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Looking Ahead: A conversation about workforce strategy in uncertain times

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30 minutes 

It's time to hear from Amy Wrzesniewski, PhD, professor of management at Yale University, and Seth Serxner, PhD, chief health officer at Optum, as they share their perspectives on the future of workforce strategy. 

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  • "Even in difficult circumstances, research-backed strategies can help employers foster a high-performing, inclusive workplace fueled by a strong sense of purpose."

    — Amy Wrzesniewski, PhD, Professor of Management, Yale University.

    Leaders today face unprecedented challenges as employees manage constant change, increased isolation and new obstacles to engagement. 

    During today's conversation you will learn how to:

    • Foster productivity amid persistent uncertainty
    • Shape virtual work arrangements that nurture a sense of belonging and inclusion
    • Design a work environment that supports well-being
    • Cultivate meaning and purpose at work during difficult times
    • Motivate for performance and organizational loyalty

    Thank you for joining us for this important conversation. 

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- Hello, my name's Seth Serxner, I'm Chief Health Officer at Optum, and I'm here talking today with Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, about health and workforce strategies. Amy, thank you so much for being here today. I'm excited to talk with you about how workforce strategies can enable employee well-being, and create conditions where employees can do their best, most productive work.

- Thanks so much, Seth. I'm really excited to be here.

- You know, this topic's certainly evergreen, but as I'm mentioning, it carries even more importance now as we're in this very uncertain time in our country. I know you've done a lot of research in this area, and really helped employers and employees craft and shape their jobs, and particularly the context in which they work. So, can't wait to hear you talk more about it.

 

- It's true, I've spent decades now, I suppose, studying what it is that makes work meaningful and worth doing for people in a variety of industries, and occupations, and organizations, and the kinds of things that give people a sense of meaning and purpose in their work, and the difference that that makes for them in their own work, and also for the groups and the organizations that they're a part of. And I know that you care a great deal, and work very hard on questions of employee well-being, employee health, the kinds of things that organizations can do, to support the people who work in them.

- Exactly. I know we're going to talk about research, but I think we also want to bring it down to what employers can do. So that's going to be, I think, really valuable to people.

- Sounds great.

- Amy, what I want to do today is start by sharing a few insights from a consumer sentiment survey, focused on employee well-being. We fielded the survey, March and April of this year, right at the beginning of COVID, in the U.S. And I want to share these and then get your perspective on the findings, and the relevancy, how it applies today to employers. And really how a lot has changed in the past few months. Then we'll walk through some of the workforce strategy findings from our annual employer survey that we've done. And again, get your take on this, your application of your research, and then we'll wrap up with kind of a conversation about some of the takeaways. Does that sound like an okay agenda for today?

- That sounds terrific. I'm looking forward to it.

- Great, well, let's start then with the consumer sentiment survey. One of the persistent findings that we're finding from both waves, from March and April, of the employee survey, was the impact on both productivity, and well-being. And probably no surprise, we found that the social and mental dimensions really had the most impact for people. And in particular, of course, social with all the sheltering in isolation. I guess I will say, interesting thing is, it actually got worse over time. I know you've spent a lot of time studying gig workers, and I think there's a lot of relevancy to maybe the insights that you've gained from that research, that type of worker, and their context in today's environment. Any thoughts on that?

- I'm not surprised by the findings, I'm distressed by them, obviously, because it's an indication of just how much people are struggling during this period. And I would say that perhaps with the exception of some who perhaps may have found it a relief to kind of be working from home, and get a little caught up, and so on, that this quickly became much more challenging for people. And it reminds me of work that I've done with colleagues of mine, studying people who work completely independently from any organization, where they're working on their own, largely from home or from other spaces, but where they're thrust into the kind of isolated experience that so many people are having, as they shelter in place, as they work from settings that are not the typical organizational settings that they're used to. What we find is, people in this kind of situation, feel a lot of precarity from the point of view of their economic security, they feel a lot of precarity from the point of view of their ability to produce, and how much of their own identity is wrapped up in their ability to produce quality work on a regular basis that they're proud of. And so I think there's a lot to learn from people who have figured out how to work this way, that could potentially be helpful to people who now suddenly find themselves working in a way that's more akin to this than they perhaps ever imagined.

- Yeah, it's so interesting. This idea of people not feeling great about maybe how productive they are, and all the distractions they have, we're really finding that to be a big issue across the board. So what kind of strategies can people use to overcome some of that anxiety, some of that sense of, "Am I really being productive?" What are some of your thoughts around that?

- We find actually that there are four strategies that the people we study use, to effectively manage the anxiety that comes from working this way, and the isolation that comes from working this way. So, one of the four things that they do, is to come up with a place, some way of cementing a regular place in which they're doing their work, which sounds basic, but it's actually quite profound. Having, even if it's a very small space, and in fact, many people talked about having a very small space, being something that was even more effective for them, because they could sort of concentrate in there, they weren't distracted, they weren't in, all different parts of the house. Having that be a regular focus area for the work that they're doing. As well as having a routine, this is the second element. Some of the routines that were described in the research that we did were pretty ritualistic almost. But, both of these things, having a place, sometimes almost a very, again, sort of tight space in which to work, and a tight routine that people held to almost religiously every day, seemed to help them kind of bind themselves to the work and not just move into what felt like more distraction or chaos, as they tried to manage their time. The other two strategies, instead of kind of binding them down into the work, in some sense, allowed them to engage with it and to feel sort of the high points that they sought to experience from their work. And so, the third sort of category here is connecting with people who were essential to keep a sense of momentum, a sense of excitement about the work, going for the employee. This isn't necessarily always coworkers. This could be people who, employees know in their social lives, who help them realize, and think about, and feel excited about the kinds of things that they're contributing through their work. And then the final category, this fourth category, has to do with connecting to purpose, which gets to the heart of a lot of what I study, and that is to have people recenter themselves in thinking about, Well, what is it that this work accomplishes? What is it that this work contributes to, in the world, in ways that they feel proud of, that they feel connected with, and to the extent possible, to stay focused on that, as they do their work?

