How to Take a Strategic and Equitable Approach to Worker Well-Being

BY Toby Mohr | January 23, 2024

Dania Alarcon has always had an enthusiasm for wellness and helping others stay healthy. As a fitness instructor, cancer researcher, and leader in pharmaceutical advertising, she has always been focused on the health of her clients.

Now as chief medical officer at Wunderman Thompson, Alarcon continues pushing for better health for the clients she works for, while also supporting a healthy workplace for the people she works with.

At From Day One’s January virtual conference Alarcon met with Siobhan O’Connor, Atria Institute’s chief content officer, for a fireside chat about working toward a healthier world while balancing workers’ well-being.

Health for Equity

At the height of Covid, Wunderman Thompson established the Health4Equity Center of Excellence to fight forms of health inequality rooted in cultural bias.

“It happened at a very unique time in our history collectively,” Alarcon said. “2020 represented the height of both the racial injustices that were occurring across the U.S. and other parts of the world, a pandemic that was felt most acutely throughout historically marginalized communities and countries, and a number of other things that compounded the lack of access for health and wellness.”

Siobhan O'Connor of the Atria Institute, right, interviewed Dania Alarcon of Wunderman Thompson, left, in a virtual fireside chat (photo by From Day One)

Health4Equity focuses on increasing access to healthcare in those communities that historically have been left out by targeting three disease areas: prostate cancers in Black men, bladder cancers in Black women, and maternal health for Black mothers.

“There’s no shortage of health inequalities,” Alarcon said. “Our biggest challenge was making the most of this and deciding what to prioritize. One of the things we focused on was not just going deep, but going broad.”

A broad approach looks different for each group. Health4Equity campaigned for Black men to get screened for prostate cancer at 40 years old instead of 50 to catch cancer in the early stages. They also connect women with urologists for bladder treatment, providers who are not usually a part of women’s regular healthcare team.

Black women in the U.S. are about 3 times more likely to die during pregnancy or delivery than women of other races, according to the CDC. Health4Equity addresses the Black maternal health crisis by connecting Black soon-to-be mothers with licensed doulas for personal care during their pregnancy. Doulas provide personalized support and advice during pregnancy and delivery and they can act as patient advocates to close the racial gap in maternal healthcare.

Health4Equity takes direct approaches to support the well-being of their clients. “That’s exactly what the ‘4’ in Health4Equity stands for. It’s a four step strategic approach and process that’s very intentional to help identify those highest priority and need areas and match them with what might have the biggest impact,” Alarcon said.

Commitment to Employee Well-being

Employee well-being isn’t just a set of corporate goals and boundaries. It takes a daily direct commitment to respecting those boundaries, which can be especially difficult while working from home.

“It was almost like you were always on 24/7 and don’t know where the separation stops between life, feeding a dog or a child and then going back into my online work to finish up the day,” Alarcon said. “I think that lack of boundaries really took a toll on people.”

A direct approach to employee wellness also needs intentional moments of separation for employees to catch up on work and take care of themselves.

“We have something called Focus Fridays, where the back half of our Friday afternoon is reserved for catching up on emails, doing actual work because when you’re in meeting after meeting there’s not much opportunity to get things done,” Alarcon said. “So I think just understanding those boundaries, creating those intentional moments of separation, and also being respectful of others’ calendars.”

Purpose Plays a Role in Wellness

The adage “If you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life” isn’t entirely true. Work can be tough and days can be hard, even when employees love what they do. But being passionate about the work and finding purpose in it helps keep motivation even when the work is difficult.

“As much as that health inequity movement was really tough to acknowledge, it almost renewed the enthusiasm for showing up at work and doing something that I felt brought purpose and meaning to my life and to those who maybe have been ignored in the system for far too long,” Alarcon said. “That’s very motivating, just being in a space where you feel like what you’re doing matters.”

When employees are passionate about their work and they receive support and respect for their boundaries, they feel more motivated and can thrive in the workplace.

