Wellness

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. 
Winter is Coming
Winter is Coming 1080 718 Jason Lauritsen

For those of you who aren’t Game of Thrones fans, this title probably seems silly to you. An observation like this certainly isn’t going to earn me a job as a meteorologist any time soon.

But, if you are a GoT fan, you know these three words represent a warning. When the words “winter is coming” are spoken in the fantasy world of GoT, the implication is that you’d better get ready because bad things are imminent.

These three words have been on my mind a lot lately.

This year has been brutal on so many fronts. No one has escaped its effects. Sure, the gravity and severity of the impact has not been evenly distributed, but everyone has been touched.

And I understand why so many people are ready for this year to be over; in a normal year, when we hit January 1, we get to push an imaginary reset button.

On January 1, everything feels possible (after your hangover passes, of course). We put the previous year behind us and look to the future with hope and possibility in our eyes.

This year, I’m going to learn to play the guitar.

This year, I’m going to lose 20 pounds and run a marathon.

This year, I’m going to spend more time with my kids.

This year, everything is going to get better.

But, we are not living in normal times.

Just a couple days ago, my daughter exclaimed, “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over.”

I’ve been hearing that a lot from people. And, it worries me.

My fear is that a lot of people are just trying to survive the year and hoping that when the new year arrives, everything will somehow get better.

Just make it to January 1 and things will get better.

I sure wish that was true. But, we know it’s not.

If we have the courage to look around us with eyes wide open, we can expect that as 2021 arrives, the pandemic may very likely be at its most devastating point globally, systemic racism and inequity will have gone nowhere and large groups of people will still resent the fact that it’s even talked about, and the economy is likely to feel uncertain at best.

A big chunk of the country will be trapped in their homes due to freezing weather, isolated from friends and family when they need them most. And, take it from someone who’s grown up in the Midwest—those first couple months of the year can feel LONG even in the best of times.

Depression and mental health struggles are going to be a primary concern for everyone.

The reality that we must face is that 2021—at least the first half of the year—may feel more challenging than any point in 2020.

I know, I know. Thanks for the uplifting post, Jason.

My point in writing this isn’t to depress you. It’s a call to arms. It’s a reminder that we need to prepare ourselves for what’s truly ahead (and not a pipe dream about a suddenly better 2021).

In Game of Thrones, the phrase “winter is coming” refers to an existential threat that would come from the north to devastate and destroy everything—literally. The main defense against this threat is “the wall,” which is literally a giant wall (think Hoover Dam) protected by armed guards.

The wall is the last line of defense between life as they know it and their demise.

Managers, owners, executives, and HR leaders—you are the wall. You have an obligation to see what’s coming and help equip your people to survive.

Succeeding in this task has vital consequences that reach far beyond helping people do their jobs. It’s about helping them stay whole and healthy so they can do the same for their friends, families, and neighbors.

It’s an awesome responsibility and opportunity to truly impact your people.

So, What Should You Do?

2021 is going to be hard but we can be ready. Hard experiences only break us when we aren’t prepared and lack support.

There are a few things you can start doing now to have a big impact on how next year goes for you and your team.

  1. Confront reality.
    Help your people prepare mentally for what’s coming by engaging in conversations with them where you help them understand what lies ahead. It doesn’t help you or them if they have a false sense of hope about how things will look come January. I’m not suggesting you be a radical pessimist or dream crusher, just that you talk about reality (using real data and trends) to help each person gain perspective that we aren’t anywhere near the finish line yet. In these conversations, reinforce that while it will be hard, you are in it together and will get through it together.
  2. Create a plan.
    Given that we have a pretty good idea of what the first half of next year is likely to look like, we can plan for it. And, more importantly, you can help your people plan for it. I find it most helpful to start with planning for the worst case scenario.For example, if we assume the pandemic will be worse by early 2021 and we’ll all be confined to our homes, schooling our kids from home, and unable to see the people we love outside our home in person, what are we going to do to make it through? What’s your plan for:

    • How to stay connected with friends, family, and co-workers
    • How to stay healthy and well?
    • How to keep your family/household/roommate situation positive and healthy?
    • How to maintain a balance between work and non-work time?

    Having a plan helps even challenging things feel manageable. And, the reason I like to plan for the worst is that the worst rarely happens, which means whatever does happen will feel a lot easier to navigate.