 

- Yeah, I think again, those are really good recommendations, but let's move on for a second. The second insight that we found, and I want to dive into the social dimension of well-being a bit more here. We dug into our research, and we discovered that people who shelter alone during this crisis reported significantly more impact from well-being, more on their social, as you would imagine. Talk a little bit about some of the research. I know you've done some work on physical isolation, and how that might connect to this finding.

- Absolutely. We know that people who work for organizations, but work virtually and work in physical isolation from others suffer from a sense of a lack of connection to the organization. A lack of, which can translate into a lack of identification with the organization, how much they really feel like this organization is part of them, and they are part of it. We also know that this kind of physical isolation has an impact on people's sense of connection and belongingness to the organizations of which they're a part. And one of the things that I can say, that I think is instructive to this time, is that this sense was lessened for people who felt like the organization was giving them cues that they belonged, that they were heard, that they were seen even if they weren't physically there. That, that was able to cement more of a sense of belonging and more of a sense of being part of the collective. And so if you think about organizations and industries in which this is an issue, so for example, if you're a bank, and you've got lots and lots of different branches and locations, how do you create a sense of connection and oneness across that? For, let's say the trucking industry, where you have many individual operators out there, all over the country, or potentially all over the world, how do you create a sense of home base for people who are often working very hard, to signal that they're working hard for the organization, and signal that they're part of something bigger?

- Yeah, really, really interesting. This concept of signal, I had not really thought about it in that way. I think about it more in terms of feedback, right? People need feedback. I'm out here, I'm all alone, I think I'm doing a great job. There's nobody here to see that.

- The importance of that kind of more casual communication, in times like this, is really hard to overestimate. It means the world to people, because they feel like they're not forgotten. They feel like they're a part of something greater, and they feel like they're seen as important to that cause, because people are reaching out to them in a way that again, sort of signals that membership, and the value of that membership.

- So let's talk about another insight from the Optum Consumer sentiment research, around the relationship between productivity and perceived employer support. Reported productivity among consumers that felt the employer was supporting them was significantly higher by an order of magnitude, versus those that felt the employer was not supporting them. So those employees that answered a question, I feel that my employer is supporting my health and well-being, said that their productivity did take an impact, about a 39% impact, versus those that said, I don't feel like my employer is supporting me and my total well-being. That was a 71% impact. So I know you've done again, a different set of research now on job crafting, and you've written articles in the Harvard Business Review on that subject. So talk a little bit about job crafting, and maybe how that can help people feel supported, and connected, and how that might relate to productivity.

- That's a very interesting finding. It's not a surprising finding. It's a concerning finding though, given just how much of an impact it has on employees to feel like they're not being supported, or their health and well-being is not being supported by their organization. And I'll just say in talking about the job crafting research, that, any employment relationship, obviously is a two-way relationship, but it's a relationship that every employee of every organization holds what we call a psychological contract with the organization. What a psychological contract is, is essentially the set of expectations, and beliefs they have about what it is that they owe to the organization, and what it is they feel the organization owes to them, or that they're hoping to receive from the organization. And it's hard to imagine anyone who doesn't want to receive a sense that the organization cares about them as a person, cares about their well-being, cares about their health, and their safety, in ways that again, sort of celebrates the humanity of that employee. Another way in which to celebrate the humanity of employees, their individualism, what it is they bring to the organization, is through supporting their efforts to craft their jobs. One of the areas that I've done a lot of research in, has to do with the concept of job crafting. Which is essentially, what it is that employees do to shape the tasks, and the relationships, and the interactions they have in the course of doing their jobs, in a way that helps them to experience that job in more meaningful ways, in ways that are more supportive of identities that they want to enact in that work. And, this is a very common practice, people job craft in all kinds of jobs. They even job craft in jobs where, those kinds of boundary adjustments are maybe forbidden. It's in some sense, it's the story of, the triumph of the human spirit at work. And so I think that supporting job crafting, even just allowing some job crafting, particularly in a time like this, where people can find different lanes to cut to, in ways that work for them while still working for the organization, and getting what it is that they need to do for the organization done, is a strong way to cement a sense of well-being and engagement in the work, and absolutely a strong sense of felt support from the organization. I think anything that organizations, and managers can do to support, obviously within the boundaries of people fulfilling their job responsibilities, anything that people can do to support customization that is in service of the sense of purpose and meaning, is not only good for the person doing the work, it's also good for the organization. Who would want to leave a place that saw you, understood you, supported you for why it was you wanted to be doing this work.

- Yeah, and it also is very consistent with some research that we have around, employee loyalty. What we found was that, the number of health and well-being programs that an organization has is directly tied to what we call employee Net Promoter Score. And so the more programs, especially, it got to a critical mass of six or more. And that was regardless of whether the employee participated in it. But I think to your signaling kind of theme, it signals that the organization cares about me, cares about my colleagues, and we have all these programs available should I need them. So thank you for that. Next I'd like to shift our mindset to a time before COVID-19 really hit home. In early January, our annual employer study of more than 500 employer respondents across the U.S. was in the field. As you can imagine, things were really different then. That said, the findings still have relevancy for longer term perspective. I want to dive into a few of those topics of the survey, around mental health, women's health, motivation, and community health. They're all areas that are big focus for employers right now. The first finding our survey of employers demonstrated, a universal need for more mental health resources in the workplace. This again was before COVID. Strategies that address mental health stigma, access to care, making sure behavioral and physical health programs are integrated. So, my question is, how can mental health impact your work experience, and conversely how can work meaning, and purpose influence mental health?