“Workplace well-being is where you feel engaged,” Alarcon said. “Where you feel motivated, where you don’t dread Monday morning on a Sunday night, because you know that there’s exciting things coming in the week ahead.”

Toby Mohr is an editorial intern at From Day One and journalism and political science student at University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire.


Small, Consistent Interventions for Employee Mental Health

“Our employee population is changing,” said Marielaine Yepes, the VP of human resources at NBCUniversal. “Post-pandemic, job candidates are asking about mental health benefits. Whereas in 2019, it was ‘Do I get health care? Do I get vision, dental, and a 401k?’ Now their questions are, ‘What about my flexibility? What about parental leave? What about mental breaks?’” No longer the taboo it used to be, mental health, for many, is becoming part of their standard measure of health care. “I used to pride myself on being sick but still coming to work, but it’s kind of embarrassing to say that in a post-Covid world,” said Andrea Cooper, chief people officer at virtual mental healthcare company Talkspace. During From Day One’s January virtual conference on making a fresh commitment to a culture of well-being, Yepes and Cooper shared their thoughts on the shifting view of mental health in the workplace as part of an expert panel titled, “Enhancing Employee Mental Health and Wellness Benefits.” I moderated the discussion in which panelists shared their outlooks for workplace mental health in the coming year, and their best advice on caring for a changing workforce.“There was this notion that being a workaholic was a good thing,” Cooper pointed out. “Now it’s about acknowledging that we should take care of ourselves–not just our physical selves, but also our mental and emotional selves.”Building Engagement WithinDespite the new-found freedom many people have with talking about mental health, it doesn’t mean that mental health issues or that seeking care are entirely without stigma, or that everyone is comfortable talking publicly about their wellbeing, especially at work.Business process management firm eClerx experienced this reluctance first-hand. The company’s early mental health and wellness programs were greatly lacking in engagement, yet employee surveys showed that its workforce wanted wellness initiatives. In response, rather than administering initiatives only from HR, the company recruited its own employees to be wellness ambassadors, people who want to play an active role in the well-being of their colleagues. “We hope [the wellness ambassadors] reach out to engage and talk about the programs that we have, because sometimes resources can just be resources in your intranet or in your HR platform. So how do we get the word out? By engaging with our employees,” said Alvarine Syiem, the company’s head of total rewards and HR operations.The panelists spoke to the topic “Enhancing Employee Mental Health and Wellness Benefits” at From Day One's January virtual conference (photo by From Day One)Aware that some employees might be unwilling to approach their manager or HR about their needs, Syiem hopes that training up ambassadors among management and the rank-and-file can open more avenues for people to seek the help and resources they need.“You might not have huge programs, you might not have a ton of resources, you might not even have a lot of engagement—but what is important is to get that conversation going,” said Syiem.Interventions for Workers Exposed to ViolenceAt NBCUniversal, Yepes is in the unique position of caring for journalists whose jobs take them to war zones, violent environments, and tragedies. Supporting workers who have been in highly stressful or traumatic work environments requires structured and predetermined touch-points, said Yepes. When they return, the company has mental health checkpoints already installed so no one goes unnoticed. Workers receive outreach at seven days, two weeks, and one month post-return, plus a suite of resources at their disposal. Among them, access to on-site mental healthcare—a talk therapist in the company offices available for sessions during the workday.Yepes said her best advice is to establish processes that are as flexible as the employee needs them to be. “It’s always good to have discipline, but understand that people are unique, so having a portfolio and being flexible on how you offer your resources is best.”Mental Health Support for Working ParentsEveryone is susceptible to mental health problems following the birth or addition of a child to the family, said Corrinne Hobbs, the general manager and VP of employer market at reproductive healthcare provider Ovia Health. Both men and women can experience depression and anxiety, sometimes called perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), up to a year after the birth of a child. This can make up a significant part of the workforce: In 2022 in the US, in more than 91% of families with children under age 18, at least one parent was employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.“Many [parents] may not know that they have it,” Hobbs said. People who experience PMAD are  “already dealing with the difficulties of being parents, but they also struggle with attention to detail, being present in the moment, and remembering all the steps required in their daily work. Enabling mental health supports that address this are really important.”To care for the parents in your workplace, Hobbs recommended employers take three steps. First, increase the number of screenings available to encourage prevention and early intervention for mental health issues. Second, train managers to get comfortable talking about postpartum needs. And third, invest in digital tools that give workers access to 24/7 care. “Provide an end-to-end women’s health solution,” she said.Small Interventions Along the WayGood mental health encourages productivity. “Leaving conditions untreated can really result in costly emergency room visits, urgent care visits, time away from work,” said Cooper of Talkspace. “We as employers want our employees to be healthy, but also do a good job at work, and all those things work together.”The panelists agreed that incremental, personal interventions early on make a difference in the health of a workforce. “I encourage leaders, managers, employees, to think of the small, everyday thing that you can impact,” said eClerx’s Syiem. If she senses that a member of her team is having a rough day, Syiem encourages them to step away from work for a few hours. If she notices an employee hasn’t taken a vacation day recently, she tells them to. “Even if you don't have plans for a vacation with family, take a day off and just go get your nails done, spend time at the library, or just go catch up with a friend.”Keeping close tabs on the temperature of the team can help prevent burnout and mental health problems. “My aim is prevention,” Syiem said. “Imagine if not just one manager did that, but the entire team. Imagine the impact of it all as an organization.”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in the BBC, The Washington Post, Quartz, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | January 29, 2024

