In order to allow employees to work smarter, not harder, we encourage them to create a schedule that is Flexible, Intentional and Tech-Enabled. This program allows the individual to prioritize what they need in order to stay mentally fit, and to be afforded the flexibility they need to support their family and their individual needs during this time. This may mean a later start to their day to have family breakfast, a mid-day break for exercise, or a schedule that allows distance learning supervision with a split schedule.
As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Are Helping To Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Angela Gillespie.
Angela is the Chief Operating Officer of W2O, where she oversees the firm’s organizational growth and planning, Human Resources, business systems, and learning and development. Angela is a “boomerang” employee, having previously run W2O’s San Francisco office and West Coast Healthcare Practice for several years. She rejoined the firm in 2016 after a five-year hiatus where she worked in-house as a Vice President of Marketing and Market Development for several leading large-cap and start-up healthcare companies. With more than 20 years of experience in strategic healthcare marketing communications, Angela is a well-rounded and distinguished professional who infuses passion into everything she does — both in and out of the office. Angela earned an M.A. in communication management with an emphasis in strategic marketing from the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California and a B.A. in speech communication from the University of Alabama.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I started my career in consumer marketing, working on car launches, new cell phones and kid’s toys. On 9/11, I was in New York for a conference when the Twin Towers were attacked and the world — and my place in it — immediately looked and felt very different. It took me over a week to get home: first I took a four-day trip to Chicago via Greyhound bus, then I rented a car and drove to Oklahoma where my father had driven from Los Angeles to meet me. On that trip, I had a lot of time alone to think about what I wanted to do with my life, what these life-changing events meant, and what I wanted to do to contribute in a positive way to the world when so many were suffering.
I began doing research and found a firm solely focused on healthcare, which I found inspiring. The firm was willing to take a chance on me, and I promised to help them shape their plans to go direct to patients based on my knowledge of consumer engagement. I spent the better part of a year with an anatomy book under my arm going from meeting to meeting. I took that role in April 2002 — and believe each day that I work in this business a life is impacted. 9/11 gave me a life that I believe is “work worth doing.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I have had many interesting twists and turns in my career, but one of the most pivotal moments was when I decided to “tap out” and give myself a mid-career sabbatical. I had reached a point where I began to feel one-dimensional: I was living to work and not working to live. I had no work-life integration and had not trained myself that life is a marathon and not a sprint.
After a lot of restless nights, and conversations with my husband, we made the choice to take a year off. We sold our home, I took out a student loan, and I pursued my love of science — but in a very different form. I enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu’s Patisserie and Baking program and spent a year understanding the science and art of baking — 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 11 months. It gave me time to enjoy working with my hands, creating, inventing, brainstorming, exploring new concepts and flavors, new chemical reactions that when put together could either create something dismal or something new and wonderful. It was a challenge to use my brain in a different way, but it also gave me the pause I needed to learn how fulfilling my soul with passion wasn’t really work at all, but created a life well intended.
I knew I had a gift for blending art and science, and my career in healthcare communications was just that. I love using my communications skills to translate complex problems into easy-to-digest concepts, and I can “feed” people what they need to live a healthier life. The year away taught me that my passion really was around creating change in the world through writing and that I love mixing art with science just as much as I love mixing communication with medicines. I had to step away from work (and run up debt) to understand that I had to be passionate for my work to fulfill me.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Waking up at the office had the potential to wreak havoc on my separation of work and home. I could have easily fallen into the pit of being “always on” and working through nights and weekends, but I fully hold firm boundaries (where possible) in order to focus on self, family and work in healthy proportions, and I encourage my industry colleagues to do the same.
As a working mother of two very active boys, I have found this year to be a complete 180. All of our plans have been put on hold, my travel has come to a complete stop, and we are home — all of us together — all the time. It was important for me to create discrete boundaries and to look at all the silver linings. First, I realized I needed to prioritize my self-care in order to support my immediate family, my extended family, and my employee “family.” I blocked my calendar to make sure I would prioritize exercise, family meals, distance learning support, and my career, and I am committed to focusing on each during their respective time. Additionally, my assistant books “Zoom-less” calls on Fridays so I have at least one day where I don’t have to be “camera-ready.” This schedule has supported my physical health and mental health on a daily basis.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
For any leader looking to create or grow their culture, I would suggest they start with their employees and never stray from servicing their employees’ needs and contributions.
We have been so fortunate at W2O to have an executive leadership team that is focused on an employee-first culture, and dare I say, even more so since we went completely virtual. Leaving our offices to work from home didn’t mean putting aside our care for each employee and their needs. Our cultural approach has always been to care about the individual. The support we are providing is less about the work itself than it is about making sure our employees have what they need in order to do the work they are passionate about. Infrastructure support programs that help provide support for employees and their families, coaching and professional development, transparency into the health of our business, and an understanding that we are all challenged right now allows us to continue to communicate and collaborate to best serve our clients during this challenging time.
We survey our staff frequently to make sure we are addressing their current needs, and we are using creativity to bring programs to light that extend our long hallway into each of their homes, creating an infrastructure for each employee to thrive.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
As a young professional, I was taught that “Playing it safe is for sidewalks and swimming pools. Take the risk — what do you really have to lose?” That has stayed with me and guided my career through epic failures (of which I’ve had many), but also incredible successes. As I approach any tough decision, I always ask myself, “Will I play it safe? Or will I take the risk?” This simple question gives me the power to be brave — be bold — and to take the big chances on myself. That is where I believe we find the defining difference between having a great life and an exceptional one.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives you have taken to help improve or optimize your employees mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
W2O recognized early on that we were going to need to ramp up our already robust benefits to account for the extreme pressure our people are facing. With the help of some passionate W2Oers — and incredible support from leadership — we were able to quickly offer the following:
- W2O F.I.T.: In order to allow employees to work smarter, not harder, we encourage them to create a schedule that is Flexible, Intentional and Tech-Enabled. This program allows the individual to prioritize what they need in order to stay mentally fit, and to be afforded the flexibility they need to support their family and their individual needs during this time. This may mean a later start to their day to have family breakfast, a mid-day break for exercise, or a schedule that allows distance learning supervision with a split schedule.
