wellness

There Is No Finish Line
There Is No Finish Line 1080 565 Jason Lauritsen

Last week, my daughter ran her first cross country race. For those who aren’t familiar with cross country, at her age, it’s a mile and a half run in the “country” (i.e., on grass, through the trees, up and down hills, etc.).

She’s new to running and had never run any kind of race in the past, so this was all new territory for her. To help her prepare, we talked a little about strategy.

Most of our conversation focused on where she was in the race relative to the finish line. For example, one of the ideas that resonated with her was to remember that it is “only a mile and a half.”

She knew she could definitely run the length of the race, so the idea was to remember that the finish line was never too far away. She could push through the pain and struggle in the middle of the race because she knew for certain that it would soon be over.

I remember having that same thought when I ran half-marathons in the past.

“It will be over soon. Just keep running.”

Whether in a race, at work, or elsewhere in life, we crave the comfort and motivation that a finish line provides. We can endure anything for a short period of time, as long as we know when it will be over.

My Orangetheory trainers have a phrase they like to say just before asking you to do something difficult, “You can do anything for thirty seconds.”

Finish lines are powerful.

Why We Are Struggling

Last week, I listened to Brené Brown’s conversation with Amy Cuddy on her Dare to Lead podcast. They were talking about an article that Amy co-wrote for the Washington Post in August titled, “Why This Stage of the Pandemic Makes Us So Anxious.”

In this article, she and her co-author outline something called “pandemic flux syndrome” that they attribute as the reason so many of us are really having a tough time right now with where things are in the world, particularly related to the pandemic.

According to Cuddy, if you are feeling amped-up anxiety or depression right now, there’s a good reason for it. Listening to this discussion helped me sort out why the past few months have felt so challenging for me personally.

I suspect the same might be true for you.

The more I’ve reflected on what I learned, the more I’m convinced that our struggle with the pandemic has everything to do with our fixation on finish lines.

We desperately want there to be a finish line—a point when this is all over and we can return to some semblance of a normal and a predictable existence. The belief that there is a finish line can help many of us to get through the most challenging times in our lives.

Earlier this summer, we thought we were very near the pandemic’s finish line in the U.S. The July 4th holiday was supposed to be a declaration of our independence from COVID’s grip on our lives. We were ready to move on.

But that finish line turned out to be an illusion with no end in sight.

Ever since, we’ve been searching for the real finish line, desperate for anyone to tell us where it is. Our craving and belief in a finish line may be a big part of what’s dragging us down right now.

The Reality We Must Face

The pandemic isn’t a race.

There is no finish line. Not really, and not in the way we want there to be one.

There won’t be a day when we will wake up, open a browser, and see a news story declaring that today is the day it’s over.

Anyone who tells you that the finish line exists is probably just trying to give you something to fuel your hope and bolster your motivation to push through the ongoing challenges.

“Just keep running. You’re almost there.”

It seems that we keep running towards a finish line that doesn’t exist. No wonder so many of us feel so tired.

I think about my daughter’s cross country race.

What would have happened if they kept moving the finish line? What if the kids were left to just keep running in circles with no immediate end in sight? After working through their initial confusion, I’m betting it wouldn’t be long before many of them just gave up and quit running as they got progressively more tired.

Does that sound familiar?

People everywhere are quitting their jobs, moving to new places, making relationship changes, and more. These are all different ways of quitting the race. We are tired of running towards a finish line that never appears. So, we are trying to create our own.

Running towards a finish line that doesn’t exist is breaking us.

This Isn’t a Race (There Is No Finish Line)

It’s time for a mindset shift. I know I’m working on mine.

The pandemic isn’t a race. Things are shifting daily, and even when it looks like it might be nearing the end, another variant or another virus could emerge and erase all the progress we’ve made.

There is no finish line.

Figuring out the “return to office” and future of work isn’t a race. There is no singular right answer because even if you create the perfect plan and get it rolled out, something will change and disrupt the balance again.

There is no finish line.

We must learn to embrace the reality that we aren’t in a race; we are on a journey. Along this journey, everything is constantly changing.

Rather than try to “endure it” as we would the pain of a race, we must instead adapt and respond to it in a way that helps us find success and happiness.

What Is Helpful Now?

The idea of a finish line also implies that there’s a “new normal” on the other side of it. This leads us to believe that things will settle down and be somehow better when we get there.

It’s a mirage.

When we let go of the illusion of the finish line, we can stop waiting for it. Instead, we can start asking different questions and focusing on what we can do today to make things better.

Admittedly, this is no easy task. Whether you are trying to tackle this personally or figure it out for your organization, there are few easy and clear answers.

Here are a few things to consider as you chart a new path forward on this journey.

We need to take better care of ourselves and each other.

Living with constant change and uncertainty is hard. It’s okay to admit that this is challenging. And it’s frustrating that we can’t control what’s going to happen to us or around us.

The thing we do have some control over is how well we care for our well-being and that of those around us. Our well-being fuels our ability to show up and thrive regardless of the circumstances.

We don’t know how long this leg of the journey will be. We must take care of ourselves, to rest when we need it. No matter what lies ahead, if we are broken down and burned out, we will not be in any shape to meet it.

Focus on what is helpful right now.

A lot of plans made for this fall were built on an assumption that we’d be in the “post-pandemic” phase (i.e., we would be across the finish line). But that’s not what happened. And yet, I see many organizations (and people) trying to stay the course even when the finish line never appeared.

Instead of making plans for what happens “after the race,” we need to start embracing the reality that we have no idea when things will change again. So, let’s start asking a different question.

What would be most helpful right now?

This is a particularly helpful question when it comes to sorting out questions about where and when and how people should be allowed to work as we move forward. Debating if your organization is going to be an in-person or hybrid or remote workplace in the future may feel really important right now. But there’s a much more pressing question that should come first.

What do our people need right now to be able to do their best work in a way that supports their well-being?

