Chicago Booth Magazine
Lighting the Way toward Employee Well-Being
A majority of executives recognize the need to prioritize employees’ mental health and well-being—but few know where to start. Greg Hodge, ’16 (EXP-21), shared how leaders across industries can push past “wellness washing” and light the way toward meaningful change.
So much about how Greg Hodge, ’16 (EXP-21), chooses to understand and embrace the new norms born out of the global pandemic can be directly attributed to his time at Chicago Booth.
“For me Booth has largely been about the strategies to really help with my career and build out other muscles,” he explained. “It has been the general strong, hard-core math background or statistical background that just helps you solve problems. But it has also been the leadership and the softer skills that have really given me a way of thinking about things.”
Hodge pointed out as an example the herd mentality of people hoarding toilet paper in the early stages of the pandemic. “If I look back to the Essentials of Executive Leadership class [taught by Nicholas Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and a Neubauer Family Faculty Fellow], we learned a lot about behavioral science and behavioral economics, and a lot more about people,” Hodge said. “It’s about an ability to see things from other people’s point of view, an ability to lead with empathy and try to understand why people may make choices that don’t seem rational to you.”
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.
“Ninety-four percent of leaders said they should be focused on well-being—but only 14 percent felt prepared to tackle it.”
— Greg Hodge
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: As you just touched on, there’s been a bit of a stigma about employees asking for help with mental health because it could affect their standing within the company. Are you seeing that erode because of the pandemic?
Hodge: I think that’s certainly eroded. COVID-19, in a way, has leveled the playing field more than ever before, because in any other situation, people would be experiencing something different. But it doesn’t really matter if you live in a multimillion-dollar mansion or in a single flat, right? Either way, for the most part, you’ve been isolated with a limited number of people.
Now, of course, wealth can mean that you have more comfortable surroundings. But ultimately, everyone, for the first time, has been sharing a very, very similar experience.
Before, you may have been going through something in your personal life that you weren’t comfortable sharing, because it was individual to you, and it might have been hard for bosses and leaders to be empathetic, as they simply don’t know what they can’t see. Whereas now, I think it’s really opened the door for how employers can understand what people are going through. So I do think people have been more understanding.
I still think there’s a gap around emotional health and mental health as an issue, and what do we do about it? Because employers may look and say, “We’ve got all these tools. We have gym memberships. We have help lines. We have support networks. We’ve got a buddy system at work. We’ve got all these tools set up.” But they’re asking, “What is the next step? What’s the next thing we should be doing?”
CBM: Is proximity the biggest issue facing the employee-employer relationship?
Hodge: Yes. You’ve heard the question, “Are you working at home or sleeping at work?” And that’s kind of the reality, in that people are so attached because of technology. It’s hard in terms of letting people step away and unplug. But it’s also hard in terms of building culture and engaging with people, because you can’t see someone in the office. You can’t connect. You’re having to do that virtually. That means leaders are having to learn new muscles. They’re having to think differently about how they reach out. You have to be more serendipitous.
A lot of leaders we’ve spoken to feel that they’re closer to their teams than ever before because they’re able to reach more people in one engagement. You have big international manufacturers who would have to go to lots and lots of factories to speak to people on the floor, and suddenly they’re able to reach people whom they were never able to reach before, and their engagement levels are going up. But I do think physical distance is still a bit of an issue in terms of culture; companies are trading off the culture they have already built.
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.
“Leaders are having to learn new muscles. They’re having to think differently about how they reach out.”
— Greg Hodge
CBM: Some people may wonder, is it the job of the employer to play Big Brother when it comes to their employees’ well-being, something you address in your paper as “wellness washing.” Can you explore this more?
Hodge: I think this is the one that interests me most, having been to Booth, having been taught by Richard Thaler [the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics, and a 2017 Nobel laureate], and having read Nudge (2008) and his other books with great interest. I think libertarian paternalism—the idea that it is both possible and legitimate for institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice—is an interesting concept when it comes to lots of aspects of life. But particularly, as an employer, you have a duty of care for your employees, and I think businesses need to learn this and find the right balance of when they can step in and take that duty of care and that paternalism on and when they can’t. As it pertains to emotional or mental health, when you are incentivized by financial goals, when you’re incentivized by bonuses, when you have targets, there’s always going to be a need to work more and do more. In many organizations, more work, or hard work, is viewed as the output. That’s always going to be in conflict with employees’ emotional and mental health.
But I think what companies are starting to realize is that if they are able to increase the well-being of their employees, they can increase their overall output, and they will be more successful. You’re going to see organizations start thinking about no-meeting days. On Fridays you may not have any external meetings or internal meetings. You might have Wednesdays when you don’t have any video on Zoom. Your company might build tools into your calendar that prevent people from scheduling meetings outside of work hours on specific days.
We’re going to have to start with the tactical staff and then think about, “What are the most strategic things that we do? How do we think about our business in terms of mental health days or space or other tools that just give people a break?” If you look at the financial industry in the United Kingdom, many employers include a mandatory two-week holiday in employee contracts. They do this because they believe two weeks of having no access to your systems is enough time for the company to spot any fraudulent activity.
For their employees, that’s fantastic, because they have two weeks where they literally can’t work, where they literally can’t have access to their email, where they can’t have access to their systems. They get 14 days of a clean break, and many of them say that’s great for mental health. That’s great for their own well-being; I really think more companies will head in that direction in the future.