  3. Start talking about mental health now.
    There are already some alarming signals indicating that our mental health is suffering. Whether it’s anxiety, depression, burnout, or a host of other issues, caring for our mental health in the upcoming year is going to be a primary challenge we must face with our people.The most important thing you can do right now is start talking about it. By talking about it or even sharing your own struggles, you remove the stigma and make it easier for your people to share.Also, make sure your team has resources easily available should they need them. This could mean creating a one-pager with info about the company’s EAP program, helpline numbers, online resources, etc.
  4. Embrace the holidays.
    Encourage people to take time off, unplug, and enjoy some downtime in December. Make it clear you encourage this and create a plan with people to truly get away from work over the holidays as much as they can to rest, and recharge—whatever they need to feel somewhat restored. They will follow your lead on this, so do the same for yourself.

Winter is coming. And it is going to be challenging, particularly for those who are responsible for helping others find their way through it while keeping up their performance at work.

It is likely to be hard, but we can be prepared. Start now.

Your people need you, perhaps more today than ever before.

Please Don’t Fake It (The Authentic You is Worth the Work)
Please Don’t Fake It (The Authentic You is Worth the Work) 700 468 Jason Lauritsen

Last week, I opened the weekly email from a thought leader I really admire, Marc Effron. Marc is probably best known for writing the genius book, One Page Talent Management.

I first crossed paths with Marc in 2006 when we were both speaking at the same event. We were both corporate HR execs at the time. From the beginning, I knew this guy was the real deal. 

And, I’ve been following his work ever since. His company, Talent Strategy Group, consistently publishes great content—much of it oriented towards blowing up status-quo thinking and replacing it with what really works.  

I’m a fan. Clearly. Which is why I was so disappointed to find an article in his newsletter titled, “Why the Fake You will Outperform the Authentic You (and how to fake it).” As I read it, I just sighed and thought to myself, “not you too, Marc.” 

For some reason, it’s become popular over the past few years to push back against the idea that we should bring our authentic selves to work. Adam Grant, another person I admire greatly, wrote in 2016, “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.” Thankfully, his view of authenticity seems to be evolving

My colleague Joe Gerstandt and I have been researching, writing about, and teaching authenticity for over a decade now, which is why I’m so baffled that we continue to get the concept of authenticity so wrong. 

Here’s an excerpt from Marc’s article: 

“At least once a month, I show a decidedly fake version of myself to very important people who have paid handsomely for my services. The fake me may show up in a client meeting, an executive education session or during an important speech. My clients don’t know that it’s the fake me and they don’t care. They simply want a great outcome for their organization.”

I bristled at the use of the word “fake” here. In 2020, we live in a time when literal “fake news” floods our social media accounts daily. Fake in today’s world means “intentionally misleading” or “lies.” 

As authors and thought leaders, we often use words that trigger emotional reactions that we hope will get you to click our email or read our post. That’s part of the marketing game. But, in this case, Marc’s use of the word fake here goes beyond a marketing stunt. It’s harmful. More on that later. 

More for the article: 

“You might consider yourself to be a genuine leader and can’t, or find it fundamentally distasteful to, imagine not being your “authentic” self at work. This is because many people like to believe that their authentic self is a carefully thought-through, practiced and shaped version of who they want to be. In reality, the authentic or genuine you is likely an artificial construct your brain has created – a big bundle of confirmation bias based on your intelligence and core personality and how both have interpreted your past experiences.

The genuine you is a constraint on your success if you believe that your success is derived from it. Once you stop worrying about being the genuine or authentic you, the more you can be the adaptable chameleon that succeeds in more situations. That sometimes fake you (if done well) is guaranteed to be a higher performer.”

Ugh. This almost reads like a moralistic argument for “the ends always justify the means.” And, maybe that’s the point. If you aren’t reading this carefully and thinking it through, this section could easily be interpreted in a lot of harmful ways:

  • Do whatever it takes to get ahead, even if it makes you feel like a fraud. 
  • As long as you succeed, then “faking it” is worth it.
  • It’s okay to make things up and pretend to be someone you aren’t, so long as it gets better results. 
  • You will never have an authentic sense of self, so why both looking for or protecting it? Just make it up as you go and become something new in every situation. 