If you focus on answering continually this question, you won’t need to worry as much about the future workplace question because you’ll answer it along the way. You’ll create whatever you need to support your people’s needs.

What Do You Think?

Are you feeling the drain of chasing a finish line that never seems to appear?

If so, how are you adapting? What are you finding helpful?

The journey is long and the road is winding. It’s not the end of the journey that should command our attention.

It’s traveling well.

We can do that together.

 

P.S. For those who are wondering, my daughter did great in her race. She ran better than she expected and learned a lot. She’s looking forward to her next race today. 🙂

employee wellbeing discussion
Why Employee Well-being is Vital to Work Performance
Why Employee Well-being is Vital to Work Performance 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

There’s a lot of talk about employee well-being right now. 

Apparently, suffering through a global pandemic is enough to finally get us thinking about our well-being more seriously. The consequences of a lack of well-being have been laid bare over the last year.  

But employee well-being isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been lurking in the shadows, affecting work performance for as long as the notion of “work” has existed. 

Today, my goal is to caution you against dismissing the emphasis on employee well-being as only being related to the pandemic. Instead, we must recognize it as an opportunity to re-tool management to improve both productivity and engagement moving forward. 

What is Well-being? 

Twelve years ago, I was hired to lead the corporate human resources team for a regional bank. To their credit, they’d been investing in employee well-being programs for years before I arrived. They even had a full-time wellness coordinator on staff (uncommon then) who was on my team.

I’ll be honest that prior to taking that job, I’d never really understood wellness programs. The most I’d brushed up against wellness in past organizations was through periodic health fairs at the office that seemed out of place to me.

This was something different. They viewed wellness as an employee benefit, a way to help the employee get or stay healthy. And the employees seemed to embrace it. I was intrigued. 

Workplace wellness programs at the time included things like steps challenges, weight-loss competitions, and programs to help you quit smoking. They often incorporated an outsourced Employee Assistance Program (EAP) hotline, but it seemed few ever used it. 

Employee well-being was almost entirely focused on physical health. And physical health is an important issue. But as we’re coming to understand now, well-being is so much broader than that. 

Well-being at Its Core

Well-being at its most fundamental level is literal. It’s about “being well.” The work of well-being is taking intentional steps to feel better (or less unwell) in all areas of our lives.  

There are a lot of different definitions and models of well-being out there. I like the ones used by The Center for Spirituality and Healing and WELCOA personally, but what’s more important than a specific definition is that you recognize what well-being feels like and how it affects your life.

What helped me finally grasp the importance of well-being at work was to focus on my own experiences when I was either feeling really well or really unwell in my life and how that affected my ability to perform my job. 

The most obvious experience we’ve all shared of unwellness is being sick. When we are suffering from a cold, COVID, or any other illness, our ability to perform at our best in any area of our life is diminished. 

Well-being and Performance

When we are ill, our body rallies its energy to power our immune response, which directs it away from other things. I know that I can’t think or concentrate with any effectiveness when I’m sick. At best, it takes me twice or three times as long to get things done. 

When we are physically diminished for any reason, our work suffers. Hungover, tired, hungry, or any number of other issues can cause us not to be at our best. 

A lack of physical well-being is probably the easiest to see and notice, which I think is why most wellness programs have focused there in the past. But, being unwell can have many causes. 

As we’ve heard a lot recently, mental health is a significant contributor to well-being. This can manifest in a bunch of ways, from anxiety to depression. Mental health and mental illness are just as serious and often more harmful than issues with physical health. 

I’ve written about my own experiences with burnout and how it disrupted my ability to be at my best in any part of my life—let alone work. When we don’t care for our mental health, it can have dire impacts on work and every aspect of our life. 

Hopefully, you recognize your own experience in some of this and relate to the stark difference between how you show up in life and work when you are well versus unwell.  

Why Well-being Matters

Please don’t get the wrong idea; well-being isn’t just about avoiding pain or suffering. It’s about recognizing that we all have core human needs as human beings that need to be met for us to be happy, content, and able to be the best version of ourselves. 

Being “well” means your core needs are met in a way that allows you to make choices about how to invest your time, energy, and talent.

Being “well” means you’re operating as a whole person with your full potential at your disposal. 

“Well” is an aspiration. And, it’s one that I believe all humans share. When our well-being is in a good place, it feels great. 

Well-being has come to the forefront now because the past year has introduced multiple threats to our well-being that almost felt like a coordinated attack. 

Illness led the news, but our safety and financial security also came under attack simultaneously. Relationships were strained, and unhealthy habits revealed themselves as a temporary solution to our anxiety. 

Life piled on the well-being challenges one after the other as if it were a contest to see how much we could handle before we break. Some of us broke. Many are on the verge of breaking.

This is where far too many people find themselves today.  

As a manager or leader, this should be alarming to you. Because as we know from our own experiences when we aren’t well, we can’t do our best work. 

While this has always been true, the consequences of not supporting our employees’ well-being are starker and more catastrophic than ever before. 

If you want a high-performing team who will stay with you through good and bad times, supporting well-being needs to move to the top of your priority list and stay there. 

How to Support Employee Well-being

While I’m not going to offer you a comprehensive guide here for how to manage and lead for well-being, what I can do is share with you a few foundational steps you can take to get started in the right direction.

1. Give yourself permission to care. 

Well-meaning HR departments for years have told managers to maintain their distance from employees. We were advised not to get too close to people because you need to stay objective when managing people.  

And, while this advice is meant to ensure fairness and avoid favoritism, the unintended consequence is that managers have kept people at arms-length, believing that they really can’t engage with the employee in any way beyond what is “work-related.” 

As I outlined earlier, much of what affects our well-being and ability to perform our best at work happens in the part of our lives when we aren’t working. So, as a manager who wants to help people be at their best at work, you have to care about and be interested in your employees far beyond work.

This doesn’t mean you need to become best friends with each of your employees. But, you should give yourself permission to care about them and their lives outside of work.