- So these are such important questions. As you used the term earlier, they're evergreen questions. But, they're particularly pertinent now, and having mental health challenges has an enormous impact on people's ability to focus on the work that they're doing. It interrupts the nature of relationships and interactions that people have. People often withdraw when they're struggling with mental health difficulties, and so all of that can affect interdependence at work. It can affect people's speed, of doing the kinds of things that they're expected to do at work. So this is a really serious problem and it's well worth, I would argue, through the kinds of programs that can support people's mental health, and their functioning, and well-being generally, to pay a lot of attention to this, and I think this is likely to be the case for a long time coming, given the challenges that we're currently facing. And so I think that the kinds of things we've talked about, programs that organizations can put in place to support their employees, helping employees feel a sense of connection to the organization, signaling through all kinds of communication, how much their efforts are seen, how much they're seen, how much they're cared about, can do a lot to help support people as they deal with these struggles.

- We really are focused on the de-stigmatization of all of this. The EAP programs, enhanced EAP programs with more visits, with virtual visits, with specific populations in mind, for example, healthcare workers in mind, or people who are much more mobile, all really important. Let me go to another insight from the research. This time it's really around women's health. This is the second year we've had this item. In our study we saw a seven point increase, in plans to invest in women's health, among large employers. In interestingly, our consumer survey, we see women reporting more of a negative impact, as I mentioned earlier, from the COVID context. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of understanding gender dynamics, and especially in this world today, that we're all involved in.

- It's a distressing finding, right? That the impact is significantly harder for women, from what they're reporting in your data. Given the context that we're in currently, it's not that surprising. If you think about what it is that employees are being asked to do right now. They're being asked to work from home, stay productive, stay connected, manage any number of projects, or initiatives that they're a part of, in a very uncertain environment, where suddenly there are no boundaries between work and home, and work identity and home identity, and workspace and home space, where there may be family members, dependents, young children, assortments of pets underfoot, meals have to be produced, things have to get done. A household has to be run on a set of schedules that is no longer nearly as defined, and nearly as demarcated as happens when people go to an organization to get their work done. There's a reason that that separation is so helpful. If you think about who is likely to be more of the buffer absorbing the chaos of this, in some sense, collapsing of these various boundaries, more often than not, it is more likely to be women who are looked to, to play those roles, who are looked to, to manage those boundaries. I am not surprised that they're feeling more strain during this period, distracted, perhaps. I'm hearing accounts of women who have decided, well, they'll just work when everyone's asleep. And if we're in an acute crisis, that's possibly a strategy, but in something that is as prolonged as what we're seeing, that's potentially dangerous for people's health and well-being. I think the more that can be done, to both support, but also the signaling of support, that we see you, we see what you're struggling with, we see that there are ways in which we could support you, that we can add to the suite of things that we do for our employees. I think would be both of great symbolic help to women, to say, "Okay, they get it. Our employers see us struggling here." But obviously it's of great practical help too, from the point of view of what it is that could be offered as supports for people.

- That signal theme continues to come up, and I really like it. The idea of, as we implement women's health programs, of which we have many, it might be maternity, might be various programs on fertility management, other kinds of women's health services, at least it's a signal that we're there for you. We recognize that this is going on. We have another insight here, and while we're on this subject of health, and well-being, and behavior change, it's hard not to talk about motivation. One of the core underpinnings of success of all the health and well-being programs is motivating people. How do we get people engaged? How do we help them do these various activities that we think would be so great for them? I know you've produced a longitudinal research that assessed the relationship between different types of motivation, and career trajectory in over 10,000 West Point cadets. I think that research has some really interesting implications for organizations, as they look to influence health behaviors. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that, and the kind of motivators you found in that study.

- Absolutely. Motivation is key. Motivation is one of these topics that, once you start thinking about the motivational underpinnings of everything, it's hard to stop thinking about it. It's relevant to all kinds of topics, including the uptake of health behaviors, and so on. In the West Point context, we studied 10 consecutive incoming classes of West Point cadets, over a period of up to 14 years, to look at why did they go to West Point? We focused in this study on more internal motive, so motives that were more connected with, or tied to, the mission of the organization itself. So this was reflected in people who were pursuing that education, and that career, because they wanted to become an army officer. We contrasted this, with people who were there because they knew that, going through West Point, launching a military career, does set up great career options for people, and that this was the reason they were there. What we find is that, what it is that motivated you to go there in the first place, has serious implications for what happens to you once you're there, and once you're in your career. So, we know that for example, the stronger your internal motivation, that you're there, you're doing this activity, you're pursuing this education, because it is an end in itself, the thing that is going to happen as a result of it, is the thing that you're focused on. Those people are less likely to drop out of West Point. They're more likely to stay with the military, after their compulsory service is complete, following graduation. And they're more likely, during that compulsory service period to be identified as the absolute best officers the army has. The importance of internal motivation is hard to overstate. If you're a student and you study hard, you learn a lot, but you also get good grades, and you get awards, and you get things that are kind of, in some sense, sort of secondary to the heart of the endeavor. Same thing is true for employees. Same thing is true for health behaviors. You can do it because you're getting rewards for doing it or points or, sort of things like this. That is an instrumental motivator. That's more of an extrinsic motivator, but if you can get people doing the activity long enough, that they can begin to connect it to internal motives for doing it, that it's an end in itself, that being healthy is the goal, that they can begin to transfer more of the incentive-based motivation, into internal reasons for undertaking any course of action, that course of action is likely to be more prolonged, more actively engaged with, and more positively engaged with.

