An Inside Look at how Levi Strauss & Co. does Wellbeing in the Workplace
By Kathy Farmer, Vice President of Benefits at Levi Strauss & Co.
Levi Strauss & Co, founded in 1853, has been invested in the welfare of its employees and the philanthropic needs of its communities since the day the business started. As part of the company’s business turnaround, beginning in 2011 and marked by a successful IPO in 2019, the link between wellbeing in the workforce and high performance of the business was emphasized — something that was ahead of its time. Now, wellbeing and mental health are foundational elements to the culture and performance at Levi Strauss & Co.
With support and leadership from our executives, led by LS&Co. CEO Chip Bergh, the goal was global, and the vision ambitious. First, in the U.S. we engaged with internal volunteer champions and leadership teams, executive athlete training, digital platforms, and incentives. We expanded across different types of business lines and into countries across our global footprint. We had some great initial success stories, but some aspect didn’t deliver as we’d hoped. We stayed at it, however, because we believe that healthy, resilient, and engaged employees have more to give to their families, communities, and companies. And because we wanted our people to know that they didn’t have to choose between career growth or their well-being.
Our precept was holistic from the start — we intertwined physical basics like exercise, sleep and nutrition with emotional health and financial wellbeing. We also stressed the importance of social connections, emphasizing the long-standing legacy of volunteering and giving back into our communities. We evolved a global framework that enabled local offices to construct culturally relevant programs. Given this freedom to create, our teams inspired healthy activities such as Dragon Boat racing in Singapore, Stress theatre in Brussels, Ping pong tournaments in China, Healthy Onsite meals in our South Africa plant, and Onsite Medical Checks in our Mexico locations.
We learned that wellbeing has certain basic core principles but bringing wellbeing to life within the corporate culture requires a freedom for local expression. Wellbeing does not look identical around the world. To become embedded in the company culture, the core value of wellbeing requires authenticity, and permission, modeled from the top, alongside flexibility to dynamically shift focus. We can and should provide the tools and foster the workplace culture where employees can prioritize both their wellbeing and the work they’re doing in their careers. We also learned that wellbeing needs to be periodically refreshed and reinforced to stay relevant with the needs of our employees in a fast-changing world.
Then, a massive shift occurred with the onset of the global pandemic. Uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and depression took center stage. Leaders were required to innovate new ways of working and support their organizations while also needing support themselves. This unprecedented time necessitated deeper conversations surrounding mental health and well-being and how we as employers can support our employees. The pandemic pushed many leaders to be more empathetic, to think more deeply about what their employees really need, and to be intentional about how they communicate.
As it evolved, we were focused on getting the foundational things right. We were making sure we had the programs and benefits in place that could support employees wherever they work, however often they’re in their office. We are continuing to grow a diverse workforce that reflects the societies we work in while making sure our culture is strong, supportive, and built to last.
LS&Co.’s partnership with THRIVE Global emerged as a powerful resource to openly address mental health needs with workshops and tools to identify and improve stress and mental health. We developed a THRIVE Leadership track to support Manager’s toolsets while navigating the pandemic. We offered widespread webinars and online mental health programming to all employees, including translation into 8 languages for global outreach.
In active partnership with THRIVE, LS&Co. recently launched mental health self-care modules embedded into the Microsoft Teams platform, with the intention to create ease of access. LS&Co. is also in the midst of enhancing our Global Employee Assistance Plan from 5 to 16 free sessions with diverse providers in the behavioral health spectrum that offer support for an array of topics, including medical, financial, family, and psychosocial. A few of our other offerings in the space include:
- Accessible, always on resources: from the Lyra App to Rally Wellness Coaching to virtual therapy through Talkspace, these tools can help with symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression and help employees to prioritize mental and physical health.
- Making behavioral health and substance abuse plans available: to provide employee benefits that can support with access to the right care at the right time.
- Prioritizing paid leave policies and bereavement leave programs: to ensure no one has to choose between their job and taking care of themselves or loved ones.
- We also offer employee resource groups (ERGs): these create safe spaces for employees to connect with each other on specific focus areas.
- A centers of excellence benefits approach so employees know they have support to get the care they need
- Flexible schedules with built-in down time: our corporate employees have the last Friday of every month off to focus on themselves.
The importance of timeliness as a factor in workforce mental health has become more pressing, especially with the intensified challenges of balancing work and family needs. Considering these stressors, LS&Co. has recently launched a safety net of global paid leave policies to reduce the stress of managing family medical issues or the time needed to bond with the birth, adoption or fostering of new family members.
An expression of our values, these core minimum standards are intentional, even when not the standard local practice. We’ve advocated publicly for overdue and urgently needed national paid leave policies, because we have seen just what a profound impact paid leave policies have on employees’ lives. It’s also a small investment with a high return that makes us a more attractive employer, increases our retention, and shows employees we have their backs.
Another part of our wellbeing approach includes acknowledging the need for social connectedness among our employee groups and communities. To do so, employees are given paid time off every year for giving back. This includes volunteer time to help community needs as well as employee donations to our Red Tab Foundation, the company’s 501c3 dedicated to grants for employee and retiree needs.
With all this being said, our wellbeing and mental health journey at LS&Co. continues. While we have built a foundation to date, we continue to envision a broad based deeply entrenched culture of wellbeing that fuels our employees, their families, their communities, and the business.
Kathryn Farmer is the Vice President of Global Benefits for Levi Strauss & Co with responsibility for strategy, design and oversight of benefits programs in over 50 countries. Prior to joining LS&Co in 2013, she held a number of Global Benefits leadership roles across the technology, financial services and consumer goods sectors and is well versed in driving innovative and transformational change across global programs.
Kathy was the Director of Global Total Rewards for hp, led Global Solutions Total Rewards for the Clorox Company, and led a number of merger and acquisition efforts at Wells Fargo Bank N.A and the Transamerica Corporation.
In addition to her depth of Total Rewards experience, Kathy has also led a number of large scale transformational change efforts at hp, Wells Fargo, and Transamerica.
Her educational background includes the Strategic Change and Organizational Transformation program at the Harvard School of Business, and a B.S. in Political Science and Speech from Northwestern University, located in Evanston IL (US).
Kathy is currently a member of the Board of Directors for the First Tech Federal Credit Union (a US based credit union and investment services group with over $13B is assets). She sits on the Governance Committee and chaired the HR Committee for 7 years. Kathy is also an active member of NACD (National Association of Corporate Directors is the recognized authority on leading Boardroom practices).
Kathy is married with one son and is committed to a number of community service endeavors. She devotes her spare time to a number of charitable and community service organizations as well as personal pastimes of travel and gardening.