When you start to care for your people beyond just their work output, you’ll start asking different questions and having different conversations. Showing your people that you care is a significant first step towards improving their well-being. 

Just knowing someone cares about you is incredibly powerful. You can give that gift to every person you manage.

2. Abandon the “work-life balance” myth. 

One thing that has traditionally got in the way of organizations meaningfully addressing employee well-being is the myth of work-life balance. 

The whole notion of balance assumes you have two separate things to put on opposite sides of a scale and adjust until the scale balances. The issue here: two separate things. 

Work isn’t something separate from life, it’s part of it. The concept of work-life balance only became a thing when employees started to realize how much work sucked for them and how much of a negative impact it was having on their lives. 

So, organizations started talking about “balancing” work and life as a solution to this issue. Rather than fix the root cause (work sucks and it’s killing us, sometimes literally), we created programs to help people think about the non-sucky parts of their life—that stuff that we don’t call “work.” 

Work is part of life. And life comes to work with people every day. There is no separation to balance. There is only a human being in the middle of it who has needs and aspirations. When we refuse the myth of work-life balance, we can finally start addressing the root issues holding people back.

3. Learn compassion.  

At the beginning of the year, I declared that the number one management imperative of 2021 was compassion. Compassion isn’t a concept commonly discussed in management or leadership training, but it may be the vital missing piece to truly embracing our role in supporting employee well-being. 

At the heart of compassion is an awareness of the suffering of others and a desire to help remove or address that suffering. It’s a simple idea with profoundly powerful implications when put into practice.  

Hopefully, we’ve all experienced compassion from others at some point in our lives. If you have, you remember that experience of someone recognizing that you were suffering or struggling and offering to help you get through it. 

For me, it was the compassion of my wife and another close friend last summer who both recognized I was struggling and offered me the support I needed to heal from my burnout. 

Compassion starts with permitting yourself to care (see #1 above) and seeing the employee beyond just what happens “at work” (see #2 above). From there, it’s going to be about cultivating skills for recognizing people’s needs and challenges with a commitment to address them.  

To dive deeper into the skill of compassion, I recommend reading this resource: How to Foster Compassion at Work Through Compassionate Leadership

Well-being is the Future of Work

This has been a chaotic and often painful chapter in the evolution of work. But we’re standing at the edge of a brand new chapter.

The silver lining in this pandemic is that it shattered the status quo of “how work should be done” to reveal something that’s always been true: 

It’s about the people. 

Embracing the work of well-being is ultimately a fundamental re-thinking of how we design and manage work. Employee well-being starts with designing based on what’s best for the humans who do the work—not the organization. 

Those who recognize and embrace this shift now will lead the way forward and show what’s truly possible. And I believe they will be in a position to thrive wildly in the future. 

 

 

Related Reading:

Wellness 2.0

Why Wellness Programs Matter

How (and Why) to Check in With Your Employees Now More Than Ever

Sending My Kids Back to School Broke Me

Sign about burnout that says things will be fine
The Other Side of Burnout – What’s Working for Me
The Other Side of Burnout – What’s Working for Me 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you were likely along for the ride last summer as I wrote about facing burnout for the first time and working my way through it.

Your responses to those posts reminded me how important it is to “show our work” as humans. Particularly in a world where it’s so tempting to curate a finely crafted version of ourselves on social media that signals to others how much we have everything under control. 

And some people do. But most of us don’t. 

Behind the curated picture is a messy reality of joy, struggle, success, and failure, all mixed together. Sometimes, things are great. Other times they suck. And then there are those that are…meh. 

We get into trouble when we stop paying attention and being honest about where we truly are. It’s when we get washed away by our circumstances and forget to care for ourselves that bad things often occur. 

2020 was rough. 2021 hasn’t been any better thus far—and it’s going to be a while before that changes. That means that we (you, me, your family, your employees) are all likely facing some challenging stuff, even if we’re projecting an aura of “everything’s fine.” 

In the past few days, signs that things are not okay have been showing up all around me. 

A friend revealed she’s fighting depression. I’d talked to her recently and she seemed to be doing well, but that wasn’t the reality. This diagnosis was even a surprise to her. Mental health is tricky and dangerous that way. 

Another friend shared that she’s struggling with some issues on her team that she’s never experienced before. Trust and communication issues are popping up like a whack-a-mole game. She’s always maintained a healthy culture with her team, but people are raw. 

And then, an article came across my radar today about “hitting the COVID wall.” As I read it, it sounds a lot like “hitting the wall” is another word for burnout. Regardless, people seem to be succumbing to the circumstances. 

If we are to be compassionate leaders, we must be aware of the challenges and help support our people both in practicing self-care and throwing them a lifeline when they get swallowed up by it all. 

And, just as importantly, we need to take care of ourselves. If we aren’t whole and well, it’s really tough to support others in doing so. 

To that end, I wanted to share with you what I’ve been practicing for self-care to keep myself in a good place and prevent the burnout I experienced last summer. Before I do, a disclaimer:  

These work for me—that’s all I know for certain. It’s not meant as a definitive prescription but rather as inspiration for your own self-care practice or that of your team. 

Self-Care Practices to Beat Burnout

While I know a lot is said about how silly New Year’s resolutions are because people rarely follow through, I find the turn of the new year to be a powerful opportunity to punch the reset button. It’s a great opportunity to wipe the slate clean and recommit to what’s important. And that’s what I did this year.  

While nothing I’m doing now is new to me, per se, the way that I’m approaching it is. I’m keeping a simple daily journey where I essentially record my progress each day. Mainly, it’s a practice of self-accountability. 

1. Meditation

For years, I avoided even trying meditation because it sounded intimidating and complicated. But a few years ago, based on the urgings from a friend, I decided to try it. I discovered that it doesn’t have to be hard and is really valuable. 

Despite that, I’ve not been consistent about my practice. I’d do it regularly for a while and then stop. For 2021, I’ve committed to meditating each day, and it’s having a profound impact. 

