Community Connection — Isolation is real. Maintaining what’s best about our employee-centric culture is key to ensuring people feel that sense of belonging they may be missing by working remotely. My team meets a few times a week on video conferences dedicated to getting to know one another. We share mini bios or answer questions about ourselves, and even have a “happy hour” during which we play pictionary or trivia.
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 Lorna Borenstein.
Lorna Borenstein is a Silicon Valley-based expert on innovation and driving transformational change. Her focus on translating employee needs into cutting-edge technologies and experiences creates cultures that inspire, differentiate, build resilience, and lead to long-term individual and business success. She aims to revolutionize the role of organizational leadership into being more human-led and caring, and building the high-performance enterprises of the future.
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 took a very non-linear, but highly personal, route to the workforce wellbeing solution space. I started my career as a corporate attorney with a 2,100 billable hour requirement that left very little time or energy for my family. So I resigned and took a new job with Hewlett Packard that introduced me to a more employee-friendly corporate culture as well as a SaaS project that changed the trajectory of my career. I found my passion for technology — right as the internet was booming out of infancy and big risks translated into big rewards. I held executive roles at eBay, Yahoo!, and Move, Inc. and learned what it meant to be a people leader in quickly growing companies. But I was still struggling with an imbalance between work and life, and something had to give.
I took a three year sabbatical to try my hand at existing as myself, stripped of titles and status. I focused my time and energy on my family but as I traveled and home-schooled my kids with no babysitter or childcare, I had an epiphany: I literally could not take care of myself. Working full-time as a hands-on mom meant I didn’t have the time or resources to get to the gym or go for a run or find quiet uninterrupted time to practice mindfulness. I was frustrated and I knew what I needed: expert-led, premium on-demand video with community at its core to help me be a better me. So in 2012, I created it! And that’s how Grokker was launched.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When I first joined HP after leaving the corporate law firm where I would routinely leave a blazer draped across the back of my chair along with a steaming cup of coffee to “sneak out” at 7 p.m. to make it home in time to see my infant daughter, I didn’t know quite what to expect from the culture. On my first day of work, my boss stopped by my cubicle before noon and asked if I wanted to join her for a lunchtime workout in the corporate gym. I was stunned; my manager, a very senior executive, valued her and my wellbeing so much, that she was giving me permission to actually take time to exercise with her in the middle of the day. I didn’t have my gym clothes with me that morning but I did the next day! That interaction changed my perception of how you can engender a sense of caring in your teams and actually secure greater loyalty and results by seeing your employees as whole people and making their health and wellbeing a priority. It changed how I lead and what I value in building high performance teams.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
I’m a big believer in taking small daily actions to maintain emotional and physical balance, which is essential to coping with stress and overwhelm. In fact, I created the 8:3:3:1 Stability Framework™ to keep me on track — and as far from burnout as possible. I think of my life as a tent with four essential flaps that I try to keep nailed down: I need 8 hours of sleep each night; 3 healthy meals each day; at least 3 sweaty workouts each week; and one fun thing to look forward to every week. Your personal balance may be different but as long as you have a framework and check in to ensure you are largely staying on top of it, then even if you’re missing sleep as you burn the candle at both ends, your other flaps remain secure and your tent won’t blow over.
I suggest identifying your wellbeing “non-negotiables” and sticking to them. This gives you a sense of control over your stress triggers and, over the long-term, you end up building resilience to almost anything that comes your way.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
It’s personal. A fantastic work culture is personal — it encourages everyone to show up as their whole, authentic selves and feel that sense of belonging that’s so critical to their mental health and job satisfaction. I don’t think there’s a better foundation for creating engagement and productivity than that! I believe leaders need to think about what this means to them and their workforce, and what might be missing from their existing culture. Maybe it’s a sense of fun. Maybe there’s not enough time built in for camaraderie or sharing of personal stories. Today, for example, the historical stigma around mental health is being erased because we are acknowledging and accepting the reality of our very human struggles. People have multiple “sides” and they want to express themselves and feel safe in their work environment, regardless of whether they’re working remotely or in-person.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Joy is not a prize awarded at the end of a life well played.” One of the most impactful life lessons I learned the hard way is that happiness and experiencing joy is truly in the journey and not waiting for you at the destination. We can spend so much time and energy striving to achieve, stressing about how to get ahead and feverishly checking all the right boxes along the way. But the truth is that happiness is a muscle you need to flex in everyday doing and in our shared experience all along the way. Of course, it feels great to accomplish goals and we should celebrate big wins, but if we don’t take time to enjoy the process — and the people we get to work with during all the ups and downs — we risk feeling empty after all is said and done.