- That research really resonates with me. As we think about incentive designs for health and well-being programs, for a long time, they'd been very externally, extrinsically motivated, "We'll give you a hundred dollars for this behavior, a hundred dollars for that behavior." What we're starting to do is shift it to, what I call motivational design, shifting people from extrinsic to intrinsic. The experience you're having with the cadets and that research really kind of applies to health behaviors, and incentive design that is going through, I think, a big change right now.

 

- I'm really glad to hear that. I do think that, when you give people a reason for doing what they're doing, that crowds out, or undermines a more internal narrative for why it is they want to be doing it, it's harder for them to sustain that behavior. And so, I'm thrilled to hear that you're investing in these innovations, because I think that they'll create a healthier workforce. And I think it uses the state of the art research, to the greatest possible good.

- I'm going to shift us one more time. This time I want to talk about the importance of community well-being. I want to talk a little bit about the study that we did, and this year we added a couple new items, and we're trying to understand the ways employers are investing in community, and why it matters during this time. So much around social injustice, and health equity, or health inequity, how investing in communities really drives organizational belonging, and inclusivity, which ultimately leads to improved productivity.

- Absolutely. Part of what drives people's sense of meaning, and connection in their work has to do with the nature of the connection they have to the organization that they're a part of, and the extent to which they see their membership in that organization as being a manifestation, or an expression of their own values, what it is that they care about, and so on. Yes, we look to organizations as a way to make a living, as a collective to be a part of, and so on, but it goes quite a bit deeper than that. And so it matters a lot what it is that the organization is doing, is making salient for people, about what it cares about, what its values are in ways that go beyond stating them, but actually go into collective action, or investment, or activities that are manifestations of what those values are stated to be. And so I think in organizational contexts, thinking about making smart investments of time, and energy, and resources to signal what it is that the culture and the values of the organization rest upon, gives employees a great opportunity to cement their connection to the organization. It cements a sense of loyalty. It especially helps employees who don't necessarily feel as engaged with the kind of work they do for the organization, it can have a compensatory effect, that it helps them feel more rooted to being a member of that organization. So these kinds of programs and efforts, I think, serve multiple purposes that are positive, obviously for the community, and for the employee, but also for the organization.

 

- As I think about the research that you've done, I think I put it in terms of, we want to signal that we think that's great. In fact, we believe it too. It does connect to our purpose as an organization, it does connect to your purpose.

- I think that's absolutely right. I think there's really compelling research that's been done by colleagues of mine, to show that when people become members of organizations, one of the things that we can do is try to signal to them that, you're now a member of this collective. You now share this identity with us. You're one of us. They do things like, give everybody the same T-shirts, and try to cue a shared category of membership, versus absolutely welcoming people into the family, but also signaling to them that what you care about, who you are, what you bring here, what kinds of values you want to express, we absolutely welcome and support and want to find ways to engage with. It's that second category that keeps people around longer, makes them feel more dedicated to, and a part of the organization they're working for. It's not unrelated to job crafting, this ability to kind of customize, or allow for the individual expression in work, of what it is that people care about a lot, is significant. I want to speak briefly to an example that comes to mind as we talk about this, which is, I'm thinking of a university that went through a decision that was, I think, instructive in this regard. The university, some years ago, was facing a serious decision because the stability of its surrounding neighborhood had been declining, so it's a high poverty area, and was becoming more of a high crime area. And the decision before the university had to do with whether it was going to wall off its campus, and make it a more secure space for its staff, and students, and faculty, or whether the right move to make would be investing massively into the community, creating programs, creating schools, partnering with community organizations, and with the city, to create a very different reality, not just for the people who are members of the university, but for everyone who was part of that community. And they chose that second option, they did not wall the campus off. They engaged. They invested massively in this endeavor, and it has been a wonderful success. It has transformed that part of the city. It has helped to support community members in ways that were hard to imagine prior to these efforts. It has attracted more scholars to the university, more centers of inquiry around how do you reimagine cities, and so on, to the university. And people who work there felt like it was such an affirming expression of their values to help, to reach out, to engage in whatever ways they could, to fully be a member of the community of which the organization was a part. And I think it's a great example of, it's perhaps an extreme example, but it's a great example of the kinds of things that are possible around employee engagement, and the ability to really do good, if you take these questions to heart.

- That's a phenomenal illustration. Thank you again for those comments. I want to shift us now finally, to the idea of some takeaways. And leave our audience with a few very tangible, actionable takeaways from the conversation. For me, I've got a few of them, and then I'd be glad to hear some of your additional thoughts, Amy. The theme of signal support was just consistent here, and that employers can help to diminish the impact of uncertainty on productivity and well-being. It can simply offer well-being programs to demonstrate that support. It's a big signal. As I said, from the research, we've heard that employees, they hear it, they see that signal. It used to, perhaps come in the form of a physical entity, like a wellness center, or a fitness center, or bike path, or other things. There are now many signals we can send, with virtual programs, and apps, and challenges, and other ways to create a really good approach, and send strong signals around a full array of population health programs, including mental health. Investing in mental health and social well-being is another big theme. So, as organizations assess their portfolio and think about, "Okay, we've got EAP, we've got behavioral health." Well, that's fine, but are there new tweaks? Do we need to do different things? Do we have digital? Do we have chat? Do we have virtual? Do we have enough visits available? Is our three model, or five model, call model enough? So really thinking about EAP and transforming it into well-being, thinking about how to support this new culture, and this new kind of much more mobile, and variable workforce. The work/life issues keep on coming. Really helping people move from, an extrinsic motivation, to intrinsic. So starting to think about a different way to go about incentives, and rewards. I think it really helpful some of that research that you brought up. The idea of investing in communities, where people live and work. Breaking the wall down, metaphorically, and actually, there's a lot of bonding here. And then I would finally say collaborate with your vendor partners. A lot of these vendor partners are anxious to help, to explore, to pilot, to innovate, to adapt to these new ways They need feedback from you about that. They want your partnership. I would definitely recommend working with them, talking about any modifications needed. Do they have data? Can they help you with that messaging and signaling? Amy, thank you again so much for the conversation and the insights that you've provided. I really look forward to continued conversations about this research.