Most simply, meditation is about cultivating greater awareness—awareness of both the world around you and how you respond to it.

Cultivating this awareness helps you stay in touch with what’s going on inside your head and heart. This, in turn, equips you to take action when needed. Meditation isn’t an end-all, but it’s powerful. 

If you aren’t sure where to start, there are some great apps to help you.  I’ve used both Headspace and Calm in the past. Currently, I’m using the Ten Percent Happier app. All of them are good, and they all have free programs to help you get started. All you need is the app and a little bit of quiet space to give it a try.  

2. Exercise 

In full transparency, I never stopped exercising even before my burnout. So, exercise alone isn’t an adequate self-care practice. I used to think it was. But, exercise for me is critical. 

And it’s been challenging at times during the pandemic to keep this commitment. A few months before all of this started last year, I’d become a member at Orangetheory, a group workout gym, and I loved it. But just as I was getting into the groove of it, it was taken away. 

As a runner, I turned to running and for the summer months, I ran a lot. But then, plantar fasciitis struck, and I’ve not been able to run for months. There are always roadblocks to getting more exercise, but there is always a way. 

When Orangetheory closed, they started publishing at-home workout videos. I’d never worked out to a video in my life but quickly discovered you could get a great workout at home if you open your mind a bit. 

We also decided to invest in a treadmill late summer so that even as the winter months closed in and the temps dropped, we could still run (or walk, in my case right now). There’s always a way to keep active. 

3. Diet

I’m a stress eater and drinker. When things are strained, nothing sounds more appealing to me than a pizza and a few beers. When I eat and drink like this, my sleep suffers. Then I get progressively more tired. 

When I’m tired, I crave carbohydrates and foods that aren’t great for my body. When I eat those, I don’t feel great, and I find it hard to do my best work. That leads to more stress, which leads to more poor eating and drinking.  

It’s become a common joke of the times to talk about your “COVID 19,” the weight gain many of us have added since the pandemic began. Mine was a COVID 17. I came out of my burnout and into 2021 weighing more than I had in years. This didn’t feel good at all, so I decided that I needed to control what I could. 

I know how to eat healthily. So, I made that change. I also cut way back on my alcohol consumption. While I can’t claim a dry January, I was close. As a result, my sleep is better, which makes it easier to control my eating and drinking. 

And, I feel better and stronger than I have in years. The COVID 17 is nearly gone. 

4. Clear Out The “Psychic Baggage”

Before you think I’ve lost it, let me explain what I mean by “psychic baggage.” One of the things I noticed coming into 2021 (perhaps due to more meditation) was that there were many things on my mind that required me to take some action but that I wasn’t doing anything about. 

One was a conversation with my son. Another was a relationship check-in with my wife. Several were as simple as emails sitting in my email box waiting on a reply. For one reason or another, I’d been putting all of these things off. And I realized that by doing so, they were occupying space in my mind that couldn’t be used for anything else. 

It was psychic baggage that I was unnecessary carrying around. And the weight of it was undoubtedly having an effect. So, I decided to start clearing it out. 

At first, I had to deal with the backlog. It was like moving through a checklist; but with every checkmark I added, I felt lighter. Eventually, I arrived at a place where I finished my initial list. The work now is not to pick up any new baggage. The mindfulness of meditation helps a lot with this. 

This practice is really about asking yourself, “what am I putting off that’s weighing on me right now?” This is a great journaling prompt (another thing I’ve been doing weekly). Once you identify your baggage, step into it and do what needs to be done to put it down. That doesn’t mean you need to solve the issue, necessarily—it just means that you take the next step. 

5. Self-compassion

Last but certainly not least is practicing what I preach on myself. I’ve written about the importance of compassion as a leader this year. That needs to first extend to ourselves. It’s about realizing that we are also struggling and won’t always get it right.

For me, this has been important. Despite my goal to not drink alcohol for the first two weeks of the year, watching the events of January 6 unfold on television derailed me. Self-compassion allowed me to extend care and forgiveness to myself, cut myself some slack, and start the next day anew.

We can’t always get it right. We are imperfect. But, we are worth the same care and concern we offer others. Be kind to yourself. When things don’t go well, forgive yourself and reconnect to your intentions. Then give it another go.  

The Key to Beating Burnout 

Wellbeing is a topic you’ll be hearing a lot about from me this year. If there’s one thing the pandemic has made crystal clear, it’s that we need to do a much better job caring for our people and ourselves.  

In the modern era of work, human beings are the mechanisms of production in the ways machines were to the industrial era. And while I know that sounds sort of harsh when put into words, it’s true. It’s our intellect, creativity, willpower, and motivation that drives our organizations. 

In the context of work, wellbeing is the degree to which we, as human beings, are able to offer our best contributions. It’s care and maintenance. And without it, we can never optimize engagement or performance. 

It’s also the degree to which we can offer our best contributions across all aspects of our lives. While many innovations will impact work in the future, none is more important than the progress we can make related to wellbeing.  

The best way to learn is to start with yourself. Experiment with self-care and learn what works for you. Then share your story with others as both inspiration and to act as a role model. 

 

Mark your calendar:

  • March 11, 2-3 p.m. ET – My What’s nEXt webcast in March will feature Mettie Spiess for a conversation about what progress we are making on supporting mental health at work (and what more we need to be doing). 
  • March 31, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. ETWellbeing 2021 – Humanity Comes to Work. This is a day-long virtual event I’m producing with AchieveEngagement and WELCOA that you won’t want to miss. 
Burnout and Putting Me Back Together Again
Burnout and Putting Me Back Together Again 1080 608 Jason Lauritsen

About two weeks ago, I wrote about my realization that I was suffering from burnout. The response to the post was both affirming and concerning. 

Affirmation came in the form of messages and comments signifying I wasn’t alone. Others saw themselves in my situation. They were feeling the same exhaustion and lack of joy. In those affirmations was born my concern. 

