Working Well: Laura Barker On How Companies Are Creating Cultures That Support & Sustain Mental, Emotional, Social, Physical & Financial Wellness

An Interview with Karen Mangia

Karen Mangia
Authority Magazine
15 min readJun 3, 2022

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Offer forced savings’ plans: It may take the form of 401(k) or RRSPs in Canada. You may offer a pension plan whereby the employer pays a portion along with the employee up to a certain maximum percentage of earnings. Forced savings means the employee doesn’t necessarily “miss” the loss of take-home pay because it is deducted from their pay before they receive it.

The pandemic pause brought us to a moment of collective reckoning about what it means to live well and to work well. As a result, employees are sending employers an urgent signal that they are no longer willing to choose one — life or work — at the cost of the other. Working from home brought life literally into our work. And as the world now goes hybrid, employees are drawing firmer boundaries about how much of their work comes into their life. Where does this leave employers? And which perspectives and programs contribute most to progress? In our newest intervieww series, Working Well: How Companies Are Creating Cultures That Support & Sustain Mental, Emotional, Social, Physical & Financial Wellness, we are talking to successful executives, entrepreneurs, managers, leaders, and thought leaders across all industries to share ideas about how to shift company cultures in light of this new expectation. We’re discovering strategies and steps employers and employees can take together to live well and to work well.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Barker.

Laura Barker, CEO & Founder of Laura Barker Coaching, spent more than 20 years in Human Resources working in large and small corporations. Her experiences shed light on human behaviour in the workplace which she uses when working with clients. She founded her career coaching company to help business professionals understand themselves better as well as their teams by exploring meaningful work based in purpose and aligned with personal values.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you better. Tell us about a formative experience that prompted you to change your relationship with work and how work shows up in your life.

I changed careers five (5) years ago, thinking it would lead to professional fulfilment. It turned out to be the worst mistake of my professional life. Not only was it not what I expected, I ended up working with some very difficult people. Through that job, I reaffirmed that my main driver remains people — understanding how we think and act. It’s what led me to HR over 20 years ago.

Today, I am so glad I had that tough work experience. It made me consider what a healthy, “working well” culture looked like. I recommitted to my passion — people — and chose a new workplace that respected healthy relationships and supported my personal values.

Harvard Business Review predicts that wellness will become the newest metric employers will use to analyze and to assess their employees’ mental, physical and financial health. How does your organization define wellness, and how does your organization measure wellness?

Organizational wellness in 2022 recognizes one-size-fits-all doesn’t work anymore. Today’s wellness model encompasses all aspects of a person: mind, body, heart, and spirit. As businesspeople, we feel comfortable in the realm of the mind and perhaps the body, especially if we define it through exercise but if we want to see wellness holistically we must see the “whole” person.

Yet how do we measure spirit? What metric can possibly show us how believing in something greater than ourselves positively impacts our overall wellness? Sure, we can survey the workforce anonymously and ask if employees attend religious services regularly but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are spiritually engaged. Besides, in our mechanistic view of business and our largely rules-bound view of HR, how can we ask let alone measure what role business plays in nurturing spirit?

This is the conundrum of wellness. We know intuitively it’s important and we perceive the effects of working with a spiritually grounded person, for example, by their peacefulness and presence, but quantifying it remains elusive.

What gets measured gets managed. It’s what we always say. Nevertheless, we accept that many important qualities in a person — integrity, authenticity — are difficult to measure. We accept it because we know the value of working with authentic people who behave with integrity.

Just like we may never fully quantify soft skills and we know leaders need those skills to succeed, so it is with wellness. Companies that continue to bury their heads in the sand with the excuse “I can’t measure it accurately” are doomed to lose employees and fail to attract new ones in this competitive marketplace.

Keeping the above in mind, today the best ways to measure wellness include employee engagement surveys, participation in a company’s internal programs and events, as well as examining productivity and profitability in relation to investment in a wellness culture.

Based on your experience or research, how do you correlate and quantify the impact of a well workforce on your organization’s productivity and profitability?

We correlate and quantify impact of a well workforce by examining relationships between people, processes, resources, productivity, and profitability. Investigating the impact of a well workforce starts with people. Do you have programs that support the mind, body, heart, and spirit of your workforce?

