This guest post was written by Natalie Khoo, Founder and Director of Avion Communications.
As a business owner, I know firsthand what it’s like to burn the candle at both ends. There’s constant pressure to juggle clients, staff, operations, and your bottom line. When you’re at the top of the chain, there’s no safety net—you do what you can to keep things moving and promise yourself a vacation when you get the time.
But I also know this is not sustainable. During times of stress, I’ve:
I do not wish this on anyone. All work and no play damage your productivity, and often, your self-esteem. If you’re a manager reading this article, I know you feel me.
For these reasons, I prioritize employee well-being at work. The last thing I want is my team losing mindfulness and making the same mistakes. I want them to be happy. Their well-being has a direct impact on business performance.
If you’re a leader looking for new ways to support employee well-being, I’ve listed some practical examples and strategies based on my experience, below.
This is about knowing how to communicate with employees in a way they feel heard and understood—and sharing your expectations in a way that makes sense to them.
I was conducting a performance review of one of my employees. They were so good at their job, that I felt I didn’t have much to say. Unfortunately, their ‘Love Language’ was 'words of affirmation' (mine is 'acts of service'). By glossing over their contribution and going straight to areas for improvement, I’d inadvertently made them feel insignificant.
In this scenario, I had forgotten to apply my understanding of personality types at work. Had I acted with emotional intelligence (rather than the clock) in mind, I could’ve avoided this conflict. Upon reflecting, I also remembered this approach would help me find the right words to motivate team members one-on-one.
This is about understanding the influence you have over other people’s frame of mind—and that means knowing what to say, when to say it, and how you say it.
We’re all busy. So busy that sometimes we want to just want to Slack someone, or whip up an email and ship it out so the task is no longer on our to-do list. But this can backfire. We all want our employees to be productive and there’s nothing worse than non-urgent distractions.
I recently made a company-wide announcement about changes to a client contract. While I normally prefer to share news in person, COVID-19 and working in a different time zone meant I had to communicate via email. The next morning, instead of seeing virtual high-fives in my inbox, I had questions and concerns. I’d not provided enough detail or explained the impact—and subsequently, some team members were very rattled.
In hindsight, I should’ve taken the time to better describe the changes, and contact the employees affected individually. Such a gesture would’ve made them feel more at ease.
This is about tapping into what employees really want: recognition.
My favorite authority on all things staff motivation is Dan Ariely, prolific public speaker and Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. In a famous pizza experiment, he promises employees one of these at the end of their day: cash, pizza, or a compliment from their boss. Lo and behold, the group that received compliments outperformed the rest.
As previously mentioned, I’m not naturally a ‘words of affection’ person, so I struggle with this. But if you can find ways to make it work (while being 100% genuine), it does have a huge impact. An approach we’ve implemented is setting up a virtual 'love jar' channel on Slack where people can give props to each other. I also encourage employees to name who they are grateful for in our weekly team meetings. That way, peers can thank each other for their support that week—it’s not just unidirectional from me to them.
This is about acknowledging that you can’t improve the health and happiness of your staff without asking them first—and sometimes the best feedback is anonymous.
I’m sometimes asked what business owners can do to boost positivity at work. Usually, I reply with: “Have you asked your employees directly?” And I get a sheepish response.
Often, managers are afraid of hearing things they don’t want to hear. But this is dangerous. Without conversations about what makes individual team members tick, you risk wasting time and resources—not to mention, a drop in output as the emotional investment in their work plummets.
In reaching out to employees, be mindful there’s no one-size-fits-all. Some prefer to bury themselves in projects. Others like to withdraw completely. Some prefer to be more involved. Others like space to do their work.
This is not just about giving people permission to take time off if they need it, but proactively prioritizing mental health when you know someone deserves it.
I’ve read tons of literature on the impacts of infinite vacation time offered by many tech companies, but the reality is that employees can feel insecure and awkward about self-nominating themselves for extended breaks.
At Avion, we have a mental health policy that if someone needs to take personal leave, they may do so without judgment or a medical certificate. And we don’t wait until someone’s burned out, we see how hard someone has been working and we put it into their schedule.
We also have an Employee Assistance Program, which offers free confidential clinical counseling to staff members when they request it. This has been critical in 2020. Some use it more than others, but everyone is reassured knowing the service is there.
The team also incorporates quirky routines that make everyone accountable for self-care. For example, we have 'Wellness Wednesdays' in which employees report what they’re doing that day for themselves. It could be going for a run or making quality time to chill on the couch with a tub of ice cream.
This is about remembering that your employees look up to you, and they don’t want to be seen as taking advantage at work.
I’m a workaholic and can often get swept away with unexpected tasks that eat into my time off. But mental health initiatives are useless if you do not participate. I have recognized that if I don’t set the standard for being bright-eyed every morning, no one else does. They show solidarity by putting in extra hours as well.
While I appreciate this, it can impact their positivity and performance at work—and this is exactly what I need to avoid when I’m the one literally running on fumes.
With businesses trying to navigate a global health crisis, there has never been more pressure for managers to ensure their teams perform. Yet, employee mental health is simultaneously taking center stage.
I believe work and well-being go hand-in-hand; the secret is getting the balance right—and it all starts from the top down. I hope you can find meaning in my experiences and strategies in a way that works for your team.
Natalie Khoo is the Founder & Director of Avion, an independent global content strategy and copywriting agency in Melbourne, Austin, and London. Having made all the mistakes since 2009, she’s passionate about sharing her learnings with others on a similar career journey.
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