- Mental Health Support Offerings: While employees have access to mental health benefits through our health benefits provider, we realized that a commitment to a therapist may not be for everyone right now. We provide additional support so employees can schedule up to three completely confidential tele-counseling sessions with our in-house licensed clinical social worker. We also provide employees (and their dependents) with the Modern Health app for six coaching sessions per year and six therapy sessions per year. Modern Health also provides unlimited access to a suite of helpful meditations and programs.
- W2O Families: An employee-led Employee Resource Group (ERG), W2O Families serves as a forum for working parents to discuss opportunities and challenges and learn from one another. W2O Families also offers support, resources and opportunities for families of W2O to help them integrate key facets of their lives — career, self, family, community — in a healthy and sustainable way. This ERG has offered ongoing programming in recent months to give parents a break from being “Chief Entertainment Officer,” including learning sessions, improvisation, story time, music and a Navigating Parenting in a Pandemic panel event.
- W2O Tutoring: In partnership with Sylvan Learning, W2O is offering a new program to support parents of school-aged children (K-12) who are now navigating the additional task of distance learning. W2O employees can get discounted (and subsidized) tutoring for their children across multiple subjects. And for every hour our employees purchase, Sylvan is donating tutoring to underserved communities through partners like the Boys and Girls Club to help address the education divide.
- Access the Light Mindful Meditation: We offer two live 30-minute group meditation sessions weekly. We also offer one-on-one sessions on demand for those who prefer individual sessions. Each session offers time to breathe and connect in a way that helps our employees better focus throughout the workday.
What you are doing is wonderful, but sadly it is not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
First, you have to start by truly listening to your employees. For the most part, our programs and initiatives are the result of our people coming to leadership with an idea for a new program or offering. That level of entrepreneurship and “make it happen” attitude is something we actively encourage. When your employees feel invested in the programs you’re offering — because they helped launched them — they’ll also serve as the biggest champions of getting the word out and engaging their colleagues.
Second, our leaders really “walk the walk” … and that is intentional. We’re constantly reminding our employees to practice “self-care” during our Town Halls with W2O Founder and CEO Jim Weiss. Our leaders are also some of the biggest users of the programs we’ve launched … from joining the meditations and using our Modern Health app to helping with programming for W2O Families. I find that having leaders involved encourages employees to take advantage of the resources being offered to them.
From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?
First, I would say it is okay to not be okay. Previous coping mechanisms are being tested, and as humans, I hope we can all support each other in the ways we each need. That is how I am approaching my work and the support of our employees. What does each individual need now and what will we need to support them in the future? I am removing my projection of their needs and replacing it with the support each individual actually needs.
Second, we are in uncharted territory, and typical resilience is also being tested. Active listening, empathy, compassion and being of service to others is guiding how I engage with personal and professional colleagues. I think our urge is to “fix” … but maybe the best we can do is to validate others, give them space, and work through these challenges together.
Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?
For me, the most important habit has been establishing boundaries: dedicating time to work out for physical health; honoring family time, nights and weekend for mental health; working on the work worth doing and working smarter not harder for professional health; and maintaining perspective through it all. I am a caregiver for my husband and children, but also for my parents. I can’t help them if I don’t put on my own oxygen mask first.
Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?
I have walked the walk — utilizing the Modern Health app and Access the Light meditation offerings that W2O makes available to all our employees. Making sure I prioritize my mental health and wellness has been key to maintaining clarity when I feel overwhelmed or ill-prepared to deal with the next challenge thrown at me. I also focus on my physical health through good nutrition and exercise. I’ve lost weight, feel great, and am physically stronger to face the emotional challenges. I also try to make time for “deep sitting” over the weekends. Just shutting down my thoughts, being present and in the moment, re-focusing myself for even a short time has helped energize me.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Together is Better, a Little Book of Inspiration by Simon Sinek is one of my favorite easy reads. I’ve used it many times in coaching my teams and working to scale my leaders. It focuses on the premise that leadership is not a rank or position to be attained; leadership is a service to be given — with leaders thinking of themselves as the students and not the teachers. Unlocking people’s potential and exciting them to think bigger, differently and uniquely together has always led to some of the most inspirational work my teams have produced.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Rather than starting a movement, I am focused on actively participating in a burgeoning movement to restore soil health. Given my love for health and food, it probably isn’t a stretch that I’m also an avid gardener. I have a large portion of my kitchen dedicated to growing hydroponic vegetables, a large herb garden on my deck in the spring and summer months, and thanks to a summer of sheltering in place, an enormous garden and greenhouse in my yard that I installed with my family. Another COVID-19 silver lining.
While I know my gardening project alone isn’t going to change Earth’s atmosphere, I believe education and evangelism is a crucial step toward reversing climate change. I am currently participating in an 8-week class with a cohort of other students training to become soil advocates through the Kiss the Ground non-profit organization. Regenerating farmland offers an option to reverse the damage we’ve done by offering mentorship, soil testing and financial assistance to help train farmers to adopt regenerative practices. Living in the country in Minnesota gives me an opportunity to marry my love for science, food, communication and catalyzing people to create change — to ensure a healthier planet for my boys and their future. Win-Win.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
You can always check out what we’re doing to help make the world a healthier place by visiting w2ogroup.com or following me or W2O on LinkedIn. Our What2Know podcast just crossed the 150-episode milestone and speaks to our culture as well.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!