Fostering a Culture of Wellbeing and Empathy During – and After – COVID-19

Tracy Layney, Chief Human Resources Officer for Levi Strauss & Co., shares her perspective on how we can make our workplaces stronger, healthier and more productive as we begin to emerge from the global pandemic.

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It’s a year that will forever be cemented as a period literally plagued with a global pandemic and fraught with social unrest, both of which rattled people to their physical and mental cores.

However, alongside the chaos of 2020 also came unexpected blessings – a chance to come together for the better good, reassess priorities and focus on what matters most while ensuring that we gave ourselves the mental space to process it all.

For me, one of these blessings has been the willingness to talk openly about mental health. Over the past year in my role as the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) of Levi Strauss & Co., I have never seen more open and authentic ways of talking about employee wellbeing and mental health in the workplace than I have in my 25 years of experience working in HR. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that these are topics leaders and organizations cannot afford to ignore.

As we look beyond the pandemic, it will be critical for organizations to continue to focus on employee wellbeing – creating a culture of empathy while implementing policies that support employees’ holistic needs. If we are honest with ourselves, our pre-pandemic ways of working did not actually work so well. Long hours, the ‘always on’ nature of technology, difficult commutes – all of this contributed to stress and burnout which impacted employees’ mental and physical health.

As we emerge from the pandemic, if we go back to the old ways of working, we will have missed the opportunity to make our workplaces stronger, healthier and more productive. So, what does this look like? And what are the steps companies can take moving forward? Below are three key learnings from this past year that can help support employees both today and into the future:

1. Prioritize your values

Most organizations have a set of stated values—at LS&Co., our values of integrity, empathy, originality and courage are the foundation of our culture. If you’re an employer or a leader looking to prioritize wellbeing in your workforce, start with your values and think about how you can lean into them.

Specifically:

  • Taking a hard look at your benefits programs and making sure your plan gives employees access to not only physical health care, but mental health care as well.
  • Prioritizing the creation an implementation of broad-based, equitable company-wide benefits like paid family leave. LS&Co. also recently expanded our bereavement policy to two weeks, giving employees more support in the face of tragedy, including pregnancy loss.
  • Investing in diversity, equity and inclusion. We consider it an imperative that we foster an atmosphere where people from all backgrounds can bring their full selves to work.
  • Partnering with top-notch experts for support, like Thrive Global that provide employees with resources to manage their wellbeing on a daily basis.

2. Lead with empathy and authenticity

Of course, we can never know all the personal challenges our employees face. And not everyone is comfortable sharing. But to open the door, we need to teach managers throughout the company how to lead with empathy – how to focus on the specific needs of each of their individual employees. This includes:

  • Leading from the heart. This doesn’t mean you’re leading without holding people accountable – you’re just doing it with empathy.
  • Leading with understanding. I try to start every conversation by saying, “How are you? Really, what’s going on? What’s happening?” When leaders provide space for these conversations, that’s when the connection happens.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all leadership style, but by making small changes in the way we communicate with our employees, we can begin to create a culture rooted in authenticity.

3. Remember to take care of yourself

Like so many of us, I have a demanding, and at times, stressful professional role. But I have a few tools in place to navigate my everyday stressors. From getting enough exercise and sleep to seeking out joy each day —we all need to prioritize our own mental health and wellbeing. I love my job and I want to have a real impact in the world – but I can only do this if I’m at my best. Like so many others, I’ve experienced burnout in my career, and I know how important it is to take consistent small, but important, steps to avoid getting there again.

We have learned so many important lessons this past year when it comes to prioritizing wellbeing. Bringing our whole selves to work will require us to keep the positive takeaways of 2020, well, top of mind.  Our employees have gotten us through this past year and it’s up to us as leaders and organizations to continue to support them as we create what will hopefully be a ‘new normal’ at work rooted in employee wellbeing.

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