Years ago, I was brought in as president of a publicly traded company to lead the turnaround. After a few months in the role, I realized I had made a big mistake. I wasn’t passionate about the industry, the management team did not trust one another, the business was in far worse shape than I had been led to believe, and the culture lacked empathy. What also became clear was that it was going to be a long road to hoe. I was miserable. But I felt I had to soldier on, just grit my teeth and muscle through. One of my friends asked me if I ever thought about quitting. I told her that no, of course not, I had shareholders, board members and thousands of employees depending on me, and I’d never quit at anything in my life. And then she asked me a surprising question; she asked me what I was afraid of, and that rocked my world. Afraid? I wasn’t afraid of anything — or was I? The truth, and I’m not proud of it, was that I was afraid of what people would think. I was afraid that without my title, my salary, and status, I wasn’t worthy. The minute I realized that was the minute my world got a whole lot bigger and happier. I began a new chapter of my life where centering my purpose around the people and causes that matter to me most became my raison d’etre. It wasn’t about an end game, it was about the day to day and making it count on a personal level. As it turns out, living joyfully is a serious business and you have to stay disciplined and not get sucked in by the trappings of success that are there to lure you; it’s just about being true to yourself no matter what anyone else thinks. I wish someone had shared that with me when I was 25.
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?
At Grokker, we’ve taken the following steps to help take care of our employees’ mental wellbeing:
- Community Connection — Isolation is real. Maintaining what’s best about our employee-centric culture is key to ensuring people feel that sense of belonging they may be missing by working remotely. My team meets a few times a week on video conferences dedicated to getting to know one another. We share mini bios or answer questions about ourselves, and even have a “happy hour” during which we play pictionary or trivia.
- Create a psychologically safe environment — Leadership must make it clear that feeling vulnerable is normal and encourage employees to speak up and ask for support when they are experiencing mental health challenges by removing the stigma and making it easy to ask for help. One of our jumbo clients set a great example for employees by inviting them to participate in a Grokker challenge in which they could pursue a personal mindfulness goal. Nearly three-quarters of participants reported feeling more focused and positive as a result of the experience.
- State your commitment to helping employees cope — It’s so important to let employees know that you’re aware of how the realities of life, especially now, are affecting them and that you want to help. Saying the words, “We want to help you,” makes an impact and is a big part of developing a caring culture. Then, of course, you need to follow-up with providing a listening ear, resources, and tools that make good on the commitment. One way I’ve done this for my team is to periodically announce a companywide day off from work during which employees are encouraged to unplug and do something they enjoy.
- Make coping accommodations — Everyone deals with stress and overwhelm differently; their mental health needs are unique to them and their lives. The solution isn’t one-size-fits-all, either. So you need to make accommodations to help them cope, and that make sense for their situation. Working parents with younger children, for example, can’t make early meetings when they are struggling to set the kids up on Zoom school for the day, or are on shuttle duty for afterschool sports, so why not encourage managers to reschedule team meetings to after 9am or to establish a “dinner break” where no emails are sent from 5:30–7:30pm each workday? Better yet, maybe you can offer a grocery delivery stipend and save your teams the extra 90 minutes each week it now takes, due to social distancing requirements, to get the shopping done.
- Provide digital tools — Solutions like Grokker that are available on-demand and have a wide variety of video designed to help employees whenever and wherever they need it, create accessible routes to preventing and alleviating undue stress. One of Grokker’s jumbo healthcare industry clients, in fact, ran a gratitude challenge to help their workforce cope with stress and overwhelm. Employees succeeded in watching guided meditations, learning strategies to cope with and prevent burnout, and explored stress-relieving fitness and nutrition techniques, which resulted in 95% of participants partially or completely meeting their wellness goals during the challenge. It’s important to provide these omni-device solutions that empower your people to participate when and how they want, so your teams actually engage
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?
First and foremost, company leaders need to acknowledge the reality that their employees are struggling more than ever. The statistics don’t lie. Grokker Innovation Labs’ 2021 Working Americans’ State Of Stress Report found that nearly 60% of workers reported mental health issues, including an inability to concentrate and feelings of anxiety, depression, and burnout. Everyone has a story to tell about how they’re managing right now. In an effort to understand their challenges and how they’re manifesting in the workplace, virtual or otherwise, leaders should look out for the signs of distress and burnout. This requires doing some “homework” before putting initiatives in place.
