Working Parent 411: Mari Ryan, AdvancingWellness

Last month, Amanda Hemm had an opportunity to sit down with Mari Ryan of AdvancingWellness and talk about workplace well-being. Taking a whole-person perspective benefits the employee, the employer, and our greater community. Listen to this audio clip of their conversation to learn how companies have moved from a worksite health promotion approach towards workplace well-being, what the 6 elements of well-being are, and the best way to implement a caring culture at the strategic level.

Mari Ryan, CEO and founder of AdvancingWellness, is an expert in workplace well-being. She leverages over 30 years of business experience in a variety of industries. For the past decade, Ms. Ryan has been creating thriving workplaces, through her consulting work and speaking on worksite well-being. Mari earned a Bachelor Degree from Lesley University, an MBA from Boston University, a Master’s degree in Health Promotion from Nebraska Methodist College. Mari is an active member of the National Speakers Association. Mari is the author of award-winning book The Thriving Hive: How People-Centric Organizations Ignite Engagement and Fuel Results.

Follow Mari on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

Audio Transcript

Amanda: Good afternoon and welcome back to our video series. I am here today with Mari Ryan, who is from advancing wellness. And she's going to talk to us a little bit about workplace well being in the importance in our society and in our workplaces today.

Mari, thank you so much for being here. Welcome.

Mari: Thank you, Amanda. I'm delighted to be here.

Amanda: Mari, could you tell us a little bit about the work that you are doing? I know that you are a best selling author, a corporate speaker, keynote speaker, and consultant for companies. I know that I can't do it justice. So if you wouldn't mind describing your work and your passions, that would be amazing.

Mari: Sure. I founded AdvancingWellness about 15 years ago, with the idea of creating an organization that would work with businesses to be able to really have an impact on creating healthy, thriving workplaces for their employees. And as you said, I have written a book. My book won a national business book award last year. And the book is called The Thriving Hive, How People-Centric Workplaces Ignite Engagement and Fuel Results. And I do a lot of speaking. So I'm traveling often or used to be anyway. And so you know, it’s a lot of interesting things that I do to just try to help create healthy, thriving workplaces.

Amanda: That's wonderful. I have noticed that you said “workplace well-being” versus “workplace wellness”. Could you please tell me a little bit about that difference?

Mari: I will, absolutely. Thank you. That's a great question to start with. When I joined this field about 15 years ago, we actually called it Worksite Health Promotion, which doesn't sound particularly interesting at all. It sounds like something you would do to people! What we've seen happen, over the 15 years or so I've been in this field, is moving toward wellness and now well-being. When we think about wellness, we typically think about our physical well-being in our physical body: how much exercise I get, how much sleep I get, what I eat, do I use tobacco, how much I weigh. And that is a lot of that. Also, the health promotion aspect of this comes out of a medical model, and really trying to control healthcare costs.

But what we've recognized over the last few years is that our health, and our well-being, is actually more than just made up of our physical health. It really encompasses a number of other elements. So we use a model that we've adapted from some work done by the Gallup organization. That model has six elements to it. So physical is one. I call that energy because it really does serve as the source of our energy. There's also financial well being. As we all probably know, when our financial well being is out of whack, our whole life can be out of whack. So financial well being has really become an important element. I think as we look from where we are today, you know, with this pandemic and the severe impact it's had on our economy, financial well being is going to be very important as we continue to move forward. Other elements are connection and community: How we have connections with people in our lives, in our family, in our workplaces, and also in the communities in which we live. Do we feel safe living in those communities? Do we have connections in those communities? And then the last two pieces: purpose is kind of at the core of all this - what motivates you to get out of bed every day, what drives you - and environment. We can think about it globally from a climate change kind of aspect of environment but more often we think about it from the perspective of the physical workplace. Our physical workplace actually can have a lot to do with how we feel about our well-being. Whether it provides amenities or services, the physical environment can really have a lot of impact on our well being. And we're seeing that in particular, as we prepare to go back to the workplaces in this pandemic. There are a number of considerations around environmental wellbeing that are going to have to be put in place.

6 key elements of well-being: Physical, Financial, Connection, Community, Purpose, Environment

Amanda: That sounds like a really important distinction and the long way that we’ve come in the way that we define well-being, wellness, and health promotion. I love that it is so holistic. That goes along with the work that we do at Soutiens and thinking about people as multidimensional. It is not just one piece of someone that comes to work. You bring your whole being to work.

We’ve started to see a rising trend, which you have spoken about, of paying attention to the whole person and the well-being. Companies are paying attention to what the employees are asking for and they are asking for these types of programs. What do you think is driving this trend? Can you talk about how having well-being programs are a benefit to the employer as well as the employee?

Mari: Let’s take your first question. Part of what is driving this is the employees. This is what people are asking for. People are saying ‘I don’t want to work in a place where I don’t have flexibility or programs or resources or a culture that doesn’t care for its people’. So the employees are really the ones - and let’s credit the millennial generation as they are the ones that are really pushing this and then every generation benefits.

