The four things I learned about employee wellbeing by taking time to reconnect
by Dale Smith
Mental health and employee wellbeing is more on the agenda than ever before, but we still have a long way to go to ensure that this issue is better understood, with an estimated 137 million working days lost due to sickness or injury in the UK in 2016. From this figure, 11.5% cited mental health issues (including stress, depression, anxiety and serious conditions). This is a staggering number and one that I believe could be better supported with more awareness and prevention.
Not long ago I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Portugal at a mindfulness, meditation and yoga retreat. The objective of the retreat was to find more compassion for both self and others and it took us on a journey to a collective community of happiness and contentment. This was my first retreat and I definitely had to go with an open mind and a willingness to embrace a personal transformation. I wanted to share some of my experience in support of others who are working toward creating a wellness culture in their work environment.
The retreat began with a welcome meeting and meditation and set the tone for the week ahead. It gave all participants the information needed and an opportunity to feel comfortable with both the agenda and the community of people that we would share the experience with.
Learning #1: Don’t forget the importance of a great induction programme, as it too plays a massive role in the way employees start their connection with the community in which they will be working. This is their first step to feeling supported and it often sets the pace as they mean to go on. Having worked on various induction programmes I have always been a huge advocate for striking a balance between a clear company overview and allowing employees to feel excited and supported by the brand. It should delve into the values of the company, give insight into the culture and community and give participants a sense of belonging.
The introduction to the retreat left us with a sense of compassion; this allows employees to experience a deeper connection with the company. This is best placed in the live environment while new starters learn their role at a pace that allows them to feel more at ease. The pressure to get things right from the offset can continue to build throughout the earlier days of employment and impact of employees’ perception going forward.
I went into those early meditations with so much work stress and chaos in my mind that I felt like I was on the verge of exploding. I pushed myself so hard to try to meditate and master it quickly, that it just added to the pressure. The harder I pushed, the further I got from achieving what I desired. It was not until I discussed this in our open group session that I realised that I was not alone and that it was okay not to be okay. The community’s support and openness allowed me to be safe in my vulnerability and gave me the reassurance that it would happen when it was right. The intent of the group was pure and in that I felt more relaxed and less pressure to succeed. From this state, success was easier.
Learning #2: Create a more open and supportive community – one where it is okay not to be okay. The retreat aimed to show individuals how to have more compassion for self in a more productive and healthy manner. The compassion of the community gave me the calm and the wiliness to relax and ride my stress wave in a very different way. Stress and depression are debilitating and a negative spiral can further exacerbate a pre-existing condition. Whether it is physical, like an unhealthy diet or lack of exercise, or mental in terms of negative thoughts and self-talk – all can be better managed with the support of others.
I feel truly blessed that I was able to take this opportunity and I am still astounded by what I achieved in such a short period of time. My ability to manage many areas of my life were positively impacted; finding a more focused and honest approach to my own emotions and stress levels.
My time at the retreat allowed me to stretch both my mind and body in new ways but it was all connected to a higher sense of purpose and support of self and the community. Days began with 8 am yoga, breakfast in silence, three hours of meditation and group work, followed by an additional 90 minutes of yoga and meditation before bed.
Learning #3: Support future work by building more high-functioning and supportive teams. Prior to the retreat, I often struggled to find the time or energy to make it to the gym or yoga class, however, within the retreat culture, I never missed one session. It was within this collective that I found the desire to find a higher sense of commitment.
I truly loved the mindfulness aspect of the week and took great solace in our breakfast in silence. This even extended to a full 24 hours of silence and ban on all communications (including verbal, physical, and technological, such as email and phones). At first, the mere thought of this challenge occurring while the team in London was caught up in a busy workweek was almost debilitating. But I made it through – and it was phenomenal. If you are ever given the chance, try it. I would highly recommend it to anyone.
Learning #4: It is impractical to think that we can run a business where we can choose to be silent for the day. However, it is not without question to introduce more mindful moments to our work life, whether that is self-led or set as a company directive by introducing sanctuary space that allows people to just be for short periods of time.
Something happened during that week that is very hard to explain, however it was clear that a transformation had taken place. I reached a state of happiness and calm and my brain was clearer than it had ever been. Emerging neuroscience reveals that following your passion and doing what you love makes you happier and stronger; mentally and emotionally – and from a chemical rather than philosophical view. Two of the brain’s most powerful neurotransmitters – dopamine and oxytocin – are connected in rewarding and reinforcing the exploration and connection required in the pursuit of passion.If I could rebalance these two chemicals to go from the stressed individual that entered the retreat to a smiling, calm content person in just a week – then just imagine what could happen if we started looking at more long-term sustainable solutions that support employees every day.
I’m not suggesting we have to go away for such an intense or extreme tune-up. If organisations made even small changes to the way they view and support the mental health of their employees, we could better the lives of many people. It could mean matching the parallels that I experienced with practical solutions: guided meditation, coaching, mindful meals, downtime sanctuaries, yoga, encouraging more exercise and healthy food in the workplace. The culture also needs to give employees the license to not always be okay, to let them know that there is a compassionate and caring organisation open and willing to support them.