaker, who also happened to be my boss at the time, said those words — You cannot pour from an empty cup.

It hit me like a thunderbolt.

Giving to those around me is at the core of my being. I won’t change that ever. However, I have learned that I need to look after myself first. Then, I can look after others.

I have learned that lesson again in parenthood, but that’s a story for another day!

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?

There was a moment when I noticed that my colleagues were feeling down and exhausted sometime in the middle of the pandemic. I was feeling the same way, as well, for no obvious reason. It was around the same time that Adam Grant published his article on ‘languishing’. The observation allowed me to have an open dialogue during an all-staff meeting and to work with the leadership team to redefine our work culture. From the conversations, we introduced the idea of building up resilience reserves.

I mentioned earlier the five deliberate resilience-building steps we took at Willow to support our employees, including:

  1. Encourage physical hardiness (exercise, hydration, sleep, etc.). Willow created Project Thrive, which encouraged employees to take small physical wellness steps to support their overall wellbeing. We introduced yoga and breathwork classes, coaching/therapy circles, and habit-changing competitions to help make these physical efforts an ongoing part of daily lives.
  2. Identify and lean into strengths. Our HR team and internal StrengthsFinder coach are working across our organization to help our teams learn and celebrate their strengths.
  3. Create guilt-free time. We implemented ‘no-meeting Wednesdays’ to allow for focused work time and the Purple Block rule to encourage employees to block time, guilt-free, on their calendars when they need to handle personal responsibilities or take time for themselves. Willow also implemented Summer Friday Afternoons to allow for more time for rest and connection.
  4. Increase positive emotions such as humor, gratitude, and expressed accomplishments daily. Despite the pandemic, we reignited the ‘fun committee,” which had laid dormant in the early months of the pandemic. We hosted virtual events for employees and their families and delivered special treats for holidays like Halloween.
  5. Create a caring community. To ensure employees feel connected, we include team break-outs during our all-staff weekly huddle. Employees are put into random groups of 2–4 to check in with each other, say hello, and discuss fun random topics. We also engage in deeper conversations as a company. For example, our Allyship committee supported our Willow employee community with guidance and information during the recent increase in violence towards the AAPI community, bringing in speakers to discuss the #stopasianhate movement.

More importantly, we evaluated what it means to “return to the office.” Some roles require an in-office presence, while others do not. We created a flexible schedule and more remote working situations, which took the pressure off many of our employees.

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?

Mental Wellness is a topic that means a lot to me. I’ve lost wonderful colleagues because of the lack of enough conversations and support for mental health in the workplace. I’ve tried to work and survive during a terrible time of depression that came about after going through IVF.

I’ve supported colleagues through their struggles to make it through the day with a bright smile on their faces at work. To be clear, no one should have to force a smile when working through significant challenges, from miscarriages to anxiety, divorce to illness, depression to cancer.

Here’s what I recommend to raise mental wellness awareness in the workplace:

  • Normalize mental health challenges. Share stats on how many people struggle with it and share stories, where appropriate.
  • Provide real support — therapy circles, coaches, and community support — and encourage people to use it.
  • Be there as a human. Check-in often on the people closest to you to let them know you are there for them, and you can be a safe place to cry, rage, or meltdown. Ask how they’re doing, or just sit quietly with them if they need that during a time of struggle.

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, and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?

I mentioned we introduced the idea of building resilience at Willow and the five-part approach that includes encouraging physical hardiness, leaning into your strengths, creating guilt-free time, increasing positive emotions daily, and creating a caring community.

Many of these tactics can and should also be used in our daily lives at work and beyond. However, the most important step is to create a world where it’s okay to say that you’re having a hard time.

For example, I’ve shared a few times with my Willow team that I’ve been struggling. The results were powerful. Being vulnerable about my challenges opened the door for others to share their challenges, as well.

I shared it all — from my difficulty balancing my new role as CEO of Willow and homeschooling my kids during the pandemic, embarking on a company-wide conversation about exhaustion from the pandemic, or speaking up about my fertility challenges and raising a child with significant special needs. The conversations that have flowed from these topics have helped Willow to create new ways of working, like ‘Purple Blocks’ which encourage people to reserve guilt-free time to do what they need to do at home, and creating supportive and encouraging slack groups for employees to join.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

Individuals have their preferred wellness habits, but the key is approaching the habits with creative intentionality. What I mean by this is being aware of the habits you do not like and the ones you want to create. Take a small first step that doesn’t seem too hard. Find something that works for you and do it daily. Track it every day for two weeks to encourage yourself.

Some habits that I have consciously created over the past few years:

  • Exercise: For me, yoga or cycling first thing in the morning fuels my day. I put my clothes out the night before and tell myself that just getting up and dressed is good enough. Of course, the rest comes easy once I’ve done that half-step.
  • Food: Intermittent fasting has been tremendously beneficial for me as a new habit. It helps me focus, drink more water, and eat less dairy. Bone broth is an amazing addition too! This works for me, instead of diets that constantly require different and sometimes complicated rules about food.
  • Tea: A cup of sleepytime or herbal tea at bedtime is an amazing way to end the day, calm down, have a moment of reflection and gratitude.

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?

Two things: yoga and meditation.

I have rediscovered yoga recently and try to do it 2–3 times a week. It is, of course, good for the body, but it is extraordinary for the soul.

Taking time to pause, breathe, stretch and move are remarkably calming.

I am also a big fan of meditation … I discovered it while in University, majoring in Philosophy in my Arts degree. I learned about the philosophy of Buddhism and started practicing meditation. I’ve been in and out of my meditation practice over the years. However, it has always been there for me when I need it. I’ve enjoyed the accessibility of the new apps, such as Headspace, Calm, and Waking up with Sam Harris, for my children and me.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Multipliers by Liz Wiseman was the book that made the most significant impact on me when I first read it. It is probably the book I’ve most recommended to others. It helped me recognize that what I thought I was doing to help my team was, in many instances, limiting their potential and growth. It was a massive wake-up call and completely reframed my perspective of my role as a leader.

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 had no idea about the world of disability before the birth of my second child; she is now 7. She has significant special needs. And I’ve suddenly realized how much the world does NOT work for her and people like her.

I’ve joined some beautiful communities of parents of special needs kids thanks to Too Peas in a Podcast, and it has blown my mind.

It’s extraordinary how much work we ask children with special needs — and their parents — to do to fit in and survive in this world designed for everyone else.

I would LOVE to live in a world where we don’t ask those people to do all the work. What if someone else fought to install the ramp in the local park? What if someone else lifted the load from exhausted parents advocating for children through IEPs and requests for support? What if we taught neurotypical children how to adapt to children with ADHD or tics or autism instead of teaching those children who already face so many challenges to mask who they are to fit it? What if school awards went to children who find the work impossibly hard YET survive, show up whenever they possibly can, and do their best?

Now that would be a world I’d be proud to live in!

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

LinkedIn

The Willow Blog

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