- Thank you so much for a terrific conversation. I've enjoyed it immensely. Listening to you, wrap up and make the final points that you've just made, really underscores for me how much of a moment this is in our country to take advantage of what it is that we can now see. As a result of the pandemic, we now see the full complexity of people, as whole people, and the lives that they're trying to manage while working. As a result of societal developments, we now see perhaps whole communities, and what it is that they're struggling with in ways that perhaps hadn't been taken in as deeply before. All of this, I think creates an opportunity to think about, how is it that we can better support one another. And the kinds of programs that we've been discussing, I think, are a huge part of what can be supportive, what can be a solution, what can help to build toward a solution, to so many of the challenges that have been laid bare over the last six months.

- Thank you for those comments.

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- Let's start with the Consumer Sentiment Survey. One of the persistent findings that we're finding from both waves from March and April of the employee survey was the impact on both productivity and well-being. And probably no surprise, we found that the social and mental dimensions really had the most impact for people. And in particular, of course, social with all the sheltering and isolation. I guess I will say interesting thing is it actually got worse over time. So, I know you've spent a lot of time studying gig workers, and I think there's a lot of relevancy to maybe with the insights that you've gained from that research, that type of worker have their context in today's environment. Any thoughts on that?

- I'm not surprised by the findings, I'm distressed by them, obviously, because it's an indication of just how much people are struggling during this period. And I would say that, perhaps with the exception of some who perhaps may have found it a relief to kind of be working from home and get a little caught up and so on. That this quickly became much more challenging for people, and it reminds me of work that I've done with colleagues of mine, studying people who work completely independently from any organization where they're working on their own, largely from home or from other spaces, but where they're thrust into the kind of isolated experience that so many people are having, as they shelter in place, as they work from settings that are not the typical organizational settings that they're used to. And what we find is, people in this kind of situation feel a lot of precarity from the point of view of their economic security. They feel a lot of precarity from the point of view of their ability to produce and how much of their own identity is wrapped up in their ability to produce quality work on a regular basis that they're proud of. And so, I think there's a lot to learn from people who have figured out how to work this way, that could potentially be helpful to people who now suddenly find themselves working in a way that's more akin to this than they perhaps ever imagined.

- Yeah, it's so interesting. And this idea of people not feeling great about maybe how productive they are and all the distractions they have, we're really finding that to be a big issue across the board. So, what kind of strategies can people use to overcome some of that anxiety, some of that sense of, "Am I really being productive?" What are some of your thoughts around that?

- We find actually that there are four strategies that the people we study use to effectively manage the anxiety that comes from working this way and the isolation that comes from working this way. So, one of the four things that they do is to come up with a place, some way of cementing a regular place in which they're doing their work, which sounds basic, but it's actually quite profound. Having, even if it's a very small space and in fact, many people talked about having a very small space, being something that was even more effective for them, because they could sort of concentrate in there. They weren't distracted. They weren't kind of in all different parts of the house. And having that be a regular focus area for the work that they're doing, as well as having a routine. Sort of, this is the second element. And some of the routines that were described in the research that we did were pretty ritualistic almost. But both of these things, having a place, sometimes almost a very, again, sort of tight space in which to work and a tight routine that people held to almost religiously every day, seemed to help them kind of bind themselves to the work and not just kind of move into what felt like more distraction or chaos as they tried to manage their time. The other two strategies, instead of kind of binding them down into the work, in some sense, allowed them to engage with it and to feel sort of the high points that they sought to experience from their work. And so, the third sort of category here is connecting with people who were essential to keep a sense of momentum, a sense of excitement about the work going for the employee. This isn't necessarily always coworkers. This could be people who employees know kind of in their social lives, who help them realize and think about, and feel excited about the kinds of things that they're contributing through their work. And then, the final category, this fourth category has to do with connecting to purpose, which gets to the heart of a lot of what I study. And that is to have people recenter themselves in thinking about, well, what is it that this work accomplishes? What is it that this work contributes to in the world in ways that they feel proud of, that they feel connected with? And to the extent possible to stay focused on that as they do their work.

- Yeah, I think that, again, those are really good recommendations, but let's move on for a second. The second insight that we found, and I want to dive into the social dimension of well-being a bit more here. And we dug into our research and we discovered that people who shelter alone during this crisis reported significantly more impact from well-being, more on their social, as you would imagine. Talk a little bit about some of the research. I know you've done some work on physical isolation and how that might connect to this finding.

- Absolutely. We know that people who work for organizations, but work virtually and work in physical isolation from others suffer from a sense of a lack of connection to the organization. A lack of... Which can translate into a lack of identification with the organization, and how much they really feel like this organization is part of them and they are part of it. We also know that this kind of physical isolation has an impact on people's sense of connection and belongingness to the organizations of which they're a part. And one of the things that I can say that I think is instructive to this time is that this sense was lessened for people who felt like the organization was giving them cues, that they belonged, that they were heard, that they were seen, even if they weren't physically there. That, that was able to cement more of a sense of belonging and more of a sense of being part of the collective. And so, if you think about organizations and industries in which this is an issue, you know, so for example, if you're a bank and you've got lots and lots of different branches and locations, how do you create a sense of connection and oneness across that? For, let's say the trucking industry, where you have many individual operators out there all over the country, or potentially all over the world, how do you create a sense of home base for people who are often working very hard to signal that they're working hard for the organization and signal that they're part of something bigger?