I hope that’s not what is being argued here because that would be a deeply sad and troubling reflection on what gets rewarded and promoted in business and society today. And maybe that’s the point of the article, to shine a light on how the entire system is designed to reward faking it. 

When I peel back the packaging of Marc’s suggestions as “faking it” and just look at the meat of his recommendations, I am not arguing that it’s bad advice. But, I’m suggesting that regardless of what’s comfortable for you or what’s in your natural style, you can learn skills to better promote your ideas, make friends, and show ambition without having to feel like you faking it. 

That’s why this article bothers me so much. At the very least, it reveals how poorly we understand and have defined authenticity. And that’s too important for me to let it slide.

Based on the work Joe and I have done over the past decade on authenticity, here are two critical things that Marc’s argument misses: 

1. Authenticity is a journey. 

One thing that Marc and I can agree on is that there is no single “authentic you” within any of us. As humans, we are constantly evolving and changing. Being authentic is the work we do to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, come to terms with who we are, and then show up in the world in a way that aligns with that. 

Marc is correct that while many assume they’ve done the work to live authentically, that’s just not the reality for most people. The journey of authenticity is challenging and not everyone has the know-how or willingness to take it on. 

Where Marc and I part ways is in what to do about it. Marc suggests that since you probably aren’t authentic, just fake it. While this may get you ahead in cut-throat corporate environments (and probably national politics), it’s harmful advice for most people in terms of overall wellbeing and happiness. 

In “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” author Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care nurse who cared for elderly patients at the end of their lives, wrote that the single biggest regret her patients expressed at the end of their lives was this: 

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” 

In other words, I wish I’d lived a more authentic life. While authenticity may not always be the fastest path to promotion, it won’t leave you on your deathbed wondering why you squandered so much of your life trying to be what others wanted you to be.

2. Authenticity includes your intentions.  

One of the biggest things people misunderstand about authenticity is that it’s not about doing or saying whatever you want without consequence. That’s not authenticity. That’s radical individualism. 

The model Joe and I teach of the journey of authenticity starts with self-awareness. And it’s not the traditional self-awareness work like understanding your personality, strengths, and behavioral style. Those things are important, but they’re just the start. 

The more important work lies in discovering and defining things like our values, purpose, intentions, and aspirations. In doing this work, we gain greater clarity about who we are today, but also who we aspire to be on our best days and in the future. When we are clear on these important things, it helps us make intentional decisions about our behavior. 

At work and in our lives, we make compromises and adaptations all the time. If it’s important to preserve a relationship with someone else, we may pause to consider how we are going to say something to another person if our words might hurt them instead of just letting it fly. We may end up saying it in a way that doesn’t feel as natural to us, but protects the relationship. 

As Marc illustrates in his piece, there are times when we have to adapt our behavior in order to authentically represent our values and intentions. You shouldn’t feel like you are faking it when you do this because it’s in integrity with who you are and who you intend to be.

It’s when we aren’t clear on what really matters to us, the winds of corporate politics and bureaucracy can blow us far off course until we wake up one day and wonder how we became a person we don’t even recognize anymore. Without committing to authenticity, you can easily fall into a pattern of faking it so much that you lose any self of who you really are. I believe this is a major contributor to things like burnout and midlife crises.  

Authenticity doesn’t mean no compromise or adaptation. It means that we make those choices with intention and purpose. Here’s a simple example from my work. My favorite dress code for work is jeans (or shorts) and a t-shirt. That’s how I feel most comfortable. If you saw me working around my home on any given day, that’s how I’d be dressed. As a keynote speaker, some would argue that for me to be my most authentic self on stage, I should dress in jeans and a t-shirt. 

But, this perspective overlooks the fact that one of my most important values is impact. I deeply care about the effect of my speech on the audience. And since I speak to corporate and business leaders most often, I know that many people in that audience expect an expert keynote speaker to wear a suit on stage. And, if those people saw a guy walk out on stage in jeans, they may wonder, “Where’s his suit? Is this guy legit? Is he really an expert?” 

Sure, I may be able to overcome those objections during my presentation, but I don’t want to waste those precious few minutes I get with my audience to make an impact over a pair of jeans. Marc would argue that I’m being “fake.” He’s wrong. That suit is an authentic representation of my values and aspiration. There’s nothing non-genuine about it. I’m not faking it. 