I’ve spent the last two weeks writing and speaking openly about my burnout and how I found my way through it. The more I talk about it, the more I hear from others who are suffering from something similar: burnout, COVID fatigue, stress, etc. 

As a result of what I’ve heard, I feel like I need to share what’s happened since I wrote that post. I took some very intentional and specific actions to get back to feeling like myself again and it’s had a dramatic effect. 

I’m a bit reluctant as I write this post for a couple of reasons. First, I’m in no way an expert on burnout or mental health. I’m only an expert on sharing my story and what I’ve learned from it. 

Second, I have found quickly that there are many different manifestations and intensities of burnout. My hunch is that mine was pretty mild and that I caught it relatively early, but I don’t know. 

Finally, I’m cognizant of the enormous privilege and advantages I have at my disposal. I am lucky. I have more flexibility (I work for myself), support, and resources than many do. Please know I am aware of this and that your situation may look a lot different than mine. 

I’m going to share what I did because it was incredibly healing for me. I literally feel like a different person today than I did when I wrote that blog. I’ll also share what I took from the experience as learnings. My hope is that something in there will be helpful to you or perhaps someone you know who might be stuck where I was.  


My Retreat

As I began to realize how worn down I felt, a friend of mine suggested that I take a few days and really unplug. Unplug from work, from tech, from the news. She suggested spending time just breathing and doing things like watching the sun rise and set. 

It sounded right to me, so I scanned my calendar and found four days where I had very little scheduled and anything that was scheduled could be moved. I blocked them off. 

When I told my wife about my plan to unplug, she made a suggestion. My parents were going to be gone for a couple of weeks camping, so why not go to their house to have some real time “away” from everything. That’s exactly what I did. 

Two days after I posted my blog, I packed my car and headed to my parents’ empty house. Ironically, while so many are struggling with social isolation right now, what I needed was some true time alone. 

Over the course of those four days, I had a few priorities. 

DISCONNECTION  I didn’t check email. I didn’t watch any news. I unplugged. The only people I talked to during the entire four days were my grandparents, who live in an assisted living facility near my parents’ home. Visiting with them in-person was good for the soul. In the evenings, I’d kick back and watch a movie I’d been wanting to see. 

SLEEP  I felt exhausted heading up there. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been sleeping. My Fitbit would have told you that I was getting about seven hours of sleep per night even as I was burning out. It wasn’t enough. Over my four nights away, I slept 9.5, 9, 9, and 8 hours respectively per night. My batteries were clearly run down.

SELF-HELP PODCASTS  The week before I left, a friend who had navigated through her own experience of burnout mentioned how much the Brené Brown podcast, Unlocking Us, had helped. I took her advice and binged a bunch of episodes along with several from the Dan Harris podcast, Ten Percent Happier. These were exactly what I needed. It was the closest thing I could get to some counseling or coaching as part of this experience. It was a reminder that just because you heard something or knew something at one point doesn’t mean you don’t need reminders and refreshers. One would think I should know that. Regardless, these podcasts and a few other random episodes from other sources gave me the tools I needed to reset my mindset. 

JOURNALING  Each morning, I spent about 30-45 minutes journaling. I use a technique for journaling where I decide in advance how much space I’m going to fill in my journal and then I write, without stopping, until it’s full. This part of the process was vital to pouring out my thoughts and making sense of what had been going on inside my head. By putting in the self-help content early, I had a lot to process and sort through over four days. Other than sleep, journaling was probably the most vital part of healing.  

EXERCISE  This is admittedly a regular part of my self-care routine. I run between 20 and 25 miles per week during the warm months. While on retreat, I kept up my running but also mixed in some long walks as well. Exercise alone isn’t enough for me, clearly, but it’s an important element. 

MEDITATION  Each morning, I spent 15-20 minutes meditating. I am still largely a meditation novice, but I love it and find it extremely valuable. I use the Calm app for guided meditations. 

Beyond these things, I allowed myself a lot of open space to do whatever felt like the right thing to do. One day, I went for a sight-seeing drive and listened to a podcast. Another day, I went for a meandering walk around town. Just the feeling of being off a schedule allowed some of my stress to ease. 

When I returned home from the retreat, I felt like a different person. I’d been able to isolate some really problematic mindsets and reset them to a more positive place. Plus, I felt whole and rested. I had energy and the joy had returned. I am not overstating this. It was transformative. 

What I think I learned

As I’ve had time to think about how I ended up in need of a retreat and how the retreat restored me, I’m going to hang on to a few things to hopefully help me prevent this from happening again in the future. 

  1. Retreats are powerful. The word retreat is defined as “an act of moving back or withdrawing.” That’s what I needed and it feels like what a lot of people need right now. We need to move back from the front lines of our lives, even if it’s just for a few days. When we move back and get away, we are able to get out of the busyness and see our situation from a different perspective. Creating space for retreat is incredibly important and valuable. 
  2. Ongoing self-care is vital, and exercise alone isn’t enough. I think when the crisis took hold in March, the adrenaline of needing to adapt and respond carried me through several months. I suspect that my exercise and sleep routine actually helped me stretch out how far that carried me, but I wasn’t tending to my mental health, and eventually I broke down. Going forward, I have a plan to be as disciplined about my mental health self-care as I am about my physical health. 
  3. We all need help in getting and staying well. I am fortunate that I have friends (and a badass wife) who provided me with suggestions and ideas for what I needed to do. I’m also grateful that I opened myself back up to some self-help content. My learning style responds really well to self-help, but it could have been counseling or coaching instead. The point is, it’s hard to climb out of a rut without some help. It’s also much easier to recognize and avoid the rut in the first place with help. 

As Paul Harvey used to say, “That’s the rest of the story.” My hope is that maybe it will be useful to you, someone you care about, or maybe in thinking through how to support your employees right now. 

And, if you are curious about what the mindsets were that needed a reset, the short version is this: I needed to replace judgment with empathy and scarcity with abundance. If you want to talk more about that, reach out and ask.  