- Yeah, really, really interesting. This kind of concept of signal, I had not really thought about it in that way, that... I think about it more in terms of feedback, right? People need feedback. So, I'm out here, I'm all alone. I think I'm doing a great job. There's nobody here to see that. I mean.

- Yeah. The importance of that kind of more casual communication in times like this, is really hard to overestimate. It means the world to people because they feel like they're not forgotten. They feel like they're a part of something greater and they feel like they're seen as important to that cause because people are reaching out to them in a way that again, sort of signals that membership and the value of that membership.

- So let's talk about another insight from the Optum.... Consumer sentiment research around the relationship between productivity and perceived employer support. Reported productivity among consumers felt the employer was supporting them, was significantly higher by an order of magnitude versus those that felt the employer was not supporting them. So, it was employees that answered the question. "I feel that my employer is supporting my health and well-being," said that their productivity did take an impact, about a 39% impact. Versus those that said, "I don't feel like my employer is supporting me and my total well-being." That was a 71% impact. So, I know you've done again, a different set of research now on job crafting and you've written articles in the "Harvard Business Review" on that subject. So, talk a little bit about job crafting and maybe how that can help people feel supported and connected and how that might relate to productivity.

- That's a very interesting finding. It's not a surprising finding. It's a concerning finding though, given just how much of an impact it has on employees to feel like they're not being supported or their health and well-being is not being supported by their organization. And I'll just say, in talking about the job crafting research that, any employment relationship is obviously, is a two-way relationship, but it's a relationship that every employee of every organization holds what we call a psychological contract with the organization. And what a psychological contract is is essentially, the set of expectations and beliefs they have about what it is that they owe to the organization and what it is they feel the organization owes to them or that they're hoping to receive from the organization. And it's hard to imagine anyone who doesn't want to receive a sense that the organization cares about them as a person, cares about their well-being, cares about their health and their safety in ways that again, sort of celebrates the humanity of that employee. And another way in which to celebrate the humanity of employees, their individualism, what it is they bring to the organization, is through supporting their efforts to craft their jobs. So, one of the areas that I've done a lot of research in has to do with the concept of job crafting, which is essentially what it is that employees do to shape the tasks, and the relationships, and interactions they have in the course of doing their jobs in a way that helps them to experience that job in more meaningful ways, in ways that are more supportive of identities that they want to enact in that work. And this is a very common practice. People job craft in all kinds of jobs. They even job craft in jobs where those kinds of boundary adjustments are maybe forbidden. In some sense, it's the story of, you know, the triumph of the human spirit at work. And so, I think that supporting job crafting, even just allowing some job crafting, particularly in a time like this, where people can find, you know, different lanes to cut to in ways that work for them while still working for the organization and getting what it is that they need to do for the organization, done, is a strong way to cement a sense of well-being and engagement in the work, and absolutely a strong sense of felt support from the organization. And I think anything that organizations and managers can do to support, obviously, within the boundaries, right? Of people fulfilling their job responsibilities. Anything that people can do to support customization that is in service of the sense of purpose and meaning, is not only good for the person doing the work, it's also good for the organization. Who would want to leave a place that saw you, understood you, supported you for why it was you wanted to be doing this work.

- Yeah, you know, and it also is very consistent with some research that we have around employee loyalty. And what we found was that the number of health and well-being programs that an organization has is directly tied to employee, what we call employee Net Promoter Score. And so, the more programs, especially it got to a critical mass of six or more. And that was regardless of whether the employee participated in it. But I think to your signaling kind of theme, it signals that the organization cares about me, cares about my colleagues, and we have all these programs available should I need them.

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- In early January before COVID-19 really hit, our annual employer study of more than 500 employer respondents across the US was in the field. As you can imagine, things were really different then. That said, the findings still have relevancy for longer term perspective. So I want to dive into a few of those topics of the survey around mental health, women's health, motivation and community health. They're all areas that are a big focus for employers right now. The first finding: our survey of employers demonstrated a universal need for more mental health resources in the workplace. And this again was before COVID. Strategies that address mental health stigma, access to care, making sure behavioral and physical health programs are integrated. So my question is how can mental health impact your work experience, and conversely, how can work meaning and purpose influence mental health?

- So these are such important questions as you used the term earlier, they're ever green questions, but they're particularly pertinent now. And having mental health challenges has an enormous impact on people's ability to focus on the work that they're doing. It interrupts the nature of relationships and interactions that people have. People often withdraw when they're struggling with mental health difficulties. And so all of that can affect interdependence at work, it can affect people's speed of doing the kinds of things that they're expected to do at work. So this is a really serious problem and it's well worth I would argue, through the kinds of programs that can support people's mental health and their functioning and well-being generally to pay a lot of attention to this, and I think this is likely to be the case for a long time coming given the challenges that we're currently facing. And so I think that the kinds of things we've talked about, sort of programs that organizations can put in place to support their employees, helping employees feel a sense of connection to the organization, signaling through all kinds of communication, how much their efforts are seen, how much they're seen, how much they're cared about, can do a lot to help support people as they deal with these struggles.