We are really seeing that employees are saying ‘I’m struggling with work-life balance and if something doesn’t give then I can’t work here anymore’. The good news is that employees are asking for this and I think that they are taking it into consideration when they go to a job. They look around and they see if people are excited about their work, are they burnt out, what the vibe is that they get from the culture of the workplace. Then they can make the decision that is best for them and their family.

In terms of your second question about the benefits to the employer, they are numerous. We are seeing a lot of research that is coming out showing organizations that really work at creating a culture of well-being, where they create a caring culture, are seeing an impact to their bottom line. They are seeing increased revenue. They are retaining and attracting customers because their employees are interacting well with their customers. They are seeing an impact to the bottom line. In some cases with my clients, we are actually seeing a flattening of healthcare costs. You are creating a workplace where people feel cared for and I think that is really one of the key benefits. I’m also hearing employers say that they have to create this type of workplace because people are demanding it. They are saying ‘this is what I want in a workplace’. Companies need to have the type of workplace culture that nurtures and cares for people to attract the type of people that they need and they need to retain them. It really becomes essential.

Amanda: When you start talking about culture and putting in place a well-being culture, that is more than a checkbox. You have to think about it from a strategic level. This is where you work, right? You help them put in a strategy that is going to help them build it into the ethos of the organization.

Mari: Exactly! That is exactly where I work. I work at the strategic level. Some of my clients have been “best places to work” for years - and yet they didn’t have a strategic plan in place for the well-being of their employees. When we work through a strategic plan there is a large element of data collection. The data helps us take a snapshot of where they are and the point from which they are starting. Where are they today. We use this as a baseline to measure change over time. We look at this over all the dimensions I described. We look at all the different benefits and services and elements that are available in a workplace so we can see where they are now. Based on this, and the interest and needs of the employees, we set priorities. In the strategic planning process, we create a vision, mission, goals, objectives. We define the infrastructure, the valuation strategy, the communication strategy, all of which will help them move forward to be able to implement the initiative in their workplace and integrate it with other elements such as cultural initiatives, employee engagement, and employee experience.

Amanda: When you are saying the “They” with an organization you are working with, I am assuming that you are working at the very top - C-level suite, VPs, executives - that are are able to push the strategy and have it trickle down to the other employees.

Mari: Exactly. The leaders in the organization are responsible for the culture. They drive the culture and define it through their actions and communications. Most often I am dealing with human resource professionals but often the teams are multi-disciplinary and cross-functional. Recently we had a client with a large team of about 15 and they were from HR, benefits, communications, workers’ safety, risk management, union or labor relations, and more. It can be a very broad group that can be part of it but it has to be driven from senior leadership. Without senior leadership support, it can never be successful.

Amanda: That is what we are seeing with the “parent-friendly” initiatives. It has to come from the top and if you have a cross-functional team you get a more consistent buy-in across the company. That’s the best way to affect change.

Mari: Absolutely. That is the only way to affect change.

Amanda: Keeping in mind that our audience is primarily working parents and advocates for working parents, when you are talking with companies about benefits, are you seeing any shifts in the requests from organizations for benefits that are specifically for working parents?

Mari: I do think there is increased demand for many more benefits. Also, from a policy perspective, although it manifests as a benefit, there is a focus around flexibility in the workplace. Now that we’ve entered into this pandemic situation, we are seeing much more concern and pressure on these kinds of benefits and policies. Largely because we are at this point in the situation where our economy cannot be fully restored until we have parents back to work. As long as schools are closed and daycares are closed, parents are going to be home and, in some cases, unable to work. So it is much much more visible than it has been in the past.

Amanda: I’ve been speaking with a number of HR professionals about the fact that this is a time where everything has been shaken up. As we return to whatever the new normal might look like, it is a great opportunity to reevaluate your values and cultures and align policies, practices, and procedures to align with those. I see this especially in the parent realm but also in the realm of well-being as all employees are evaluating what is working, what is not working, and what lessons they want to take away from this pandemic time period.

Mari: We are all learning a lot. As there is no playbook for this type of situation and we are building as we go.

Amanda: I like to end these conversations with an “imagine if” question. We know that some employers are very forward thinking and this is top of mind. Others haven’t quite come around yet. If you were to imagine a world where every company put well-being as a priority, what would that do for the world? What is it that you are dreaming of?

Mari: What a great question. Imagine if everyone were doing that! It’s interesting, I think it would make for better business. If we think of it from the employer perspective, people are going to be engaged and aligned with purpose of the organization, they’ll feel connected to the work because they feel appreciated. When someone feels appreciated, they will give back and contribute more. The employers will definitely benefit from that. The individuals will definitely benefit because they will have recognition as a whole person and what it is going to take to consider their whole life, not just their work life and how those two will integrate. They will be present and be an engaged employee at work. And overall, it would create a better planet. When we are all taking care of ourselves, when we are taking care of business, then it’s going to naturally flow to make a better planet.

Amanda: And wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing! We’d all love to see that come to fruition. Thank you for all of your work bringing this vision to reality.