Take care of yourself and those around you. We’ve still got a long way to go.  

Sending My Kids Back to School Broke Me
Sending My Kids Back to School Broke Me 1000 555 Jason Lauritsen

I thought I was doing pretty well.

When our lives (and my business) got turned upside down in March, I hunkered down. I’ve been through some tough times before, so I knew that I could survive whatever was to come.

My wife and I figured out the “school from home” mess and made the best of it. And I went to work on pivoting my business for this new world. It felt like a puzzle to solve. While the circumstances sucked, they challenged me to learn and innovate. I even felt sort of energized at first.

I knew what I needed to do. Work hard. Focus on solving problems. Take risks. Go as fast as possible.

I’ve got this.

Then the start of the school year was suddenly upon us. Like many parents, Angie and I were confronted with decisions that felt impossible. Most critically, in-person or at-home school? We went back and forth for a while and finally made a decision.

Confronting the school decision seemed to somehow break me. I started to notice that I was exhausted all the time. When Angie would ask me, “how are you doing?” it became harder and harder to say, “I’m good.”

I started to notice that the energy I drew from “solving this puzzle” was diminished. Even the things that have always made me feel happy and joyful didn’t seem to be having the same effect. My resilience was waning.

I knew something was off but couldn’t figure out what it was. So I started doing a little reading and research. Before long, a lightbulb went on.

I’m burned out.

It’s been over five months now since the COVID bomb dropped on us. I’ve been grinding ever since. The stress and anxiety is ever present and I haven’t been doing the work I need to do to manage it.

I had plans to take some time off this summer to just hang out with the kids, but I always found work to do and suddenly summer was gone. I had a goal to meditate daily, but I let the habit lapse. Worse, I had replaced that with the comfortable numbness of a couple glasses of wine each night and whatever comfort carbs I could find.

Now that I’m aware of it, I am taking steps to heal myself. My energy is slowly starting to come back.

As I started to share this with friends and colleagues, I soon discovered that many of them were either feeling the same way or had navigated through the same challenge recently. I was surprised by how common this experience seemed to be.

Maybe you are in the same boat. Or maybe you recognize it in your partner, friend, or colleague.

This was just another reminder for me how important it is that we collectively work to support the mental health of our friends, family, and employees. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that their average weekly data for June 2020 “found that 36.5% of adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 11.0% in 2019.” That’s a huge increase in what was already a big problem.

If we don’t care for the mental health and well-being of our employees, even the best engagement programs in the world can do little to preserve performance levels over the long haul. This may be one of the biggest challenges that lies before us.

Today at the bottom of the blog, I’m sharing some reading and resources related to this topic that I hope you will find helpful. Now is the time to lean into caring for your employees (and yourself). Things will likely get worse before they get better, so we need to be prepared.

You matter. Your work matters. Now more than ever.

Mental Health Reading and Resources

  • As you strive to support not only the mental health of your teams, but also their overall wellbeing, there is perhaps no better resource than the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA). I’m sharing a page here where they provide access to several free resources related to mental health in the workplace. Resource: Mental Health at the Workplace
  • The most powerful thing we can do throughout this time for one another is to develop our empathy. This short post is a good reminder of how easy it is to assume we know what others are going through and, in doing so, miss an opportunity to really connect and help. Now is a time to use our natural curiosity to check in on those we care about. Read: Empathy Starts with Curiosity
  • Mental health isn’t a new challenge, but it’s becoming a more widespread and urgent one. COVID just poured gasoline on the fire. Now is a good time to get educated on mental health and why we’ve struggled with it traditionally. This can help us navigate a path to finding real solutions and support through work. Read: We Need to Talk More about Mental Health at Work
Reading Between the Lines on the 4-Day Work Week
Reading Between the Lines on the 4-Day Work Week 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Last week, Quartz published a piece about a New Zealand company that has implemented a 4-day work week policy.

This company offered the shortened work week without any reduction in pay or other benefits. They tested it and then implemented it broadly when they found that it didn’t cause any decrease in overall performance for the organization.

The owner of the company, Andrew Barnes, is bullish about these results and wants every company to try it. But, he offers some words of caution not to talk about this effort in terms of employee well-being. Instead, he advised that you talk about it in terms of productivity.

Here’s a quote from Barnes about how they rolled this out:

“We sat down with each team and we said, ‘Right, let’s agree what is the base of productivity that you’re delivering now,’” he says. “And then the deal was, provided you delivered on the productivity goals, you would be gifted a day off a week.”

This is a cool story. It highlights what is possible when organizations think differently about work.

Is this really about a 4-day work week?

While I think it’s awesome that this company is proving that some of our assumptions about work (i.e. the 5-day work week) are limiting, I think the article is misleading for anyone who might want to pursue something similar in their own organization.

The 4-day work week is the kind of gimmicky silver-bullet we love to read about and debate. The gimmick is a distraction.

If you read between the lines, here’s what you find echoed in this article.

  • This company found that employees could produce the same amount of output in 4 days that they had been producing in 5.
  • When given this challenge (or opportunity) to work more effectively, employees stepped up. When surveying employees before and after the 4-day week trial, they “found that 78% of staff felt able to manage work and other commitments after the trial, compared to 54% before.”
  • The policy is less about a 4-day week than it is about autonomy and flexibility. The leaders essentially told employees that if they can get their work done in less hours, they could have those extra hours back.
  • And please don’t say this effort is about employee well-being if you want to be taken seriously because nobody (particularly leaders) cares about that. (Forgive my sarcasm, but this seems to be what they chose to lead with.)
  • The key to making this transition happen swiftly is an owner or CEO who gets it or has a eureka moment.

My take on the 4-day work week

Conversations about a shortened work week are colored by how we think about work. It highlights a fundamental conflict in management philosophy. The practice of management was born during the industrial revolution where the objective was primarily to maximize the productivity of employees per hour. A majority of organizations today are still rooted in this belief.

The objective of work processes is to motivate and/or coerce the maximum amount of productivity out of each hour the employee works. 

