Making a Difference: What's Next in Meaningful Employee Wellbeing

Blog post

Author: Rachel Druckenmiller, Director of Wellbeing, SIG

One of the most memorable experiences of my life was spending a week in Managua, Nicaragua with a group of other volunteers, partnering with an organization called ORPHANetwork that nourishes, teaches and loves on orphaned children. My husband and I spent our second anniversary there surrounded by love, laughter and community. We played and sang with the kids and community members. We taught, fed, hugged and held children we'd never met before because they were so hungry for connection and hope.

But that was only for one week.

We are now pen pals with one of the children at the orphanage and support her financially and relationally through our writing. At least once a year, our church partners with other groups in the area to send a team down to continue to build a relationship with them and demonstrate our commitment to their cause.

As anyone who volunteers or serves can attest, we benefit as much as those we serve. Volunteers experience a "helper's high"; we know how good it feels when we are doing good for others. There is power in giving back, in pouring out time and resources to those in need, and in helping to create systems so they can support themselves.

Making a difference matters.

If we're thoughtful and strategic about it, we can incorporate the power of giving back into our efforts to foster employee wellbeing and a culture of caring.

I've been in the wellness field for nearly 12 years. Since the beginning of my career, most approaches to wellness have centered around physical health and the seemingly obvious path to take to be "healthy" - eat right, exercise and don't smoke. Fortunately, in recent years, the field has shifted toward a more holistic approach to health that incorporates Gallup's five dimensions of wellbeing - career/purpose, social, physical, financial, and community. Few people are thriving in any one of those areas, much less all five.

When Gallup asked people with thriving wellbeing about the greatest contribution they had made in their life, "with few exceptions, they mentioned the impact they have had on another person, group, or community.” 

Community wellbeing, volunteering, and give back efforts have not received the same level of attention as other areas of wellbeing, but they should. We have quite a bit of evidence to support the business case for volunteerism and even have research that links volunteerism to physical health.

Everything is connected.

When we think of community wellbeing, it begins with basic aspects of security like quality drinking water and clean air and feeling physically safe where we live and work. Fortunately, most of us have those basic security needs covered, so we look at community as a feeling of fellowship with others resulting from sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. As the loneliness epidemic continues to ramp up - having a great impact on early mortality than obesity, air pollution and excessive drinking - it's more important than ever for us to be intentional about connecting with those around us and spreading goodwill.

The Business Case

In an article published in Harvard Business Review earlier this year, research conducted at Facebook was shared regarding what employees really want. One of the three was "cause":

"Cause is about purpose: feeling that you make a meaningful impact, identifying with the organization’s mission, and believing that it does some good in the world. It’s a  source of pride."

One way organizations can foster a sense of purpose and give employees the opportunity to have an impact is by supporting initiatives around giving back, paying it forward, and contributing to the wider world. Dr. Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is known as the father of positive psychology, asserts, "We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

With that perspective in mind, if we are looking to increase employee wellbeing, why are we spending so much time talking about FitBits and flu shots and almost no time talking about volunteering and giving back? Why do we not connect give back efforts into our wellbeing strategy? At many organizations, the two stand alone, but given this evidence, I would suggest we talk about them in the same conversation.

In a 2017 Deloitte Volunteerism Survey, 89% of respondents believe that companies who sponsor volunteer activities offer a better overall working environment than those who do not. What's more, 77% say company-sponsored volunteer activities are essential to employee wellbeing, and 70% believe volunteer activities are more likely to boost employee morale than company-sponsored happy hours. Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you to drop happy hours (social wellbeing, right?), but I do think these statistics help make the case that a once-a-year day of service isn't going to cut it anymore.

Doing good is good for you and your company. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, people who regularly volunteer (at least 200 hours per year), were less likely to develop hypertension, have increased psychological wellbeing, are more likely to use preventive health services, are more engaged in physical activity, have less incidence of depression and have better thinking skills. Volunteering also serves as a built-in teambuilding opportunity, can help foster stronger relationships with colleagues, enhance sense of purpose and meaning, and can even provide a way for employees to use skills and abilities.

Gallup has found a strong tie between career and community wellbeing. Giving back is a significant contributor to life fulfillment, which enhances our overall wellbeing. Based on their research:

People who are engaged in their careers are 20-30% more likely to give back to their community. Workers who were the most engaged in their jobs donated 2.6 times more than those who were not engaged in their careers

If the altruistic rationale for focusing on community wellbeing isn't resonating, think of it as a brand builder. The 2016 PwC Global CEO Survey found that 64% of CEOs are increasing investment in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) because they care about building trust with consumers, partners and their employees. One important question I would encourage you to ask yourself is: Do you know what causes matter to your leadership?

If not, ask them. Find out what is meaningful to them and why. When people have the opportunity to share stories about elements of their lives that are personally meaningful and purposeful, they come alive. Take the time to find out what causes light up your leadership.