When it comes to a first step towards helping employees, a good strategy is doing an anonymous employee survey to find out how employees are doing — what they’re concerned about, how their state of mental health is impacting their lives and work, and the resources they need to help. Let your workforce guide you. You can also use a third-party tool to help match employees with the content they need to feel their best. Grokker’s wellness quiz, which is built into the user experience, helps members assess their state of wellbeing across various dimensions and provides ideas and program recommendations as “next steps.”
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?
Grokker Innovation Labs’ 2021 Working Americans’ State of Stress research found that stress is a widespread problem, with 76% of workers describing themselves as “stressed.” Individuals need to be aware of the signs of stress so they can recognize it in themselves and others. In the workplace, research respondents reported that their stress manifests at work primarily through difficulty concentrating (50%), procrastinating (46%), and lacking inspiration (33%) followed closely by difficulty connecting with or avoiding colleagues and clients (31%). On the home front, workers claim they’re withdrawing emotionally or neglecting others (42%), neglecting household chores or responsibilities (40%), and increasingly arguing (36%).
People should be on the lookout for changes in the attitudes and behaviors of loved ones and colleagues and make themselves available to talk — and listen — and recommend resources, if required. Organizationally, companies need to let their workforce know about the resources and benefits they have available to help employees cope with and manage stress. The research found that employers are lagging in the provision of wellness programs, counseling services, and general employee assistance; the stress management initiatives most commonly provided come in the category of on-demand virtual/video resources such as mobile digital applications that employees can access anytime and anywhere.
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?
Behavioral research makes it clear that the best way to develop healthy habits is to take small steps towards achievable goals and be rewarded all along the way. I write about this at length in my book It’s Personal: The Business Case for Caring where I explain the basics of Extrinsic, Intrinsic and Self-Signaling motivation, and the application of game mechanics and dynamics in a workplace setting to encourage results. The small steps should be fun and rewarding, leading to small changes that encourage you externally and internally to keep moving forward. We might start by selecting a poor habit we want to change — like negative self-talk — and set a goal of replacing hurtful thoughts with more empowering ones. The small steps would include identifying the thoughts when they happen, being curious about the thoughts, challenging the thoughts, and, finally, consciously inserting a positive affirmation. In addition, the steps should be followed by some form of reward, like a fun sticker or a cappuccino break. These steps might be taken over the course of a few weeks.
It’s helpful, especially with preventing anxiety or burnout, to follow professional guidance so you’re sure to be applying the right techniques at the right time and in the right cadence. That’s why Grokker’s mental health programs are designed and delivered by credentialed experts who understand their field and how to make it approachable. …
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?
I practice a number of techniques, depending on what I need each day. My current favorite is a 4 minute Grokker mindfulness video called Calm the Mind by Dr. Catherine Wikholm, which I have downloaded on my phone. I just pop in my earbuds and follow the sensory awareness exercise and literally feel the calm wash over me in minutes. I also have a favorite morning video program by Andrew Johnson called Progressive Relaxation 2 which is 11 minutes long that I try to listen to at least 3 mornings a week before I even get out of bed. It’s amazing how when I am consistent in listening to the program, I feel it more and more deeply, and it increases my resiliency and happiness throughout the day. The benefits of mindfulness are truly remarkable and most people don’t realize that they accumulate to help build up an emotional reserve, like filling a piggy bank with an increased ability to cope that you then can draw upon when you need it.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
As a teenager, I read Robert Heinlein’s iconic work Stranger in a Strange Land. In it, the protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, is human but raised on Mars and he learns a Martian word, “grok” which is to soak in knowledge from another being such that you become one with them and transformed by the connection. That always stuck with me, I found it beautiful that we can be transformed by a shared experience, a connection, and so when I founded my company back in 2012, I called it Grokker. To be a Grokker is to be transformed by connection.
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 believe that is what I am doing with Grokker. Our mission is to enable physical, emotional and social wellbeing for everyone, and with millions of employees around the world at leading companies like Delta Airlines, GE, CVS Health, and Pfizer receiving Grokker as an employee benefit, I feel we are helping the most people I can imagine to move more, eat healthier, sleep more soundly, reduce stress and be financially healthy. And my new book is filled with my ideas, and those of leaders across a wide swath of disciplines, around why doing what’s in the best interest of employees’ holistic wellbeing is the most important step leadership can take to safeguard their company and thrive.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Caseforcaring.com and follow me on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/lorna-borenstein-71220/)
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!