In this model, the number of hours the employee spends working is viewed as vital to achieving performance expectations. Your role as an employee is less about achieving specific outputs as it is about seeing how much you can contribute. The manager’s role is to get the maximum amount of value out of the employee.

This way of thinking is prevalent among leaders. It’s this way of thinking that makes the “discretionary effort” model of employee engagement so attractive. It’s oriented towards getting more and more out of the same investment in people–to maximize productivity for the benefit of the organization.

An alternative way of thinking about work is that employees are hired to fulfill specific roles with clear expectations for the value they contribute to the organization’s success. This role clarity drives compensation, management evaluation, and other work processes. This way of thinking about work might be summarized this way:

The objective of work processes is to ensure that employees are clear about the expectations of their role and that they have everything they need to succeed.  

In this way of thinking, a manager’s role isn’t to get the maximum amount of productivity out of each employee. Instead, it’s about ensuring that each employee is crystal clear about what is expected of them and then supporting them in achieving those goals successfully.

If an employee can complete their work in less than 40 hours per week, good for her. She’s met her expectations, so what she does with those extra hours is up to her. If she’s able to do her work in 25 hours/week, then that likely means she’s either due for a more challenging role or the role she’s in is poorly designed. Or, maybe she’s just super efficient at her job and everyone’s happy.

These two very different ways of thinking about work are really what the discussion about the 4-day work week is truly about. If your leaders believe that their mandate is to create a workplace that extracts the maximum amount of productivity from employees, then you are dead in the water before you start.

I suspect that’s why the article led with the insight to talk about this effort as “productivity” and not well-being. The implication seems to be that perhaps you can trick your leaders into the 4-day work week. But, if you don’t address the underlying belief that the goal is to maximize employee output, how long do you think it will take before your leaders realize that if employees can be 20% more productive in four days a week, imagine the productivity if they get back that fifth day?

Instead of trying to trick your leaders into this experiment, focus instead on building a better system of performance management that clearly defines expectations and creates systems of measurement and feedback to help managers effectively manage to those expectations. Once your organization and its leaders are more clearly oriented around thinking of roles in terms of defined performance expectations, the conversation about greater autonomy and flexibility will become much easier.

P.S. This has everything to do with employee well-being, even if your leaders aren’t ready to invest in it yet.

 

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employee wellness 2.0 - person running up stairs
Wellness 2.0
Wellness 2.0 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

About eight years ago, I joined an organization that was pretty serious about workplace wellness.

Since the wellness team rolled up to me as the HR leader, I got pretty serious about learning what it was all about quickly. Most of the focus, I learned, was on improving the physical health of our employee population.

This particular organization had been investing in wellness programs for years, long before most organizations started to take it seriously. They did some really cool stuff in the name of wellness. They viewed it as a benefit to employees.

At the time I joined this organization, healthcare costs in the U.S. were really beginning to skyrocket and the cost of providing employer-sponsored health insurance had become a concern.

This triggered the wellness industry to jump into action. Suddenly, workplace wellness programs were no longer a benefit, they were a vehicle to control and reduce health insurance costs. It made sense. The healthier you are, the less healthcare you consume–at least in theory.

We sold this clear new “business case” for wellness, HARD. Our execs got on board and we got to work.

But, the promised cost containment and cost savings never really materialized. And we weren’t alone. It wasn’t that wellness wasn’t making a positive difference, it just wasn’t reducing health insurance spend.

This promise of wellness has failed. The cost savings never materialized. Wellness had bet big and lost on a business case with far too many uncontrollable variables.

Sadly, this is putting some wellness programs and wellness professionals at risk of losing funding and influence.

Now is not the time to abandon wellness. Now is the time to double down.

Work is a relationship for employees. And, at the core of a healthy relationship is feeling a sense of belonging and being care for. No other function within the organization is better positioned to help employees feel this way than wellness.

The practice of corporate wellness has evolved over the past decade. Today, instead of only being about improving physical health, it’s about improving overall feelings of well-being. Wellness is wholly focused on caring for you as an individual person.

When wellness works, it can really strengthen the relationship by making you feel like the organization cares about you beyond simply what you can do for it. If your organization provides you with the tools to get out of debt or with the skills to be a better parent, it makes a real and positive impact.

But when it fails, the relationship gets damaged. My wife still talks about a day at work well over a decade ago that is a good example. A snowstorm was getting started in the city and many of her colleagues were leaving work early to make it home before the snow got bad.

As a single mom with a young son in daycare, she had to make it across town before the daycare closes. For those who may not contend with snow regularly, when a snowstorm of any magnitude rolls into the city, a 30-minute commute can become a 90-minute commute pretty quickly.  So, she asked her boss if she could leave early.

As an hourly employee, her boss not only didn’t want to let her leave early but proceeded to give her a lecture about how she needed to have a backup plan for situations like these. These words, to someone who didn’t have an easy answer for a “back up plan” were at best insensitive and at worst insulting and hurtful. As I said, my wife still feels hurt all these years later.

Learning to really care for an employee’s wellness is at the heart of creating a great work experience and a strong work relationship.  But, this requires that we evolve our understanding of wellness as a practice.

Recently, the Wellness Council of America debuted a new definition of Wellness that I find really inspiring. Here is the core of their definition:

What is Wellness?

Wellness is the active pursuit to understand and fulfill your individual human needs—which allows you to reach a state where you are flourishing and able to realize your full potential in all aspects of life. Every person has wellness aspirations.