Cultivating Well-Being Through Workplace Culture

“Being able to support our employees’ mental health in multiple ways is probably one of the most important things that we can do,” said Judith Harrison, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Weber Shandwick. Nearly 75% of American workers are moderately or highly concerned about workplace well-being, according to a recent study.The report also found the same percentage of workers had a similar level of concern about their own emotional well-being or mental health. Harrison and a panel of other leaders spoke on this subject in a session titled “Cultivating Well-Being Through Workplace Culture,” during From Day One’s January virtual conference.Another panelist, Charman Hayes, executive vice president of people and capability technology at MasterCard, told moderator Lydia Dishman that it’s essential for companies to take a holistic approach to their employees’ well-being. She said this approach addresses the mind, body, financial security, and the social aspects of workers’ lives, which encompasses inclusion.“Those four pillars are really important to MasterCard in terms of how we want our employees to be their best selves,” Hayes said. “We listen. We are constantly doing employee pulse surveys to understand what’s on people’s minds.”Kimberly Ardo-Eisenbeis, vice president of HR and recruiting for Allied Universal Security, said that in a post-pandemic world, many workers are focused on their ability to bring their whole selves to work.“Some of that has been mental health-tied, but some of it is just being free from the burdens of financial stressors, environmental stressors, and the ability to find the things that are important to them,” she said.Allied is focused on creating an environment where employees feel comfortable taking advantage of resources offered by the company, whether it is mental health or financial assistance, says Ardo-Eisenbeis.“It really comes down to feeling that there’s a safe place, removing the shame of asking for help, removing the risk of being seen as less than in anybody’s eyes,” she said.Flexibility in the WorkplaceAlicia Mandel, chief human resources officer at Garten, said for her the most important thing for her personal well-being is flexibility.“During Covid everybody was very flexible. And then it seemed that flexibility went out the door suddenly. So, my personal thing is, how do we create a workplace that is still flexible enough to give people the peace of mind that they need and still perform?”Mandel said Garten is committed to maintaining a fully remote workforce even after the pandemic to give employees some flexibility. However, working from home can cause workers to feel isolated and lonely. Therefore, the company tries to bring people together once a quarter “to give them a chance to break bread together, to go play a game or do a thing.”Lydia Dishman of Fast Company moderated the panel among speakers Judith Harrison, Kimberly Eisenbeis, Charman Hayes, and Alicia Mandel (photo by From Day One)Hayes said as a mother of two school-age children, “what really thrills me is that I have flexibility through MasterCard. I’m able to come into our tech hubs around the world to work a few days a week and also work remotely where I need to.”This flexibility also allows Hayes to maintain a healthy lifestyle. For her, this includes having time to walk, go to the gym, prepare nutritious meals, and being centered mentally.“And then the last thing that’s extremely important to me has kept me through the past few years in my happy and healthy mantra is committing to the community,” Hayes said. “I’ve been able to do volunteer days with my family, bringing my children along to several nonprofit agencies in New York City to help and contribute to the community.”Providing Financial Security for WorkersTwo years ago, MasterCard conducted a study to see how employees felt about the rewards and benefits packages the company offered and did a listening tour to get feedback.“After that listening tour, we had a very good understanding of what our employees wanted, more of what they appreciated, what they valued,” Hayes said. “And that gave birth to our approach to financial wellness and financial fitness.”Workers not only want a competitive base and bonus pay, but also the ability to save for retirement and other goals, such as buying a house or sending their children to college, according to Hayes. She noted MasterCard offers a retirement plan with a 10% employer match and one-on-one financial consulting through an outside vendor.“What I appreciate most about the benefit investing is that it’s not bespoke to any one scenario,” Hayes said. “We recognize that colleagues have very different scenarios and are on very different journeys with different goals and objectives.”The Role of DEIThere’s been a recent pushback against DEI policies and initiatives in workplaces, but DEI is essential, says Harrison.“DEI covers the waterfront in terms of well-being, creating a connected community in which people are encouraged to bring their authentic selves to work, and encouraging others to understand who they are,” she said.The sponsorship program at Weber Shandwick, in which senior leadership mentors promising employees, “has been a game-changer for us,” Harrison said. “There’s nothing like giving underrepresented people the opportunity to connect with executives that they would never have met in any other way.”Mary Pieper is a freelance reporter based in Mason City, Iowa.

