Lighting the Way toward Employee Well-Being
Blair R. Fischer
The Chicago Booth Magazine article, "Lighting the Way toward Employee Well-Being," features a Q&A with Russell Reynolds Associates Global Knowledge Leader Greg Hodge on the importance and implications of employee well-being, based on our paper, "Employee Well-Being: It is Now or Never." The article is excerpted below.
Today, Hodge is the global knowledge leader for the consumer sector at Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA), an international global leadership advisory and search firm. The company has offices all over the world, including in his native London, where he attended Booth’s Executive MBA Program and lives with his wife and young daughter. As his job title suggests, Hodge specializes in thought leadership, in addition to leading strategy and operations for the consumer sector at RRA.
In August 2020 he was one of the coauthors with his RRA colleagues of “Employee Well-Being: It’s Now or Never,” a paper that examines in great depth the importance of mental and emotional health as it affects employees, as well as companies’ bottom lines. The paper introduces the idea of “wellness washing,” or the antiquated notion that “the responsibility of well-being remains with the employee rather than the employer.”
Chicago Booth Magazine talked to Hodge about workplace wellness, the responsibility of employers, and how he’s been facing the challenges of the pandemic.
CBM: For you, personally, what has been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced during the pandemic?
Hodge: I have a young daughter, so that’s been an interesting juggle. There was literally no child care for four or five months in the United Kingdom. You had no choice but to be at home with your child while working, and employers accommodated that. Screen time for me and my daughter is probably the hardest thing to manage, and I wonder what the lasting impact of that is on both of us. In all seriousness, I think it’s knowing when to stop being on a screen—because there’s always more you could be doing.
Early on, I would work weekends. I’d work evenings. Well, I took an hour or so off in the day because I was looking after my daughter. It took me four or five months to realize that during a crisis the more work you do on the weekends, the more work will come up the following week. There was always more to do, and I had to just be disciplined about my own time. Someone said something to me midway through [the year] that was quite powerful, which is: “If you don’t respect your own time, nobody else will respect it.” I think that’s a really key thing about how you actually manage your own time and your own health.
CBM: Once it was known that we were amid a global pandemic, how did your role at Russell Reynolds change?
Hodge: What was apparent right at the very start of COVID-19 is that nobody knew what they were doing. No one had ever been through this before. But the one thing that people could do was talk to each other. So, we actually played a big role as a broker: connecting people with each other, understanding the business issues they were facing. There’s a lot of stories about how we connected big CPG companies in the United States with major retailers so they could share supply chains, so they could overcome IT problems, so they could collaborate more. A lot of what I did was synthesizing large amounts of qualitative data and helping people understand that.
Everyone’s heard the quote that “COVID-19 accelerated digital 10 years in the space of three months.” We heard that early on. But it’s our job to say, “Well, what are companies doing about that? How are they solving for that? What are the solutions they’re coming up with?”
That was the role that I played, disseminating insight and thought leadership across the organization, and then ultimately to our clients.
CBM: Beyond the anecdotal or qualitative research, do you have hard data proving that a well-adjusted employee is beneficial to the employer?
Hodge: It’s estimated that depression and anxiety alone cost the economy $1 trillion a year in productivity. We have gone out and actually asked global leaders what they feel. We asked how many people thought they should be focused on well-being or not, and 94 percent of leaders said they should be focused on well-being—but only 14 percent felt prepared to tackle it.
CBM: What were some of the big insights or takeaways that you were able to impart to your clients?
Hodge: A lot of it centered on providing the tools to enable them to work together, rather than giving pure insight.
The interesting thing about COVID-19 is it’s actually been more of a supply-side crisis than a demand-side crisis. There are certainly people who have been financially impaired by COVID-19. But a lot of the issue is that shops are closed, airlines are closed, borders are closed. The supply chain is closed.
People can actually buy stuff that they want. The challenge for businesses has been getting products to them. So, a lot of the advice we’re speaking to our clients about is, “How would you do that? How would you get the supply chain working?” We’re trying to help find supply-chain talent to support them, provide frontline talent to support them, and other aspects of that.
And then, particularly in the human resources function, how do we help them manage their people? What are other people within the organization doing to keep people motivated? What are the employers doing to look after the welfare of their employees? We use best-in-class examples and share them across our clients.
CBM: There have been a lot of news stories and conversations about the “second pandemic,” which relates to the mental-health issues that we’re facing as a result of COVID-19. What are you and your company recommending to help deal with it?
Hodge: You’re exactly right to identify mental health as the second wave. We were very aligned with employee well-being early in the crisis. Organizations are a little bit better now helping with mental stress or mental difficulties that people may face, but there’s another necessary step.
The general approach, historically and today, has been, “Here’s a number to call. We have this service. You can use it.” But most people don’t reach out and do that. People aren’t proactive. [They] may be feeling restrained. You kind of battle on, because the workplace culture is passive-aggressive, and it’s about showing that you’re working hard.
Our first finding is that the companies that are ahead of this are the ones being assertive in the way they behave. I’ve heard examples of CEOs call all-company town halls for three hours and at the start of the town hall say, “Actually, this isn’t a meeting at all. We’re actually turning off for the next three hours. You’ve all got these three hours off.” You’ve seen a lot of people start to think about how they can be paternalistic and involved in terms of the behaviors they adopt. I think for a lot of organizations, that’s scary. Telling people not to work is a completely new concept.
CBM: Other than having the ability to reach more people, do you see anything else positive coming out of this year’s events?
Hodge: One of the big things that will come out of this is legislation that’s being introduced in parts of the United States to better promote gender diversity and ethnic diversity in the workplace. That’s going to be a huge change and probably one of the biggest positives of this year’s events and the resulting push for change.
In a more COVID-19-based aspect, I think the big thing you’ll hear is that people have rediscovered their homes, have rediscovered their families, have rediscovered a better balance of life. People aren’t going to give up the amount of family time they now have. I went back to the office in early September; I went in for eight weeks, whilst legislation allowed. I was commuting 45 minutes each way for four days a week. And I actually found—this is quite funny—I was like, “Wow, this is a lot, four days a week. This is hard.” For the previous 17 years I had spent five days a week going to an office, but it’s a profound change in how we think about our lives.
Work from home used to be seen as slacking off. It’s clear that everyone can work from home and work efficiently. I think family life and balance will continue to become more important, which, in turn, will actually promote gender equality and the role of family and the roles that people have.
To read the full article, click here.