Working Well: Matt Stephens Of Inpulse On How Companies Are Creating Cultures That Support & Sustain Mental, Emotional, Social, Physical & Financial Wellness

An Interview with Karen Mangia

Karen Mangia
Authority Magazine

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Personalization of support will become increasingly important in the future. Instead of offering generic solutions or apps, there will be a focus on tailoring support to individuals’ specific needs and circumstances. This personalized approach to wellbeing will ensure that individuals receive the support that resonates with them and addresses their unique challenges and experiences.

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 interview 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 Matt Stephens, CEO and Founder of Inpulse.

Matt is Founder of Inpulse, an employee engagement platform, and a leading writer and commentator globally about employee engagement and wellbeing at work, with Inpulse’s work and research featuring in Forbes, HR News, Personnel Today, Yahoo Finance, HR Grapevine, HR Director Magazine, and many more publications. Having been named as a Top Global Influencer and expert for employee engagement in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 alongside others including Sir Richard Branson, Josh Bersin, Simon Sinek and Jacob Morgan, Matt has also been recognised as a Top 30 HR Influencer in the UK. Matt’s popular and respected book The Engagement Revolution was published by LID in 2019 and endorsed by David Ulrich (the world’s #1 thinker in HR), and Marshall Goldsmith (New York Times bestselling author of Triggers).

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.

In my mid-20s, I was working for a large European insurance company. Despite enjoying my job, I had been working long hours for the past six months as part of the leadership team responsible for communications. One day, a director approached me and offered me a director pathway with a six-figure salary in 10 years. And what do you think I felt? I was utterly depressed. Whilst the Director thought he was saying something positive to me, it helped me realize that this corporate career path was not what I wanted. So, six months later, I left the company and trained to become a performance coach, focusing on helping leaders as individuals and teams get a better performance. This decision was considered unusual at the time, as not many people left corporate jobs in their mid-20s, especially when they’ve just been offered a chance to get to Director level. But for me, it was a defining moment, my moment of wellbeing, when I had the awareness that a life lived in pursuit of others’ vision and at their behest was not for me. I wanted to know my own goals and dreams and from that place give my all — something which I felt would give me balance and drive.

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?

Inpulse has been measuring wellbeing for years, even before it gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. We look at the 7 factors of wellbeing and ask employees a series of questions under each factor that gives us a broad perspective, as well as understanding how they are feeling and why. This gives us and organizations incredibly rich data.

Our focus has always been on humans flourishing and understanding what it means to truly thrive. In my view, there are three main areas of focus, which can be seen as three buckets:

1. Internal wellbeing: This encompasses an individual’s mental health, thought processes, and emotional intelligence. It plays a crucial role in their overall wellbeing and flourishing.

2. Interpersonal relationships: This includes their relationships with their line manager, senior leadership team, and their partners. The quality of these relationships significantly impacts their wellbeing and flourishing.

3. Sense of purpose: This aspect involves an individual’s connection with spirit, the universe, life, and love. It pertains to their sense of purpose, mission, and completeness during their time on this planet. Surprisingly, it has a profound influence on their wellbeing and how they perform at work.

So, within a survey context, we delve into these areas and ask relevant questions. This enables us to track and support the wellbeing and flourishing of individuals.

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?

It’s a little bit like asking for an elixir of life — the purest form of causation doesn’t really exist. If it did, a billion-dollar company would have already done all the necessary causations. What we do though is focus on the correlations and understanding people themselves. We ask individuals about their emotions and the reasons behind them, as well as a range of questions covering different factors of wellbeing such as financial health, thought health, connections, and relationship health. This provides us with a comprehensive picture and enables us to create something we call a Wellbeing Index.

It’s a score that we can correlate with an individual’s performance, attrition, and sickness data if we have access to that information. We analyze whether individuals with higher wellbeing scores are less sick, stay longer in the business, work harder, and achieve better performance. Although it is important to note that the index does not establish causation, it offers valuable indicators and pointers. These correlations provide insights into how individuals feel, although they may not necessarily impact their length of stay or performance. It definitely helps companies know where to direct resources to get the best outcomes and help their employees flourish.

Measuring wellbeing is not a complex task, as it simply requires asking useful questions. This approach can be easily applied even among large corporations with a significant number of employees. By segmenting the data, we can break down the Wellbeing Index based on factors such as business hierarchy, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and age. This segmentation allows for a deeper understanding of how wellbeing varies among different groups within the organization.

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?

Programmes and initiatives often miss the impact required to achieve real change. I believe that having numerous programmes is unnecessary, as the main issues surrounding wellbeing and flourishing are related to human interactions and personal factors. These situations typically necessitate listening, conversations, and compassion. Therefore, outsourcing these matters to programmes, initiatives, or apps can be misguided. Instead, the focus should be on meaningful discussions and ongoing dialogue that help individuals navigate their path towards flourishing. It is important to acknowledge that line managers are often overwhelmed with competing actions, which makes it challenging for them to prioritize time for their people. Simply enacting a wellbeing initiative seems easier but in the long run it wont have half the impact that a strong, positive relationship with their people will have. I do have empathy for these leaders and line managers, they have so many competing priorities!