We change, grow, and evolve as people over time. The journey of authenticity embraces that change and brings a greater intention to it. When we try on new or less comfortable behaviors in service of our aspirations or values, it’s a step in our evolution as an authentic person. We are all going to be faced with making sacrifices and compromises throughout our lives. When we are living in authenticity, we can navigate these things with a clear sense of what is aligned with who we are and what isn’t. 

Don’t Fake It

The ironic thing is that if you adopt a broader view of authenticity as I’ve described, you may end up making some of the same behavior adaptations described in Marc’s piece. But instead of it being an opportunistic and perhaps morally questionable choice by faking it, it’s a choice in service of your values and intentions. It is the authentic you.  

Here’s my plea to you. 

Regardless of how much you want to get ahead or be accepted or find a little more success, don’t fake it. Instead, commit yourself to the journey of authenticity. Do the work to get clarity about who you are and what you want from life. When you can make authentic decisions and choices in your life and career based on this work, your life will be more meaningful and fulfilled. 

And at the end of it all, you’ll be able to look back and say, “I did things on my terms. I’m glad I didn’t fake it.” 

working human
Employee Engagement Essentials Post-COVID
Employee Engagement Essentials Post-COVID 1000 555 Jason Lauritsen

I originally wrote this post for my friends at Workhuman. I asked their permission to share it here as well because I thought you might find it valuable. If you’d like to view the original post, you can find it here:  https://www.workhuman.com/resources/globoforce-blog/employee-engagement-essentials-post-covid

This week, all over the U.S., schools are reopening and millions of kids are heading back to the classroom. As educators and parents navigate their way through this process, there are big questions to be answered.

Don’t worry, this isn’t another post debating school openings. Rather, as I’ve been both watching and experiencing this process personally, it struck me that the challenge of school reopening isn’t too different from what organizations are wrestling with in terms of what the “workplace” looks like post-COVID.

At the heart of both issues is the reality that we are living through a global pandemic that no one was fully prepared for. The past several months have produced change at a pace we’ve rarely experienced. We’ve all been knocked off balance.

As we look to the future for both schools and our organizations, one thing is for sure – the future won’t look anything like the past. Too much has changed and there are too many new forces in play now. But not everything has changed.

The key to success on the road ahead is identifying the important things that have stayed the same and keeping sight of those as you navigate the key changes. Here I unpack what’s changed and what hasn’t for organizations that want to continue to engage employees through and beyond COVID.

What employee engagement essentials haven’t changed?

Let’s begin with two things that haven’t changed and likely never will for employee engagement. I like to call these the fundamentals. No matter how much the world changes, there are core needs employees need satisfied to stay engaged in their work. These were important before COVID, they are vital now, and they will continue to be critical in the future.

Communication

Communication is an essential ingredient to employee engagement and should stay at the heart of any effort to improve engagement and performance.

But I’m not talking about sending more formal email updates or posting memos on the company intranet. To drive engagement, communication is about creating greater clarity and reducing uncertainty for each employee.

The importance of communication can be summarized in three words: uncertainty kills engagement.

Uncertainty is dangerous because of how our brains have evolved to keep us safe. The fight-or-flight response means that our brains will frequently interpret an unknown stimulus as a threat and will trigger a response that preserves our safety. This helps us stay alive. If you are walking through the woods at night and hear a sound you can’t identify, it’s not bad to have a fear response and do what you need to do to stay safe (run, turn on a flashlight, etc.).

The problem is that the brain isn’t particularly discerning about the type of unknown stimulus. It generally reacts to that uncertainty in the woods in a similar way as it does to uncertainty at work. When we are uncertain, our brain fills in the details in a way that creates a fear response to help us find safety.

This is what makes uncertainty in the office really dangerous to engagement. Think back to the last time your boss requested an impromptu meeting with you and provided no explanation. You likely had at least a flash of anxiety or panic as you imagined all the negative things that might have prompted the request (“OMG, I’m getting fired”). Or maybe you started racking your brain for what you may have done wrong recently.