Mary Pieper | January 22, 2024

Failing Well: How Your Company Can Provide Room for Failures That Foster Success

Tennis legend Billie Jean King once said, “For me, losing a tennis match isn’t failure, it’s research.” Amy C. Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, shares this quote in her latest book, Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well, which won the “Best Business Book of the Year Award” from the Financial Times. The book illustrates how we and our organizations can embrace our human fallibility, learn exactly when failure is our friend, and prevent most of it when it is not. It’s the key to pursuing smart risks and preventing avoidable harm.At From Day One’s January monthly conference, which focused on making a fresh commitment to a culture of well-being in the workplace, Edmondson shared specific strategies for how organizations can benefit from failure, a skill that is becoming more and more important in today’s business environment. “In turbulent times, failure is even more likely. And in more turbulent times, innovation and problem solving are more important than ever, and they bring the risk of failure.” While it’s easy enough to recognize this intellectually, Edmondson said, “being able to put into practice the truth of those behaviors is something else altogether.”Good vs. Bad Failure“A good failure is the undesired result of a thoughtful experiment,” Edmondson said. That experiment, to be considered a “good failure,” should meet four criteria:It’s in genuinely new territory–it really has never been tried before. It should be as small in scale as possible. It should be in pursuit of a specific goal, “not just playing around with resources,” Edmondson said.And thanks to some thoughtful research, you should already have a sense that the experiment may work.A “bad failure,” Edmondson posits, happens when you violate any one of those four criteria. For example, she shared, “You roll out an uncertain product in your entire market, rather than pilot testing it somewhere smaller. So even something that’s potentially good violates the size criterion, and then isn’t so good.”Simple failures can be forgetting to check a basic safety feature, but there are complex failures as well: “The multi-causal, ‘perfect storm’ kinds of failures that arise when a variety of things come together in just the wrong way, any one of which, on its own, wouldn’t have caused the failure.” The recent debacle with the door plugs on Boeing 737s, she says, is a perfect example.Pivoting to a Productive FailureModerator Adi Ignatius, editor-in-chief at the Harvard Business Review, posited a scenario that many modern business leaders are all too familiar with. “You have a strategy that’s based on a big product rollout that takes years to develop. And then near launch, the CEO decides this is not the right approach, and this massive project with all these people attached to it is suddenly stopped. How do you handle the disappointment? How do you make this a productive failure?” he asked.Amy Edmondson spoke about her book Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well in conversation with Adi Ignatius, editor-in-chief at the Harvard Business Review (photo by From Day One)Edmondson views this instance as an intelligent failure, suggesting that reframing it as a learning opportunity and acknowledging the effort invested can transform it into a productive experience. “You do it explicitly out in the open. You frame it as a really worthy effort that wasn’t able to achieve what you had hoped it would achieve,” she said.Some