- You know, we really are focused on the de-stigmatization of all of this. The EAP programs, enhanced EAP programs with more visits, with virtual visits, with specific populations in mind, for example, health care workers in mind, or people who are much more mobile, all really important. Let me go to another insight from the research and in this time, it's really around women's health. We saw this in our, this is the second year we've had this item. And in our study, we saw a seven point increase in plans to invest in women's health among large employers. And interestingly, our consumer survey, we see women reporting more of a negative impact, as I mentioned earlier from the COVID context. So can you talk a little bit about, the importance of understanding kind of gender dynamics, especially in this world today that we're we're all involved in?

- Yeah, it's a distressing finding, right? That the impact is significantly harder for women from what they're reporting in your data. Given the context that we're in currently, it's not that surprising if you think about what it is that employees are being asked to do right now. They're being asked to work from home, stay productive, stay connected, manage any number of projects or initiatives that they're a part of in a very uncertain environment, where suddenly there are no boundaries between work and home and work identity and home identity, and workspace and home space, where there may be family members, dependents, young children, assortments of pets, you know underfoot, meals have to be produced, things have to get done, a household has to be run, on a set of schedules that is no longer nearly as defined and nearly as demarcated as happens when people go to an organization to get their work done, right? There's a reason that that separation is so helpful. And if you think about the, who is likely to be more of the buffer absorbing the chaos of this, in some sense collapsing of these various boundaries, more often than not, it is more likely to be women, who are looked to to play those roles, who are looked to to manage those boundaries. And so I am not surprised that they're feeling more strain during this period, distracted perhaps. I'm hearing accounts of, women who've decided, well, they'll just work when everyone's asleep. And if we're in an acute crisis, that's possibly a strategy, but in something that is as prolonged as what we're seeing that's potentially dangerous for people's health and well being. So I think the more that can be done to both support but also the signaling of support that we see you, we see what you're struggling with, we see that there are ways in which we could support you that we can add to the suite of things that we do for our employees, I think would be both of great symbolic help to women to say, "Okay, they get it. Our employers see us struggling here." But obviously, it's of great practical help too from the point of view of what it is that could be offered as supports for people.

 

- You know, that signal theme continues to come up and I really like it. So the idea of as we implement women's health programs, of which we have many, it might be maternity, it might be various other, various programs on fertility management, other kinds of women's health services. At least it's a signal that we're there for you, we recognize that this is going on. So, we have another insight here. And while we're on this subject of health and well-being and behavior change, it's hard not to talk about motivation. One of the core underpinnings of success of all the health and well being programs is motivating people. How do we get people engaged? How do we help them do these various activities that we think would be so great for them? I know you've produced a longitudinal research that assessed the relationship between different types of motivation and career trajectory in over 10,000 West Point cadets. I think that research has some really interesting implications for organizations as they look to influence health behaviors. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that and the kind of motivators you found in that study.

- Absolutely. Motivation is key. Motivation is one of these topics that once you start thinking about the motivational underpinnings of everything, it's hard to stop thinking about it. And so it's relevant to all kinds of topics, including kind of the uptake of health behaviors and so on. In the West Point context, we studied 10 consecutive incoming classes of West Point cadets, over a period of up to 14 years to look at, why did they go to West Point? We focused in this study on more internal motives. So motives that were more connected with or tied to the mission of the organization itself. So this was reflected in people who were pursuing that education and that career because they wanted to become an army officer. And we contrasted this with people who were there because they knew that going through West Point, launching a military career, does set up great career options for people, and that this was the reason they were there. What we find is that, what it is that motivated you to go there in the first place has serious implications for what happens to you once you're there, and once you're in your career. So we know that for example, the stronger your internal motivation that you're there, you're doing this activity, you're pursuing this education, because it is an end in itself, the thing that is going to happen as a result of it is the thing that you're focused on. Those people are less likely to drop out of West Point, they're more likely to stay with the military after their compulsory service is complete following graduation. And they're more likely during that compulsory service period to be identified as the absolute best officers the army has. And so the importance of internal motivation is hard to overstate. So if you're a student and you study hard, you learn a lot, but you also get good grades and you get awards and you get things that are kind of, in some sense sort of secondary to the heart of the endeavor. Same thing is true for employees. Same thing is true, for health behaviors, right? You can do it because you're getting rewards for doing it or points or sort of things like this. That is an instrumental motivator, that's more of an extrinsic motivator. But if you can get people doing the activity long enough that they can begin to connect it to internal motives for doing it, that it's an end in itself, that being healthy is the goal, that they can begin to transfer kind of more of the incentive-based motivation into internal reasons for undertaking any course of action. That course of action is likely to be more prolonged, more actively engaged with and more positively engaged with.

- You know, that research really resonates with me, as we think about incentive designs for health and well-being programs. For a long time they've been very externally, extrinsically motivated, we'll give you $100 for this behavior, $100 for that behavior. What we're starting to do is shift it to what I call motivational design, shifting people from extrinsic to intrinsic. So the experience you're having with the cadets, and that research really, kind of applies to health behaviors and incentive design that is going through, I think a big change right now.

- I'm really glad to hear that. And I do think that, when you give people a reason for doing what they're doing, that crowds out or undermines a more internal narrative for why it is they want to be doing it. It's harder for them to sustain that behavior. And so I'm thrilled to hear that you're investing in these innovations, because I think that they'll create a healthier workforce, and I think it uses the state of the art research to the greatest possible good.

- So I'm gonna shift us one more time. And this time I want to talk about the importance of community well-being. I want to talk a little bit about the study that we did, and this year we added a couple new items. And we're trying to understand the ways employers are investing in community, and why it matters during this time, so much around social injustice and health equity or health inequity. How investing in communities really drives organizational belonging and inclusivity, which ultimately leads to improved productivity.