When we don’t know what’s happening, our mind creates a story that is often much worse than what’s actually happening. It’s our brain’s way of preparing us for something bad to happen so we can protect ourselves. We don’t need to be prepared for unexpected good news, so the default setting when we fill in the details is the worst-case scenario.

This is what makes communication so important. The key is to keep ongoing, two-way communication happening at all times. This includes manager check-ins, team meetings, senior leader forums, and employee surveys. Any activity that identifies areas of uncertainty for employees and attempts to replace that uncertainty with clarity is engagement communication.

If you want to fuel engagement today and in the future, invest more time and intention on communication to combat uncertainty.

Appreciation

Nearly twenty years ago, Don Clifton and Tom Rath from Gallup published the book, “How Full Is Your Bucket?” This was in response to a finding in Gallup’s employee survey data that 65% of employees reported receiving zero moments of positive recognition in the previous year at work. That’s two-thirds of employees who said they showed up to work every day for a year and no one ever offered up even a simple “thank you.”

On my optimistic days, I want to believe we’ve gotten better at this over the past two decades, but my experience suggests that any gains we’ve made have been small. Far too many employees still feel undervalued and unappreciated at work. And this was before the new era of remote and distributed work ushered in by COVID.

If we weren’t expressing enough appreciation to one another when we were in the same physical space together, this won’t likely improve when we are physically apart. This is a problem because we know that feeling valued and appreciated are drivers of employee engagement.

To meet this challenge, we have to think more broadly about how to create moments of recognition and appreciation. Employees should experience acknowledgment and appreciation from their manager through regular check-ins and one-on-one meetings. But co-workers can also play an important role. If you want to make huge leaps in helping your employees feel more appreciation, there are two places to focus.

First, you need to make appreciation and recognition a part of how you do things. This might mean having “shoutouts” as part of your team meeting agenda. It could also mean implementing a technology tool to enable peer-to-peer recognition and make it easy for all employees to share and receive. The other key is to teach people how to show appreciation. If we were naturally great at it, this wouldn’t be such a huge issue. Simple training, guidance, and role modeling have a big impact. The more people see and experience genuine appreciation, the more likely they are to pay it forward.

How has employee engagement changed post-COVID?

While the core drivers of engagement, like the two just outlined, haven’t meaningfully changed, there are some essential factors that have. These are not necessarily new considerations, but rather some factors that have been elevated in importance based on external forces.

Flexibility

A number of years ago, when I was involved in Best Places to Work research, we conducted some exploratory research to check our assumptions about what was most important to and valued by employees in their job. The results surprised us. Flexibility emerged as one of the most highly valued elements of the work experience.

Employees’ desire for greater flexibility isn’t new. Some organizations (pre-COVID) even used flexible work arrangements as a competitive advantage in attracting talent. This was effective because so many other organizations were telling employees that flexibility considerations, like working from home, were not possible.

Now that employees know what’s possible, there’s no going back. Employees now know that it was never a matter of it not being possible, it was that leadership didn’t trust them. Employees have proven that they can be productive away from the office, even at home under really hard circumstances.

Notice I’m using the phrase flexibility, not “work from home.” What’s changed isn’t necessarily that everyone wants to work from home. When the dust settles and it’s safe to go back to the office, the key question isn’t “do we or don’t we?” Instead, the opportunity will be to step back and, with feedback from your employees, to redesign how, when, and where work best gets done.

If your organization values having people physically together, work with employees to imagine and create a workplace experience that employees crave. Create a place where they want and prefer to be. Then you can give them the freedom to choose.

The bottom line is that post-COVID, if you intend to limit or dictate when, where, or how an employee does their work, you had better be able to defend that with a clear and legitimate business reason. Leader and manager comfort or preference won’t cut it.

Safety 

This may seem a bit obvious, but I don’t think it can be understated how important safety is in terms of an employee’s experience of work. When we don’t feel safe, that same fight-or-flight fear response that interferes with communication also causes all kinds of other issues (both psychological and physiological) that are detrimental to our ability to do our best work.

While Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs clearly illustrates the vital importance of safety, most organizations have not focused on this area unless they rely on manual labor to create value.  Even the concept of “psychological safety,” which has become popular recently, is relatively new.