Most companies have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) service and think that’s enough to support wellness. However, most of the time those services only help for acute or specific situations. Employees with chronic or longer-term diagnoses, e.g. depression or diabetes, need more than what a typical EAP provides.

One practical solution is to review workforce demographics. Older employees may value robust benefit plans that include a pension plan, good drug coverage, and the ability to cover older children who are still in school. Millennials and Gen Zs really value mental health. Make your mental health offerings more robust and you will win their loyalty.

Nevertheless, demographics and EAPs address only parts of wellness. When we examine the whole person, we must move beyond gym memberships (body) and “stress in the workplace” classes (mind). Consider the totality of wellness. Offer programs on self-regulation (heart), for example, to help employees understand and respond to their emotions appropriately. Allow people of different faiths to take paid time off for religious festivals (spirit).

Now that you’ve created the conditions to underpin a well workforce, you can start to make correlations.

  • Do you have a spike in productivity after a holiday (Christian or other)?
  • How productive and profitable is the company one week, one month, six months after the course you provided on self-regulation?
  • How many people signed up for the fitness challenge you ran last month?

Let’s say the answer to your fitness challenge is, not many. If so, ask why. Maybe you need to tweak the format or adjust the timing. Perhaps you have offered something that employees don’t want. These are sensible ways you can connect wellness with productivity and profitability.

Even though most leaders have good intentions when it comes to employee wellness, programs that require funding are beholden to business cases like any other initiative. The World Health Organization estimates for every $1 invested into treatment for common mental health disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. That sounds like a great ROI. And, yet many employers struggle to fund wellness programs that seem to come “at the cost of the business.” What advice do you have to offer to other organizations and leaders who feel stuck between intention and impact?

Great question. Let’s answer it in business terms. Consider that you can pay for wellness with either cash or credit.

Cash

Choosing cash means investing upfront. It results in funding programs like the ones I described earlier. Many employers don’t want to do this because they’re not sure they’ll see the benefits. Compound that with the difficulty of quantifying wellness beyond the obvious, e.g. 50% of our workforce has a gym membership. The result? Businesses fixate on the costs.

Imagine a business earning an ROI of $4 for every $1 invested in a new product. It’s a no-brainer discussion. Not only would the product launch team get promoted and receive substantial bonuses, but they would also be lauded by peers and competitors alike.

Translate this “cash” discussion to wellness. Knowing the WHO has done the calculations of ROI for treating mental health disorders, why wouldn’t businesses invest in wellness programs? The gap between launching a product and launching a well-rounded wellness program is not as wide as we think.

As such, the real issue is providing the context in positive (“ROI”) as opposed to negative (“cost”) business terms. I think wellness gets a bad rap because proponents haven’t communicated the benefits clearly in business language terms.

Credit

Choosing credit — or deferring investment/payment in a wellness program — puts your organization at a decided disadvantage. You want to hire up and coming Gen Zs? Forget it if you don’t care about mental health. This is quickly becoming a defining characteristic of this generation. They want strong mental health supports. To be clear, mental includes mind, heart, body, and spirit. Choosing credit for your wellness programs results in a competitive disadvantage.

Beyond a specific demographic segment, the fact is all of us value wellness. Companies that do not invest in wellness tell prospective and current employees through their actions that they don’t care about them. Time and again, we hear leaders talk about how “people are our greatest investment.” Not investing (choosing “credit”) in wellness programs means not walking the walk.

Speaking of money matters, a recent Gallup study reveals employees of all generations rank wellbeing as one of their top three employer search criteria. How are you incorporating wellness programs into your talent recruitment and hiring processes?

We incorporate wellness into recruitment so we hire people who admire our programs and support our company’s values. This means telling our wellness story on our website, social media, and in our job ad introductions or summaries.

Engaging candidates in today’s competitive job market means highlighting the benefits of wellness programs. Ask candidates which pillar (mind, body, heart, spirit) interests them most in a job interview. Or ask them what’s missing from the current wellness program or what they’d add if money was no object. You’d be surprised how many ideas come up that require minimal investments of time or money. You also create buy-in with potential new hires.

We’ve all heard of the four-day work week, unlimited PTO, mental health days, and on demand mental health services. What innovative new programs and pilots are you launching to address employee wellness? And, what are you discovering? We would benefit from an example in each of these areas.