For the past couple of years, one of our employees has been heading up an initiative called Blankets for Baltimore because of her heart for helping the homeless in Baltimore. She has collected hundreds of blankets and assembled care packages to take down to Baltimore City to distribute to those who so often go without. I posted about it on my personal Facebook page asking for donations, and a reporter from a local TV station happened to see my post and reach out to me. Within 24 hours, I had her come onsite to our company to interview Jessica Curano, who came up with the idea, along with our CEO and head of the community service team. The story was featured on the local news, which helped bring attention to a great cause and, incidentally, our company.

How to Do It

Most organizations offer their employees a day of service or some time off once a year (typically a half day to two full days) to volunteer. Given the profound impact of giving back on wellbeing, it makes sense to enhance those efforts, to make giving back more of a priority. Remember, doing an act of kindness has a greater impact on wellbeing than anything else you can do.

I would recommend being more strategic with your give-back efforts instead of just using them as a way to check the box once a year. I loved what one employee had to say in America's Charities 2014 Snapshot Report:

“Companies shouldn’t look at their work with nonprofits as transactional events but rather as building a relationship with a trusted ‘go to’ partner that is working to achieve mutual goals.”

Because people only support what they help create, I would encourage you to ask your employees what causes matter to them. Is it the military? Education? Homeless? Heart health? Cancer? Domestic violence? Human trafficking? Children? The elderly? The environment? Ask your people what they care about and find out what they are already doing in their community to give back. Maybe someone else would be interested in participating in that initiative, too, but they don't even know it's an option.

At SIG, we have three employee-led committees - community service, social, and wellbeing. Everything ultimately falls under the "culture" banner, but we have three task forces that plan and implement initiatives throughout the year. They meet on a quarterly basis to find ways to collaborate and to ensure we are not planning competing events. We survey our staff on an annual basis to find out what they want us to continue and what they'd like us to do differently in the future. We take their input to heart and let them know that our decisions are heavily influenced by their feedback. That way, when we roll something out, they feel like we are on the same team rather than doing something to them or offering something they don't care about. If you're not already doing that, I would encourage you to give it a try.

Ways to Give Back

Now more than ever, with the rise of social media and with websites like GoFundMe, we can give back to people and causes that matter to us in a matter of seconds.

In addition to have time set aside for employees to volunteer - Donate8 or Serve16 - I would invite you to map out a plan for giving back that runs throughout the year, and not just during the holidays, which is when most people tend to volunteer. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • At The Breakers, a resort hotel in Florida, the second day of new hire orientation is focused on giving back. The new team goes into the community for an event with a rotating executive because the company wants employees to give back to the community before doing their job. Could you tie give back initiatives to your new hire process?
  • Plan a give back day with your clients to show that you care about them as customers but also want to align with them to help serve the underserved.
  • Celebrate GivingTuesday. Held on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday kicks off the charitable season, when many focus on their holiday and end-of-year giving. Last year, we tied Giving Tuesday to our Blankets for Baltimore campaign and invited our clients to donate as well.
  • Donate to a Cause with Wear Red Day. We wore red, served a heart healthy lunch and brought in a woman who teaches knitting to show us how to knit the little red hats for children hospitalized with heart conditions. We even got to meet one of the patients, which was really special and made things a lot more personal.
  • Combine physical and community wellbeing by pulling together a team for a 5k, bike ride or Wounded Warrior race. We have a team participating in the Free to Breathe yoga challenge in Baltimore, which raises money for lung cancer research through a day dedicated to practicing yoga and spending time with other holistic health professionals.
  • Partner with a national organization like Junior Achievement to support youth entrepreneurship and leadership. As the daughter of two entrepreneurs and someone who went through a JA program when I was in grade school, this is a great way to combine business and give back. You can volunteer for events like Biz Town or form a team for Bowl-a-thon or Office Warriors (think office Olympics on steroids - water cooler bowling, anyone?). You can check out their website and reach out to your local rep or message me and I can connect you to mine.
  • Tell your employees about DiscoverCorps, all-inclusive nature & wildlife adventures, volunteer vacations, and cultural explorations across the globe. All trips designed for families and adults. This is a great way to combine social and community wellbeing and to promote vacations rooted in meaningful, memorable experiences.
  • Use the power of technology to connect employees to give back initiatives in their area through VolunteerMatch or DonorsChoose (raise funds for teacher projects) or GoFundMe, the #1 free fundraising platform. Lastly, if you want to modernize charitable giving, check out the newer player pinkaloo and their HSA meets Venmo approach to giving back.

If you're not already incorporating community wellbeing and volunteering into your wellbeing and culture strategy, I hope I've convinced you that it's a good idea. Community wellbeing is a key component of overall health and wellbeing, and employees are eager for opportunities to serve but many don't know where to begin. Ask your employees which causes matter to them because people only support what they help create. Try to focus on what you can do to establish ongoing relationships with certain causes rather than just doing an annual one-off event. Give your employees options for how to give back through donating their time or money. Leverage the power of technology with your give back strategy to reach even more people, especially if your company is decentralized.

Giving back is good for business, good for your health and wellbeing, and good for the community in which you live and work.

If you're looking for more ideas about how to foster a culture of giving back and would like support about how to do that at your company, send me a message. I'd love to connect.

I Want to Hear from YOU!

What does your organization do to foster a culture of giving?