How to Create a 'Whole Person' Workplace

BY Emily Nonko | October 29, 2021

Throughout 2019, Scott Behson was busy drafting his next book, with the planned title The Family-Forward Workplace. But when Covid-19 hit, Behson, a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and a national expert on work and family issues, completely shifted gears. The workplace was changing in dramatic ways, he knew, and the book needed to reflect that.

“I realized this focus on working parents was too narrow,” he said. So Behson conducted interviews with business owners, chief executives, and HR officers in the spring and summer of 2020 and kept hearing similar sentiments: “This idea that work is work, and your life should be separate from it, was really kind of a fiction, right? We're all people. And employees should be valued, not just as a part of the machine,” he told me in a fireside-chat interview at From Day One’s October virtual conference, “Promoting Employee Mental Health, Wellness and Stress Reduction.”

The result of his change in direction is The Whole-Person Workplace, a book to help employers develop ways to support employees with the full range of their work-life issues, including job flexibility, remote work, parental leave, child care, wellness programs, educational benefits, support for volunteerism, compensation and benefits, and workplace culture.

We kicked off the conversation defining what, exactly, the whole-person workplace is–and what it isn’t. The “whole person” concept came up in an interview with a chief HR officer who told Behson: “We have to realize we get the whole person through the door, we get their backs, and their hands, and their minds and their hearts, and they are all at different places in their lives. So we have to do our best to take care of them. They're going to help us succeed.”

Creating a workplace where employees feel psychologically safe, Behson stressed, is not about one-off programming or workplace policies. “It's really more of a value system of how we value employees, not just as a part of the machine, but as a whole human being,” he said.

Fireside chat: author Scott Behson, left, and interviewer Emily Nonko

In his research for the book, Behson talked with a wide range of company leaders, from multinational corporate executives to owners of small businesses, to understand how companies can structure whole-person values into different kinds of businesses. The book hones in on parental leave “that works for everyone” and support for working parents as crucial starting points. Those policies can serve to benefit all employees, he pointed out: “If you give people time for life, flexibility, and some control over their time, it allows families and working parents, and frankly, anybody who's working, to create a custom solution that works well for them.”

With the Great Resignation much in the news, Behson stressed that companies shouldn’t delay in investing in whole-person workplaces. “I think it's really important that we, as an employer, as someone who's trying to recruit or retain employees, are able to tell the story about how we value employees as whole people and the different ways we've expressed that over the last two years, and how we're going to express that going forward,” he said.

Behson offered tips for first steps that companies can take to have whole-person workplaces. “You must sincerely hold this value,” he said, then small steps can make a difference: moving meeting times to better fit employee needs, encouraging volunteer and community work, and revisiting practices like onboarding and performance reviews.

A silver lining of the pandemic is that the holistic, humane workplace values that have emerged can carry into the next phase. “We have some responsibility,” Behson said, “to extend the level of care we might give to a client or a customer or a patient or whomever else, that same level of care, we should get to the very people who make our business work, the people who work for us.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.


Responding to Pushback and Creating More Inclusive Environments That Value Diversity

Even though diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace leads to better financial outcomes, greater social impact, and more satisfied employees, DEI efforts are “being used as part of the culture wars right now,” said Malia Lazu. Lazu, CEO of the Urban Labs at MIT and author of the book From Intention to Impact: A Practical Guide to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion spoke in a fireside chat during From Day One’s February Virtual Conference. “It’s important for us to remember that DEI is not against the wall because it’s a failing endeavor. It’s against the wall because people are scared of losing what they think they have now,” Lazu told moderator Jeanhee Kim. “When you’re privileged, fairness feels like a step down.”Corporate leaders and managers must truly believe that “DEI is the platform of the future” if they are going to have the will to fight the inevitable pushback, Lazu said. Although political pressure can be intimidating, organizations can gain the courage to continue their DEI endeavors from realizing the pushback is coming from less than 25% of the U.S. population, says Lazu. “This isn’t about politics for you, this is about competing in a global economy. And in 20 years, this country is going to look very different.”Acknowledging the ProblemOrganizations first need to find their gaps in DEI before they can resolve them, says Lazu. And that realization can cause discomfort.Journalist Jeanhee Kim interviewed author Malia Lazu in a fireside chat titled “How to Respond to the Pushback to Create More Inclusive Environments That Honor and Value Diversity” (photo by From Day One)“I often tell my clients if we’re not uncomfortable, we haven’t started working yet,” Lazu said. It’s important to understand that racism isn’t just an interpersonal problem but systemic one, said Lazu. “It exists whether you’re a nice person or not,” she said, noting that in American school’s, children are taught about Manifest Destiny rather than other philosophies that don’t center the white European perspective. Once people understand that institutional racism exists and what causes it, “then we can start deconstructing it,” Lazu said. The Role of Middle Management and HR A top-down approach to DEI won’t make the changes that are needed in the company, according to Lazu. “Where the change gets lost is in middle management,” she said. Middle managers and HR officers can do a lot to create a positive environment for DEI within their companies because “modeling behavior is critically important,” Lazu said. If these individuals aren’t fully invested in DEI and are worried that the company will be getting less qualified employees by hiring more women, for example, they need to learn more about what DEI really means and become more confident with it, says Lazu. Middle managers and HR leaders also need to recognize their power to make changes, whether it’s making sure they are selecting a diverse slate of candidates or even just deciding where to buy coffee from, Lazu says.It’s OK to Make Mistakes While LearningEven those with the best of intentions can make mistakes when it comes to DEI efforts. Lazu says she learned this first-hand when she was helping to organize the first disability fashion show in New England. “It became front and center how ableist I was because I had never been blessed enough to organize with people with disabilities,” she said. “And I couldn’t just walk away from it and say, ‘Oh, well.’”Instead, Lazu asked the disability community, “How do I come back from using the word ‘normal’ when I meant ‘able-bodied’?”“It’s about understanding that if you’re going to do this authentically, like any other relationship, you’re going to step on toes,” she said. “Anyone who has life partners knows, even they will get it wrong sometimes.”That’s why it’s important that companies have a culture of “generosity of interpretation. It’s important to understand that someone tried and missed the mark, and have a reparative practice.” Mary Pieper is a freelancer reporter based in Mason City, Iowa.

Mary Pieper | February 26, 2024

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

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

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 EquityAt 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-beingEmployee 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 WellnessThe 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.

Toby Mohr | January 23, 2024