  • Mental Wellness:
  • Emotional Wellness:
  • Social Wellness:
  • Physical Wellness:
  • Financial Wellness:

Mental Wellness: Burnout continues to dominate mental wellness discussions in business these days. Addressing the root causes of burnout requires us to listen to our employees and adjust our strategies accordingly. For example, managers commonly feel burnt out due to workload so lessening the burden might be an appropriate solution with this group. Factory floor workers may feel burnt out from continuing to work through the pandemic and being physically exposed to other people regularly on the factory floor, transportation to and from work, and potentially, not getting paid for extra time off beyond the regular sick-day plan. Tackling factory floor burnout may involve creating programs such as enhanced paid sick leave, staggered meal times to minimize the number of people eating in the lunchroom, and creating car pools for employees on the same shift to come and go from work.

Emotional Wellness: I recommend creating a training program on Anxiety to address emotional wellness in the workplace. Anxiety is rampant today and it crosses all generational lines. Content would include identifying the sources of anxiety today, both external and internal, addressing how anxiety affects employees in their day-to-day, and reviewing simple strategies to respond when feeling anxious.

Social Wellness: The pandemic has greatly disrupted social dynamics amongst groups of people, including in the workplace. Humans are social animals and we’ve been told to minimize social contact for two years now. Naturally, it influences our feelings of wellness. I would argue it’s one of the causes of anxiety today, that is, the loss of our social connections. This is currently shifting as we figure out how to re-engage as we emerge from the pandemic.

For social wellness, I encourage companies to reinvigorate their social committees. Bring in employees of all ages, from different departments, and from different job levels. Organize social activities, starting with simple ones that are more activity-based and less talk-based. Try bowling or hiking or painting. Last year, for example, we organized a painting afternoon by hiring a painter to teach us how to paint a nature scene over Zoom. The company bought the paint, canvas, and brushes for interested employees. It was a huge hit. People displayed their art at their desks and we eventually created a wall to display them.

Add other social wellness elements over time like a summer barbeque or ice cream day, events that inspire more socializing.

Physical Wellness: Some companies offer fitness classes at work but I haven’t found them very successful. Most employees don’t want to sweat at work even if the company builds changerooms with showers.

Another idea is conducting a Fitbit challenge. Employees exercise individually or, more often, on teams where they post their successes on social media and “race” against other teams for a prize. Fitbit challenges increase social wellbeing as well.

I’ve also created programs in which the company pays a portion of gym fees and the employee gets their portion deducted from their pay automatically. This works for employees who “want to do their own thing.” Even better? Offer to pay a flat amount per month or year and let the employees decide on the type of fitness they want.

Financial Wellness: As an employer, the best way to support financial wellness is to establish retirement programs in which the company and the employee jointly contribute regular earnings, either to a 401(k) or RRSP or to a pension plan. Supporting forced savings really helps employees. As people get older, they really appreciate it as they see their nest egg grow. It also shows the company’s long-term commitment as an employer to its employees.

Consider separating vacation pay into another bank account or pay all or a portion of their professional or personal education. Depending on the nature of the business and types of jobs, experiment and see which financial wellness ideas resonate. Hint: they’re usually the ones aligned with your company’s values.

Can you please tell us more about a couple of specific ways workplaces would benefit from investing in your ideas above to improve employee wellness?

Financial: Take the example of separating vacation pay from regular pay. As a former compensation professional, I know this is a simple task. Employees benefit by seeing clearly how much vacation pay they’ve earned with each paycheck when reviewing their pay stubs. It lets employees experience incremental growth and gives the message that the company supports paid time off. Time and again, I’ve seen that when employees take time off, they return to work with more energy and are more productive.

Social: Investing in your employees through social events is a time-honoured tradition in most businesses. It fell to the wayside during COVID. Now’s the time to bring it back. Social events benefit workplaces by increasing engagement. It’s the modern-day version of the Enlightenment’s social contract. By building social bonds in the workplace, workplaces become more cohesive. A cohesive workplace functions well together, as a team.

How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?

HR leaders can teach operational/strategic leaders skills and strategies so they can execute a work well culture effectively. Training consists of the following:

  1. Teach the definition of the work well culture.
  2. Break down the elements of a work well culture.
  3. Identify problems and solutions for each element of a work well culture.

