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Xero’s Jana Galbraith: 5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees

An Interview With David Liu

Work on staying balanced- you must figure out what works for you before you can expect employees to do the same. Leaders have to help employees while managing their own sense of wellbeing, so figure out what you need to stay balanced and show up well when you are at work.

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 Jana Galbraith, Director, People Experience — Americas, at Xero.

Jana Galbraith is a people & operations leader with experience building out HR functions for growing organizations, developing productive & engaging company cultures and coaching executive teams through periods of significant change. She currently leads the People Experience (HR) function in the US and Canada for Xero, a cloud-based accounting software platform whose mission is to make life better for small business owners, their accounting and bookkeeping advisors and communities around the world.

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 have been doing HR my entire career, and while I think it was accidental, it probably wasn’t. I graduated from college during the first tech boom in the late nineties and wanted to get into sales. I pursued all sorts of different roles and landed at a technology recruiting firm, but I quickly realized that headhunting wasn’t for me. However, that experience allowed me to make the leap to a startup that needed an in-house recruiter, and from there, morph into HR.

I’ve experienced the best and worst of company cultures. I’ve worked for companies that were very progressive and people forward, such as Virgin Mobile USA, which was the “gold standard” at the time. And I’ve worked for companies where people were treated as a commodity. It’s been very interesting to see the different perspectives and amazing to work currently at a place like Xero, where people are treated as talent should be — celebrated and respected for what they bring to the table and not worked to the bone.

I’ve learned that it starts on the leadership level — if employees don’t see that the CEO on down believes in creating an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work and be open and transparent about their lives, it won’t happen. If employees aren’t comfortable telling their colleagues they’re having an off day due to things going on in their personal lives, there is an issue.

People’s wellbeing and company culture go hand in hand, and it must be adopted by all departments. For example, if finance doesn’t operate under a theory of prioritizing wellness, it will be hard for the employees in other functions such as sales or development to do so.

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

I don’t know if this is the most “interesting,” but I can share an experience that has deeply impacted how I lead and develop healthy work cultures. I was at a company for about four months and reached the stage of my life where I was ready to prioritize having a family. I was cognizant that getting pregnant so soon after starting a new job may not be received well. Sure enough, when I shared my news, the CEO’s reaction was, “I just knew this would happen.”

His reaction made me feel guilty for getting pregnant, and I felt I had to apologize for my personal decisions. I loved my job and didn’t want to lose it because having a child was important to me. And every other aspect of the company was great.

During my pregnancy, I was put on hospital bed rest and spent two weeks working remotely, against the guidance of my doctors. Once again, I felt guilty for needing additional considerations while pregnant. Fast forward to today, and I’m incredibly proud to be at Xero where we offer six months paid parental leave to any primary caregiver as of their first day of hire. It’s amazing to be a part of this pendulum shift.

I was fortunate that just before my son was born, the CEO left the company. His successor not only allowed me to take a full three months off (despite not having FMLA job protection), but he also let me transition back to work on a part-time basis over a few more months. This CEO supported an open culture and believed in people being their true selves. I had a strong partnership with him and our COO, and together we helped transform a toxic company culture into one where employees could bring their whole selves to work, much like at Xero. Within a year, the company shifted from a place that shamed a pregnant woman to one where an employee on the tech team brought his new baby to the office one day when his childcare fell through. When employees don’t have to hide different parts of their life, people thrive and do great work, and the business benefits fully from that.

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

Leaders must lead by example, which I do by being open, comfortable and transparent with my team. If I’m not showing up with the clearest head, I admit it, and it creates a safe space for them to share with me.

When people are stressed or going through difficult times in their personal lives, they could be more critical or more reactive. If the team is unaware of what’s going on, it can create an uncomfortable environment. Then, everyone is on edge, and that is not helpful.

It’s important for leaders to be comfortable with their teams, and to model behaviors and emotions that we all experience on any given day. This goes a long way to help employees understand that it’s ok to not be ok, and they don’t always have to “show up.”

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

First, always assume the best intent from your employees. Human nature is to assume worse than it is, so think before reacting.

Second, understand what your people want. Employees are resigning and moving on to other things. Leaders think people are leaving for more money, so they start throwing options and bigger bonuses. For some people, money is most important. But, sometimes it’s about flexibility or being able to take a four-week vacation at once. Maybe someone has been asking to take on a different project to stretch and grow. Leaders can be quick to diminish some of the softer things — some people like coming into a beautiful office with tons of light, or the ability to get to a midday exercise class without feeling guilty. Listen to what your employees want and don’t assume it’s just about money.

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 steps or initiatives that companies can take to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

It’s the responsibility of all leaders, not just the HR team, to prioritize and support the mental health of employees. With that in mind, a lot of my suggestions are geared towards leaders.

  1. Create a culture of psychological safety — allow employees at all levels to speak their minds, share their thoughts, struggles, perspectives, etc. For nearly two years, companies have been dealing with the impact that living through a pandemic, social justice turning points and so many other factors have on how employees show up for work each day. Companies that invite discussion, initiate events and programs, and provide other support in response to these things will enable their teams to feel safe enough to talk about things that in the past were not common practice in the workplace.
  2. Share wellbeing and mental health experiences — if leaders set the tone by being transparent, open, and authentic about their own struggles, it will enable employees to speak up about their own issues.
  3. Work on staying balanced- you must figure out what works for you before you can expect employees to do the same. Leaders have to help employees while managing their own sense of wellbeing, so figure out what you need to stay balanced and show up well when you are at work.
  4. Be observant and curious — if you notice someone seems to be struggling, ask with care about it.
  5. Being a compassionate leader doesn’t mean being a therapist — to be an effective leader, you must listen to what is on people’s minds. Develop rapport with your team so that when you ask how someone is, they will feel safe enough to tell you. A lot of times leaders have more ability to support people struggling with mental health than they may realize just by temporarily shifting work or adjusting deadlines to give that person some space to focus on their mental health. Leaders are connectors to other resources through HR partners, EAPs, etc.

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?

During COVID I bought a treadmill. This has been life-changing in helping me to cope with the daily stressors. I find that starting my day with a run or hike while listening to music sets me up to positively deal with whatever the day holds. Make sure to find an anecdote that can help you through a really difficult time in real-time.

I’ve been a Yogi for 20 years, which is an important part of maintaining sanity. Funny enough, I am not so into mediation because I have a hard time quieting my mind, but I pay attention to my breath when I feel overwhelmed. For me, movement, sweating and releasing endorphins is the best way to manage my stress levels.

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

Always available to connect on LinkedIn.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Thank you!!

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David Liu

David Liu

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