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3 things leaders should do to support wellness in the workplace.

Two weeks ago, Angela and I attended a conference on workplace wellness and it was simultaneously affirming and disappointing. It was affirming to see an entire conference dedicated to a topic so near and dear to our heart. It was affirming to share the space with close to 200 business leaders across North America who decided that the topic was important enough for them to brave the cold, snowy weather to attend. It was affirming to hear a roundtable of CEOs talk about the negative impacts they’re seeing in their workplaces: high turnover, high leaves of absence, and in some industries, even suicides. We were all on the same page about the significance of the issue.

Overall, there was consensus that we’re at a critical turning point. There was no denying that we needed to do something about it. But real solutions were few and far between. It was great to hear about efforts to normalize mental health conversations in various workplaces. It’s great to see organizations investing in training on resilience, mindfulness, and stress-reduction techniques. But it wasn’t enough, not in our book.

It wasn’t until the last speaker took the stage that we finally felt like someone was pushing the conversation in the direction that it needed to go. Steve Cadigan dropped a hard truth in that room: “we have a broken model of work!” To us, trying to build wellness in the workplace without taking a good, hard look at how work is structured is like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without half of the pieces. Can you do it? Probably, but it would be extremely difficult and frustrating, and the result is never that great.

So, what are the options? What can organizations do to take on their fair share of addressing this challenge and create workplaces that actually support wellness? Here are some of our thoughts:

1. Ask your team what makes their work challenging.

There are two kinds of challenges at work. The good kind inspires your team and helps them grow. The bad kind makes them feel overwhelmed, defeated, and unappreciated. The key difference between the good kind and the bad one: whether your team feels they have the adequate resources to tackle that challenge.

When your team feels that they have the time, the skills, tools, and support to give it a good try, a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is inspiring and motivating. But when your team feels that they do not have the appropriate support, time, skills, and tools to pursue those BHAGs, they feel doomed to fail before they even start.

Most leaders mistakenly assume that their team will always speak up if they need something. “I have an open door policy. My team knows they can come to me if they need something.” Let me ask you this, when was the last time you approached your boss to tell them that you do not have the adequate resources to achieve the targets that have been set for you? It’s not an easy conversation to have, is it? For many of us, having that conversation feels like admitting that we’re not good enough to be in our job. So, we stay quiet. We find ways to work smarter and harder instead of asking for the support that we need. And we wonder why we’re all feeling burnt out.

As leaders, you have the opportunity to create a structure and a safe space to check in with your team whether they have the resources they need to succeed. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Initiate the conversation and revisit it often. Ask them specific questions:

  • What makes your job difficult this week or this month? What needs to change to make it better?

  • How do you feel about your goals this quarter? What feels achievable and what feels out of reach?

  • Do you have the time/tools/support you need to succeed? What might be missing?

And once you’ve heard their feedback, put your heads together to find a different way to do your work that minimizes the bad kind of challenges.

2. Rethink how you structure roles within your organization

Until we have fixed how caregiving is done in North America, we need to accept that people need time to provide care to their family. RSV has caused more parents to miss work in the last 2 months than COVID-19 did.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) estimates that nearly 55% of Canadians fall under the sandwich generation, which means they’re taking care of young kids or adult children with disabilities and aging parents at the same time. This translates to 19 hours of unpaid domestic labour and caregiving a week.

Instead of expecting people to burn the candles at both ends, we need to look at how we structure senior-level positions in order to support career progression for a more diverse talent pool. We need to make it possible for people who cannot give more than 30-40 hours a week to opt into leadership if it’s the right path for them.

Can you create some project-based senior individual contributor roles?

Can you add a statement to your posting to indicate that certain positions are available on a part-time as well as full-time basis?

Can you create a process for your team to request a part-time arrangement so they know it’s an option that’s available to them?

Can you investigate job-sharing at the director and executive levels? And just in case you need inspiration:

  • Nicola Rivers and Elizabeth McKinnon share the CEO role at Environmental Justice Australia.

  • Wendy Aslett and Rachel Currie job-share the HR Director role at BBC Group.

  • Sam White and William MacDonald have been sharing a senior Director role at Aviva since 2017.

  • Vicky and Emily, who cannot reveal their real names for security reasons, are responsible for the entire counter-terrorism mission at GCHQ, the UK’s security and intelligence agency.

If those folks can figure out how to make job-sharing work for their line of work and their organization, surely you can too.

3. Protect time for deep work, creativity, and upskilling.

To remain relevant and competitive in the knowledge economy, we all need to continuously upskill. That means we all need time to read, to train, to play and experiment. Yet that’s not how we currently structure roles within most organizations. How many job descriptions include an expectation of learning and upskilling? How often do we account for that time when we’re calculating how much resources we need?

In a recent study of 700 professionals by ReclaimAI:

  • 1 in 2 respondents said they have too many meetings.

  • Over 60% of the respondents said they don’t have enough time for focused work

We need to support our team to protect time for deep and creative work. Can you institute some common meeting-free blocks of time for your team throughout the week? Can you have a conversation as a team about declining meeting invitations in order to protect time for deep work? Can you explore tools such as Loom to facilitate more asynchronous communications and reduce meeting time? Can you create a meeting matrix to help your team determine when a meeting should be booked? (Hint: a meeting is only required if you need to solve a problem together in real time, AND everyone attending the meeting has the information they need to participate meaningfully in the meeting).

We understand that none of these solutions are quick or simple. That’s because workplace wellness isn’t simple. At the conference, after sharing how tough it is to address burnout in the workplace, most speakers agreed that time and resources are their biggest challenges. We couldn’t help but wonder, if we all agree that workplace wellness is important, shouldn’t we invest the necessary time and resources to make it happen? Because otherwise, it’s nothing more than lip service. And your employees can tell.



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