Implement a work-well culture through a custom training session (in-person is ideal). Give plenty of space for leaders to talk about specific issues on their teams and allow other leaders to provide/debate potential solutions. I recommend in-house training for reskilling leaders because wellness programs are perceived as the most authentic when employees create it. And, as most are aware, perception creates reality.

Post-training, provide a one-page laminated summary of the content so the leader can pin it somewhere visible as a reminder. Check in with them, individually at first and then in groups to course correct as challenges inevitably come up.

Ideas take time to implement. What is one small step every individual, team or organization can take to get started on these ideas — to get well?

The small step I recommend to get well is to re-start the social committee. Most organizations already had them pre-pandemic so it’s more a matter of getting them up to speed again. Don’t underestimate the value of social wellness in an organization. It’s the glue that keeps the team going.

What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”

  1. Enhanced Social Committee: Most companies already have social committees, however, they went underground for a while during the pandemic. Now’s the time to bring them back and celebrate what the lowly-valued social committee did for all those years in your business to build camaraderie and have fun. Consider a painting party. Last year, we hosted an online event where an artist taught us how to paint a nature scene. The workplace provided the supplies and the interested participants followed step by step as the artist built the scene in stages. We had so much fun sharing our paintings in-progress and completed. We talked open-endedly about which technique was harder than the other and then moved to light talk about favourite TV shows and movies. Following the session, we all had a piece of artwork to display at work which started new conversations in the ensuing weeks. Then we displayed all of them on a wall and asked people to guess who painted which picture. What a great way to promote social wellness!
  2. Anxiety Workshop: Consider creating (or buying an off-the-shelf) training program on dealing with anxiety. It’s the key emotional challenge in the workplace today. HR professionals see and hear about it regularly. The content would include identifying the sources of anxiety today, both external and internal, addressing how anxiety affects employees daily, and reviewing simple strategies to respond when feeling anxious. For example, one way to respond to anxiety is to learn four-count box breathing: inhale for 4, hold your breath for 4, exhale for 4, pause for 4. This helps you move from reacting to responding, which gives you time to get grounded again.
  3. Address Burnout: Employees feel burnt out two years in to the pandemic. Ask your employees how you can help them with their burnout in face-to-face interviews or via a tool like Survey Monkey. Remember that your response will depend on the employee. Unfortunately, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all response to burnout. HR can teach the leaders/department heads various strategies to cope with burnout based on their team responses. For instance, one employee may want to work from home permanently while another really needs to be in the office full-time. Flexibility remains key. For your hourly employees, shower them with kindness. Provide ice cream and freezies on hot days. Serve them hot coffee or tea when they arrive for early morning shifts. Small shifts in behaviour lead to great rewards when managing burnout.
  4. Offer discounted fitness memberships: This trend is a no brainer. Bigger companies offer this regularly but I don’t see it happening at smaller companies as often. Consider this as a differentiator and make it easy for employees to sign up. Offer to deduct it from their pay automatically. In turn, the employer will pay a portion of the membership fee. Keep in mind, not everyone loves gyms. Some prefer yoga studios, boxing rings, or dance studios. Offer to pay for those too, up to the maximum the employer pays for gym memberships. Going that extra mile to recognize that exercise interests vary means a lot to employees and their wellbeing.
  5. Offer forced savings’ plans: It may take the form of 401(k) or RRSPs in Canada. You may offer a pension plan whereby the employer pays a portion along with the employee up to a certain maximum percentage of earnings. Forced savings means the employee doesn’t necessarily “miss” the loss of take-home pay because it is deducted from their pay before they receive it.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?

I feel optimistic about the future of workplace wellness because we see the effects of not focusing on it after two years of the pandemic. COVID has forced a reckoning on the value of the human being. It’s not about processes or seeing people as “resources” or time management. Because of this newly-found recognition of the importance of people in the workplace equation, I feel confident workplace wellness will find its rightful place in businesses today and in the future.

I also believe that people are recognizing their value more than ever, hence, the Great Resignation, so they will demand that workplaces engage in wellness behaviours in order to be viable employers. Otherwise, people will walk.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

Click here to access my website, LinkedIn, and Instagram accounts as well as to sign up for my FREE Becoming your Best Self mini-course or to access my Life fully loved blog.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.

About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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