companies even celebrate failures. For example, in the pharmaceutical space, the vast majority of projects fail. It’s just the nature of the scientific experimental process. Eli Lilly, Edmondson says, has parties at the end of failed clinical trials to still celebrate its achievements. This achieves three goals: it satisfies the need for recognition, potentially prevents the same failure from recurring, and it makes the team more likely to end a failing experiment in a timely and cost effective way, knowing that there will still be some sort of positive outcome.At Takeda they don’t celebrate failure, that’s a bridge too far for their traditional Japanese culture, Edmondson says. But they do celebrate the pivot. “The difference is that the failure is the end, it's looking back, whereas the pivot is looking forward. Same ritual, different language,” she said. “For their culture, they are celebrating the fact that they worked hard.”Learning From and Admitting to Failure“Our temptation is very strong to gloss over it. No one wants to dwell on a failure,” Edmondson said. But the formal post-mortem process is important. Rather than placing blame on any one individual or entity, companies should approach it simply, briefly, and effectively: What happened? This is essential especially for multi-dimensional projects with potentially conflicting viewpoints and experiences.“Rather than a lengthy research project, this should be a quick compiling of the narrative so that we understand it better and resist the temptation to just say, ‘we'll try harder next time’ or ‘it wasn’t our fault, it was bad luck,’” Edmondson said. Organizations should walk away with key learnings as to what went wrong and how to improve on that process in the future.It can sometimes be challenging for certain individuals to admit to failure. But that’s exactly why it helps to have a ritualized process for acknowledging and addressing it. “If this is what we do around here, they’ll want to play the same sport,” Edmondson said. Organizations should build trust with their employees that there is a safe environment for acknowledging fault. “We are fallible human beings, and we have to be fine with that,” she said. “We are better team members when we are fine with that.”Building Psychological SafetyHow you handle failure as an organization should be a part of an overall strategy for building an environment of psychological safety. “The most important thing is to early and often call attention to the attributes and aspirations of the work that involves unfamiliar territory, stretches, or challenges,” Edmondson said. “We’re sending the intellectual message that ‘we need you, we need your voice and we need you to speak up if we’re to do well on these ambitious goals.’”Companies should also encourage a culture that welcomes inquiry. “The more facile we get at asking good questions, the kinds that give the other person a clear signal that we really want to hear from them, the more we’re creating psychological safety for speaking up,” Edmondson said. The safer employees feel communicating with leadership teams, the more likely they are to address failures early and often–turning them into opportunities for learning and growth.Katie Chambers is a freelance writer and award-winning communications executive with a lifelong commitment to supporting artists and advocating for inclusion. Her work has been seen in HuffPost, Honeysuckle Magazine, and several printed essay collections, among others, and she has appeared on Cheddar News, iWomanTV, and CBS New York.

Katie Chambers | January 17, 2024