COVID has reminded all of us how fragile our sense of safety can be. Even if we cared about safety in the past, most of us took it for granted, particularly at work. Going forward, feeling safe is now a primary consideration. It is essential to our ability to be at our best and engaged fully in our work.

To foster a feeling of safety at and about work, remember that safety is intertwined with trust. When you consider the people in your life with whom you feel the safest, it’s likely people who you also trust the most completely. You know they have your best interests at heart, would never do anything to intentionally harm you, and would do everything in their power to protect you from harm.

For employees to feel truly safe at work, they need to believe the same to be true about the people who employ them. Not sure where to start? Ask your employees. They will tell you what’s working and what needs work. Take that feedback and do something about it. Over time, they will develop deep trust that whatever needs to be done to keep the workplace safe (and otherwise functioning well) will get done.

More human employee engagement post-COVID 

The common theme running through the four factors highlighted here is a deeper understanding of and connection to the core needs of the human being who’s doing the work. COVID forced us all to stop and take some account of what really mattered as organizations. At the top of that list was making sure our people were OK.

Employers are more intertwined in people’s lives than ever before. This is both an invitation and a wake-up call. We’ve learned that our people are resilient, capable, and committed. We’ve learned that work can get done in ways we didn’t recognize before. And we’ve been reminded that our employees are people who are also spouses, parents, children, and community members.

When we put the employee at the center of how we design and manage work with the focus on how to enable them to do their very best work in the context of their often complicated lives, everyone wins.

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
Technology’s Evolving Role in HR #HRTechConf
Technology’s Evolving Role in HR #HRTechConf Jason Lauritsen

The HR Technology Conference has become one of my favorite events of the year. It’s a great opportunity to get a feel for the broader trends in HR and work.  

Each year, I try to take in a few sessions and spend some time walking the Exhibit Hall. My goal is to try to understand what the technology vendors think is important to the HR community. This comes through loud and clear through their marketing messages and positioning at the event.

Based on my observations, this year’s overarching theme seemed the same as last year. Everything is about AI (artificial intelligence). Apparently, we are all so fascinated by the potential of AI that nearly every vendor is feeling the pressure to show how they are in the AI game.

I personally think that most of the talk about AI is distracting us from what really matters in making work better. That is an argument for another day. The bottom line is that for the second year in a row, AI was the dominant buzzword of the conference.

Another thing I love about this event is the conversation and presentations about the future of work. Technology companies are rightfully interested in understanding how work is evolving and what the future might look like so they can enable that future through their products.

Based on what I heard from Josh Bersin and others, it seems to me that there are some real shifts coming (and needed) in terms of what HR technology looks like and how it works.  There were three big things that I took away from this year’s event.

  1. HR technology tools need to be where the work happens. Almost all of today’s HR technology tools are part of a stand-alone platform or product. This means that the employee has to leave the technology that they primarily use to do their work (email, calendar, CRM, etc.) to find and log into another application before being able to take their desired action. It’s no wonder that we struggle to get employees to consistently engage with these tools. It feels like a hassle. The next generation of HR tech tools will be built into where you do work to make the employee’s experience much more fluid and intuitive. Keep an eye on companies like Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, and Slack as they are already starting to build some of their own integrated tools. It seems like there’s about to be a lot of innovation in this area. 
  2. We need technology to support wellbeing. Earlier this year, Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer published a new book titled, “Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It.” He argues that work is literally killing us. Much of that boils down to the immense stress that people are feeling today from both work and life. I’m convinced that tending to the wellbeing of employees will emerge as a business imperative over the next five or more years. Technology has contributed significantly to this problem in the past by enabling 24/7 connectivity. Now we need new technology to help us begin to fix it.  
  3. The future of work is teams. Bersin stood in front of a room full of HR technology marketers and declared that while more companies are organizing work in teams, today’s HR technology tools are almost exclusively designed around individual work performance. For those who work in a project team or agile environment, you can probably relate to how different it is to manage the performance and engagement of teams compared to individuals. As the way we work and our management approaches shift more and more towards teams and collaboration, we will need new tech tools to support that. And, it doesn’t seem that there are many tools here yet. I expect that to change quickly. 

Those are my takeaways from this year’s HR Tech Conference. If you are interested in technology and the future of work, I highly encourage you to give this conference a look next year. If you decide to go, look me up. I’ll be there. 

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. 

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