- Absolutely. Part of what drives people's sense of meaning and connection in their work, has to do with the nature of the connection they have to the organization that they're a part of, and the extent to which they see their membership in that organization as being a manifestation or an expression of their own values, what it is that they care about and so on. So, yes we look to organizations as a way to make a living, as a collective to be a part of and so on, but it goes quite a bit deeper than that. And so it matters a lot, what it is that the organization is doing, is making salient for people about what it cares about, what its values are, in ways that go beyond stating them, but actually go into collective action or investment or activities that are manifestations of what those values are stated to be. And so I think, in organizational contexts, thinking about making smart investments of time and energy and resources to signal what it is that the culture and the values of the organization rest upon, gives employees a great opportunity to cement their connection to the organization. It cements a sense of loyalty. It especially helps employees who don't necessarily feel as engaged with the kind of work they do for the organization. It can kind of have a compensatory effect, that it helps them feel more rooted to being a member of that organization. So these kinds of programs and efforts, I think serve multiple purposes that are positive, obviously for the community and for the employee, but also for the organization.

- And as I think about the research that you've done, I think I put it in terms of, we want to signal that we think that's great. And in fact, we believe it too, and it does connect to our purpose as an organization, it does connect to your purpose.

- I think that's absolutely right. And I think there's really compelling research that's been done by colleagues of mine to show that when people become members of organizations, one of the things that we can do is try to signal to them that, you're now a member of this collective, you now share this identity with us, you're one of us. They do things like, give everybody the same T-shirt and try to cue a kind of shared category of membership, versus absolutely welcoming people into the family, but also signaling to them that what you care about, who you are, what you bring here, what kinds of values you want to express, we absolutely welcome and support and want to find ways to engage with. It's that second category that keeps people around longer, makes them feel more dedicated to and a part of the organization they're working for. And so this ability, I mean, it's not unrelated to job crafting, this ability to kind of customize or allow for the individual expression in work of what it is that people care about, a lot, is significant. I want to speak briefly to an example that comes to mind as we talk about this, which is, I'm thinking of a university that went through a decision that was, I think instructive, in this regard. So the university some years ago, was facing a serious decision because the stability of its surrounding neighborhood had been declining, so it's a high poverty area and was becoming more of a high crime area. And the decision before the university had to do with whether it was going to wall off its campus and make it a more secure space for its staff and students and faculty, or whether the right move to make would be investing massively into the community, creating programs, creating schools, partnering with community organizations and with the city to create a very different reality, not just for the people who were members of the university, but for everyone who was part of that community. And they chose that second option. They did not wall the campus off, they engaged, they invested massively in this endeavor and it has been a wonderful success. It has transformed that part of the city. It has helped to support community members in ways that were hard to imagine prior to these efforts. It has attracted more scholars to the university, more centers of inquiry around how do you reimagine cities and so on, to the university. And people who work there felt like, it was such an affirming expression of their values to help, to reach out, to engage in whatever ways they could to fully be a member of the community of which the organization was a part. And I think it's a great example of, it's perhaps an extreme example, but it's a great example of the kinds of things that are possible around employee engagement and the ability to really do good if you take these questions to heart.

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- Now I want to leave our audience with a few very tangible, actionable takeaways from the conversation. For me, I've got a few of them, and then I'd be glad to hear some of your additional thoughts, Amy. The theme of signal support was just consistent here and that employers can help to diminish the impact of uncertainty on productivity and wellbeing. It can simply offer wellbeing programs to demonstrate that support. It's a big signal as I said, from the research we've heard, that employees -- they hear it, they see that signal. It used to perhaps come in the form of a physical entity, like a wellness center or a fitness center or a bike path or other things. There are now many signals we can send with virtual programs and apps and challenges and other ways to create a really good approach and send strong signals around a full array of population health programs, including mental health. Investing in mental health and social wellbeing is another big theme. So as organizations assess their portfolio and think about, okay, we've got EAP, we've got behavioral health. Well, that's fine, but are there new tweaks? Do we need to do different things? Do we have digital? Do we have chat? Do we have virtual? Do we have enough visits available? Is our three model or five model, call model enough? So really thinking about EAP and transforming it into wellbeing, thinking about how to support this new culture and this new kind of much more mobile and variable workforce. The work-life issues keep on coming. So really helping people move from an extrinsic motivation to intrinsic. So starting to think about a different way to go about incentives and rewards, I think it really helpful, some of that research that you brought up. The idea of investing in communities where people live and work, breaking the wall down metaphorically and actually, there's a lot of bonding here. And then I would finally say collaborate with your vendor partners. A lot of these vendor partners are anxious to help, to explore, to pilot, to innovate, to adapt to these new ways. They need feedback from you about that. They want your partnership. I would definitely recommend working with them, talking about any modifications needed. Do they have data? Can they help you with that messaging and signaling? So Amy, thank you again so much for the conversation and the insights that you've provided. And I really look forward to continued conversations about this research.

 

- Thank you so much for a terrific conversation. I've enjoyed it immensely. And listening to you wrap up and make the final points that you've just made really underscores for me how much of a moment this is in our country to take advantage of what it is that we can now see. So as a result of the pandemic, we now see the full complexity of people as whole people and the lives that they're trying to manage while working. As a result of societal developments, we now see perhaps whole communities and what it is that they're struggling with in ways that perhaps hadn't been taken in sort of as deeply before. And all of this, I think creates an opportunity to think about how is it that we can better support one another. And the kinds of programs that we've been discussing, I think are a huge part of what can be supportive, what can be a solution, what can help to build toward a solution to so many of the challenges that have been laid bare over the last six months.

- Thank you for those comments.

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