We can draw parallels between these corporate situations and real-life experiences. When a friend is facing mental health or wellbeing issues, we instinctively know what to do. Perhaps we engage in conversations over a coffee, actively listen, and provide a space for dialogue. If the situation worsens, we may suggest seeking help from a therapist or psychologist. In all these scenarios, the solution revolves around talking, listening, and engaging in dialogue. We have overcomplicated the approach to wellbeing in corporate settings, missing the point that many issues can be resolved that way. I am not referring to specific cases where professional diagnoses are necessary, but rather to the majority of cases that involve working through personal issues, relationship challenges, or a lack of purpose or direction. Simply having conversations and listening can make a significant difference.

The premise underlying the question contributes to the problem of how corporates address wellbeing. The current approach either dismisses the importance of dialogue by emphasizing programmes and initiatives as cost-saving measures or it allocates resources towards such initiatives without significant results. This oversimplification or over-complication of the issue fails to address the core aspects of wellbeing. Instead, adopting a holistic approach that prioritizes conversations, listening, and ongoing dialogue is essential. By recognising the power of these simple yet impactful actions, corporates can make real progress in fostering wellbeing among their employees.

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 start by prioritising personality profiling as part of our wellbeing approach. Understanding whether individuals are extroverts or introverts can significantly impact their wellbeing. Personality profiling, such as using colour-based insights, can provide valuable information about where people derive their energy and what drains them. For example, individuals with a preference for analytical thinking and order (represented by the colour blue in insights) thrive in structured environments but may struggle during periods of significant change. On the other hand, those leaning towards adaptability and spontaneity (represented by the colour yellow) embrace change and enjoy a dynamic work environment. By delving into these aspects of an individual’s personality, companies can be more mindful and caring towards each person.

A practical example comes from a large bus company in the UK. Initially, the company faced challenges in balancing wellbeing and the relationship between line managers and their teams. To address this, they recognized the importance of natural, informal conversations in the workplace. The company implemented a mandatory 30-minute weekly agenda item for check-ins, allowing individuals to discuss their wellbeing, family, and day-to-day experiences. Although they had to enforce this measure initially, it had a significant positive impact on employee engagement and wellbeing scores. After just nine months, the company saw noticeable improvements. This example highlights the power of fostering connection and providing space for open dialogue to address underlying issues and enhance wellbeing.

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.

So, you won’t be surprized by my answer, which is to steer away from programmes and initiatives. It’s more important to focus more on fostering human connection and building a sense of community. We believe that when people feel connected and comfortable, they are more likely to open up, share their thoughts and feelings, and work through any challenges they may be facing. Creating trust through a willingness to be vulnerable with each other within a community is our main focus.

To achieve this, we are running coaching programmes with client leaders to help them cultivate empathy, lead with compassion and kindness, and become better listeners. We also aim to equip leaders with the ability to spot signs of wellbeing issues, such as financial struggles or personal conflicts, even if individuals may not explicitly communicate them. Sometimes, subtle cues like declining invitations to socialize can provide insights into underlying concerns.

Developing the skills and abilities of our leaders and line managers is pivotal in creating a supportive environment. This includes improving active listening skills, facilitating constructive conversations, and being curious about employees’ wellbeing. By enhancing these abilities, we can provide the necessary support and resources whenever needed. Financial advisors, counsellors, and therapists are available to assist individuals who require professional guidance. In our own company, we have demonstrated the importance of listening and dialogue by financially supporting employees’ therapy sessions when their wellbeing requires it.

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?

It’s crucial to think about how roles are positioned and communicated to potential candidates. If I came across an article that emphasized the company’s primary aim as promoting my personal flourishing — through my relationships with those I work with and my sense of purpose and empowerment at work — I would be truly impressed. This approach places the individual’s wellbeing at the centre, recognising that when they are at their best, the company succeeds even more.

This is in contrast to simply offering access to an app or a free day to do as they please, which can feel superficial and not genuinely focused on their wellbeing. Managing employees’ wellbeing should come naturally to line managers, with the understanding and discretion to offer them a day off when needed, without it being a mandated policy or company benefit. By creating a culture where managers are coached to be aware, thoughtful, and compassionate towards their employees’ wellbeing, the company sets itself apart and demonstrates a genuine commitment.

On the other hand, during periods of uncertainty or potential recession, some employers may revert to a mentality of just getting the work done. This risks neglecting the importance of employees’ wellbeing. However, it would be far more beneficial to continue prioritising the flourishing of each individual. Even during challenging times, placing the wellbeing of employees at the heart of the company’s actions will ultimately lead to greater success and overall satisfaction for both the employee and the organization.