Successful workplace wellness initiatives require supporting employees in fulfilling their needs in these seven areas:

  1. Health Beyond the absence of mental and physical illness, health is a feeling of strength and energy from your body and mind.
  2. Meaning Feeling part of something bigger than yourself. Knowing that your work matters. Having purpose in your life.
  3. Safety Knowing that you are safe from physical and psychological harm at work. Feeling secure enough to take calculated risks and show vulnerability. Free of concern about meeting basic life needs.
  4. ConnectionExperiencing positive, trusting relationships with others. Feeling a sense of belonging, acceptance and support.
  5. Achievement Feeling you have the support, resources and autonomy to achieve your goals. Succeeding at meeting your individual goals and work aspirations.
  6. Growth Feeling like you are progressing in your career. Learning and being challenged to use and expand on your strengths.
  7. Resiliency Viewing life with optimism. Feeling grateful and expressing appreciation. Feeling validated and encouraged.

You can find the full definition here.

As we wrestle with how to make our organizations and the work we do better for humans, I think it would be smart to put wellness at the center of those efforts. If we feel unwell, whether it’s from our physical health, stress from financial strain, or a lack of meaning in our life, we won’t and can’t perform at our best. The most engaging workplace in the world can’t compensate for a lack of well-being.

The heritage of management we inherited suggests that life exists outside of work and that, as employers, we need only concern ourselves with what happens “on the clock.” That may have worked in the early days of mindless factory work, but it’s no longer valid today. The wellness of our people is where it all starts.  The more “well” they are, the more performance potential they have to give.

Wellness isn’t going to fix your health insurance issues, but it may go a long way towards boosting performance. Give it another look.

This week, I have the privilege of presenting a keynote at the WELCOA Summit in San Diego. If you are going to be there, drop me a note. Let’s meet up. 

The Wellness Obstacle – The Leader’s Health
The Wellness Obstacle – The Leader’s Health 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

In my last post, I shared my thoughts about why I think Wellness programs are becoming an increasingly important part of our work in HR.  I’m relatively new to the field.  It wasn’t until I joined my current organization that I become really familiar with this notion of wellness within the organization.  


Aside from all of the corporate benefits of wellness programs done right, I have experienced some very personal and specific benefits.  Since the corporate wellness function exists within HR at my organization, I am the executive champion for wellness by default.  For me, that meant that I had better start acting the part.  After all, who would want to hear about wellness from an overweight, out-of-shape HR guy–hardly a credible source on the subject (it’s like getting medical advice from an unhealthy doctor).  Since taking on this role, I’ve started eating better, exercising more and generally being far more conscientious about my health because I feel that it’s a requirement of the job. I love this pressure because it’s a great motivator to stay in shape.  However, I suspect that not everyone would feel the same way.

As I have thought about this circumstance and the personal changes implied by being associated with leading a wellness strategy, it occurred to me that this might be why wellness is such a challenging thing to get right or to get adopted.  An unhealthy leader might consider that wellness is an intriguing program for their organization until they realize that the act of putting in a program like this might mean that they must personally change.  I suspect that many a wellness program has died before even starting due to this factor.  Generally, it’s been my experience that people won’t voluntarily put themselves into a position where they knowingly take on significant accountability for personal change.  Instead, it’s just easier to argue that wellness programs haven’t been proven to work or that company’s have no business telling people how to manage their health.  All surface arguments that are hiding a more complicated truth, many of us are insecure about our own health and our ability to manage it successfully.

So, if you are considering presenting a wellness initiative or strategy for your organization, take time to consider the implications on yourself and the other leaders within the organization.  In order for your program to work, you (as the champion) and the key leaders in your organization must not only support the strategy but they must also walk the talk by modeling healthy lifestyles.  Don’t overlook the very personal impact this has on each individual leader.  By acknowledging this in the process, you are more likely to get a clear picture of the obstacles that must be overcome on your way to implementing a successful program.  
why wellness programs matter - employees doing yoga together
Why Wellness Programs Matter
Why Wellness Programs Matter 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

I have a confession to make. I used to think that corporate wellness programs were ridiculous.

I’d hear about weight-loss contests and health fairs and, frankly, it felt like the typical busywork kind of stuff HR departments are known for.

Then, I went to work for an organization that invests heavily in wellness (and had been doing so for 15 years) and I found out I was wrong.

As I’ve studied wellness and the impact that well-executed wellness programs can have on an organization, I’ve changed my tune. I’ve become a wellness champion.

I believe in wellness programs within organizations and I think that every organization should be investing in them. It seems so obvious to me that there is a benefit to having a wellness program that it’s hard to understand why companies wouldn’t embrace them, particularly in today’s world of health care expenses that continue to spiral out of control.

The general argument against corporate wellness is that companies have no business mandating anything to do with employee health.

It’s argued that requiring employees to get in better shape or care for their general health and well-being is an intrusion of their privacy.

I’ve heard this sentiment coming from some pretty smart HR pros, and I find their objection to wellness to be short-sighted.

The fact is, we mandate things to employees every day. We tell them how to dress. We give them standards for their hygiene. We require them to attend training classes. We give expectations on how to execute their job. We tell when they can and can’t take personal phone calls. We tell them what they can and can’t say to who and when.

And we do all of this because specific employee behaviors have a direct financial impact on the organization.

But, when it comes to wellness, we get squeamish about setting the same kind of standards despite the fact that employer-paid health insurance benefits have become the second-largest expense line item for many companies behind salary.

And research tells us that 75% of healthcare expenses in America come from chronic health conditions that are largely preventable through behavior modification.

So, to extrapolate, it can be assumed also that approximately 75% of our health insurance expense at the organization level is being caused by the behaviors of our employees. And, if they change these behaviors, there could be a dramatic decrease in healthcare expenses for the employee and the organization.

This doesn’t even take into consideration that people are doing real damage to themselves and their families through their unhealthy choices.

With this much at stake, why wouldn’t a responsible organization get invested in wellness?

It almost feels like an imperative to create healthy organizations that proactively help employees make healthier decisions. In fact, if we are willing to dictate how employees dress when there’s so little at stake, why wouldn’t we offer help with what they eat or how much they exercise when there’s so much at stake?

 

Related Reading:

Wellness 2.0

Why Employee Well-Being is Vital to Work Performance

How (and Why) to Check in With Your Employees Now More Than Ever

Sending My Kids Back to School Broke Me