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

The crux of this approach lies in developing high emotional intelligence. This entails being aware of one’s own emotions and how they impact others, along with the ability to empathize. Sensory acuity, or being attuned to one’s immediate environment and those in it, also plays a key role in anticipating and understanding others’ struggles. By honing active listening skills, individuals can go beyond surface-level conversations and truly grasp the underlying emotions and concerns of their peers. Additionally, navigating personal challenges in a healthy manner is crucial. By exemplifying inner peace and self-mastery, individuals contribute to their own wellbeing and foster positive relationships with others, forming a significant part of the wellbeing journey. Lastly, the ability to effectively interpret and utilize data, such as survey results on wellbeing, is an essential aspect of this approach.

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?

Time is a precious resource that everyone claims to have the least of but sadly you can’t make more of it. It is the most valuable and expensive commodity in the world. The simple yet challenging step towards fostering wellbeing is choosing to use the time you have for it. Starting with small 15-minute slots in their schedules, individuals can prioritize connecting with their teams. This act of making time for genuine conversation is as straightforward as it gets. While it may require rearranging other commitments, putting people at the forefront is crucial. By becoming first responders, individuals can proactively identify and address issues early on, adopting a preventive approach rather than dealing with the consequences later. This way, the focus is on promoting wellbeing rather than trying to fix problems that have escalated.

The key lies in using the time you have differently rather than hoping to ‘create’ or ‘find’ more time! Managers are encouraged to review their schedules, not just for work-related discussions, but for dedicated time to simply listen and engage with their team members. Even just 10 minutes spent asking a question and allowing individuals to open up can make a significant difference. By effectively utilising these moments of connection, many issues can be detected and resolved before they intensify.

The ultimate goal is to prevent issues from escalating to a point where individuals are struggling with depression, lost direction, financial difficulties, and other challenges. By reprioritizing the time they have and embracing these brief but meaningful interactions, managers can proactively support their team members’ wellbeing, diminishing the need for reactive measures later on.

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

In the future, there will be a growing trend towards a more comprehensive and holistic view of wellbeing. This expanded understanding will include areas such as finance, mental health, and possibly spiritual health. The concept of wellbeing will evolve to encompass a sense of flourishing, going beyond mere satisfaction or contentment. This shift in perspective will provide a new lens through which wellbeing is perceived.

Personalization of support will become increasingly important in the future. Instead of offering generic solutions or apps, there will be a focus on tailoring support to individuals’ specific needs and circumstances. This personalized approach to wellbeing will ensure that individuals receive the support that resonates with them and addresses their unique challenges and experiences.

The role of managers and leaders in promoting wellbeing will become more prominent. They will be recognized as key figures responsible for fostering a sense of connection, support, and empathy within their teams. The emphasis will be on human-centred solutions rather than relying solely on technology or apps. Managers and leaders will play a crucial role in creating an environment that prioritizes the wellbeing of individuals.

There will be an increased acceptance and integration of personal and professional lives within corporate settings. Rather than compartmentalizing individuals’ home and personal lives, organizations will acknowledge and value the full spectrum of individuals’ lives. Leaders will take the time to get to know their team members on a personal level, showing genuine care and consideration for their wellbeing. This shift towards greater acceptance and understanding will contribute to a more supportive and inclusive work environment.

Finally, as I mentioned spirituality will also play a more significant role in the wellbeing landscape. Younger generations, such as millennials and Gen Z, are more open to exploring spiritual aspects of their lives. This shift encompasses the exploration of purpose and one’s place in the natural world. While spirituality in the workplace is still in its early stages, there will be increasing integration of practices such as yoga and other spiritual elements. The search for meaning and purpose beyond financial success will become more pronounced, with individuals seeking a sense of fulfilment and joy in their work.

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

The future of the workplace is being shaped by the emergence of Gen Zs and the continued influence of millennials. Over the past four to five years, millennials have been stepping into management positions, and it’s only going to become more prevalent. In fact, in Western economies, millennials and Gen Zs already make up 50% of the workforce.

As these younger generations take over the workplace, many of the ideas and values they bring will become more embedded in the culture. What may seem cutting-edge to some will be second nature for these generations. It’s exciting to witness their natural inclination towards prioritizing holistic wellbeing, embracing a sense of purpose, and practising a more inclusive and empathetic leadership style.

Reflecting on my own early years when the boomer culture dominated leadership in the workplace, hard work without balance was expected, it’s clear to see how much has already changed in the past 20 years. The workplace has evolved, and I am optimistic about the continued transformation. As Gen Zs and millennials come into positions of management, their influence will shape a more fulfilling and balanced work environment for future generations.

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?

Check out our latest updates on our website, and you can also reach out to me directly through my LinkedIn — I am always happy to connect!

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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