Employee wellbeing is profitable

The other day I had the pleasure of attending a presentation held by Professor Guy Ahonen. Guy is an expert on workplace wellbeing and I had really been looking forward to his presentation since his research is so closely related to my research on opting out and in. One of the things I have found in my research is that opting out and in can have an immense positive effect on wellbeing. And what I want to do with this knowledge is help organizations create sustainable working models and cultures where individuals won’t feel the need to opt out to achieve this sense of wellbeing that so many seem to be missing today.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The presentation was great; Guy’s research is pretty mind-blowing.

Through his research, Guy has managed to show that not only is employee wellbeing important in order for a company to do well, but it is so important that it should be considered strategic. The thing that makes this research so amazing is that not only does he show that wellbeing has a direct effect on performance and productivity, he does so in real numbers, in actual money. In other words, he has an ability to translate his research into a language that organizations really can understand, and to show them exactly how much money they would actually save if they work on increasing employee wellbeing. And let me tell you, we’re talking about a lot of money.

The research is based on data from companies in the Nordic countries, but they can be translated to other companies as well. What Guy and his team have done is collect data from companies on costs directly related to illness in the workplace. These include things like cost of injury, sick leave, and early retirement (and opting out I might add). It turns out that during the past couple of decades the cost of mental illness has skyrocketed, which may be due to mental illness thankfully becoming less of a taboo in society, but also, no doubt, due to things like constant restructuring and job insecurity. In fact, the Kelly Global Workforce Index shows that over 50% of all workers in the world are unhappy mostly due to these very reasons.

Well, the cost of illness in society is huge. In Finland it was about half of the state budget in 2012, which is mind-boggling. All costs aren’t work related, naturally, but the effect this has on individuals’ ability to work productively is substantial.

So what Guy and his team did was study companies that strategically and specifically targeted employee illness in order not to just minimize costs but also to get to the bottom of what the problem actually was and fix it. The savings these companies made was six times the savings made by companies that didn’t treat wellbeing as a strategic issue. You’ll have to read his book and report for exact numbers, but the implications are tremendous. Companies can save huge amounts by focusing on their employees’ wellbeing.

This is all fine and dandy and all companies in their right minds should obviously jump at this opportunity right away. But there is one thing that bothers me, one nagging thing at the back of my mind.

The thing that bothers me is the very argument that companies should care about their employees’ wellbeing because it is profitable. We argue this way because companies’ raison d´être is to constantly increase productivity and profit, and by speaking to this we (hopefully) get them on board. This is also true for gender equality or diversity initiatives. By showing companies that it is good for productivity and profit (which it is) we hope they will work at becoming more gender equal and inclusive.

But what happens if it stops being profitable? What happens if companies realize that it isn’t as profitable as promised, or that they are doing well enough as it is and the cost of turning their corporate culture around just isn’t worth it?

That is not okay. Caring about wellbeing, and making sure that employees don’t suffer, is a moral and ethical issue that cannot be reduced only to questions of productivity and profit. Making sure that half the population (women that is) have the same rights and possibilities to advance in their careers, not to mention people of different cultures, races, and sexual orientations, is not something we can do only if we feel like it or if it is worth our while. It is absolutely essential and anything else is immoral, unethical, and just wrong. Regardless of whether or not it is profitable.

How can we get organizations to understand that?

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Opting out or a strategic career move?

‘Opting out’ as a term is actually quite misleading. It started out as a debate about women who leave their successful careers, but has since come to represent so much more. I joined the debate in 2009 because I felt it was missing important contemporary aspects and since then, research has shown that it is not only about women and most of the time it isn’t about leaving working life altogether either. Still this is the term we use to debate this phenomenon, and every now and then someone points out to me what an inadequate term it really is. And they are right because it kind of sounds like dropping out instead of making a lifestyle or career change, which is what people who opt out of their successful careers usually do. People with careers rarely leave them to do nothing. Most of the people who opt out rather choose to leave a certain expected career path or way of working in order to organize their lives on different and more sustainable terms.

So yes, I do agree that as a term opting out is a bit inadequate, which is why I rather talk about ‘opting in’. I mean we know a lot about why it is people leave, but not so much about what they choose to do instead, which is very valuable information – both for people who are looking for a change, but also for employees who want to know what it is people look for in their professional lives.

By now I’ve been researching opting out and in and alterative solutions for work for years. Although I am an expert on opting out and in, I’m not an opting out coach and I always feel a bit at a loss when people approach me and ask how exactly they should go about opting out and in. And a lot of people do.

The thing is, opting out and in can be hard since imagining an alternative is difficult. It can feel like stepping out into the unknown, which it often is. Therefore the narratives I collect of people who opt out and in often contain stories of crises that have pushed them to make a change and to overcome the uncertainty of the unknown. And you can’t very well tell people to have a crisis and everything will sort itself out, because sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously there must be a better way; I just haven’t really had any tools to offer.

But then I started reading a book written by a person I have gotten to know through my blog. Monika Janfelt used to be an academic but opted out of academia to become a career coach and an expert on talent and career development. We have sort of made similar journeys but in opposite directions, and whenever we meet we always have a lot to talk about. And when we do I’m always struck by how much we have in common. We deal with similar issues in our work, just out of different perspectives.

Her book Karriere – kunsten at flytte sig (loosely translated: Career – the art of moving) was a revelation for me. I like her writing style. She bases her writing on research, she has a very pragmatic and systematic approach, and she is obviously very knowledgeable. But the revelation I had was that although ‘opting out’ as a term may be somewhat catchy and attractive to someone who is just sick of his or her current job situation and desperately wants to move on, what we’re really talking about is a career transition.

According to Monika, career transitions (of which opting out can be seen as one type) are something that we are going to have to get better at going into the future, since they are going to become an increasingly important part of our professional lives. But instead of creating a greater sense of insecurity, she argues that by building our career transition competencies (knowing ourselves and being able to drive our career changes) we can actually gain more control and influence over our lives (which is exactly what people who opt out and in are looking for).

And the good news is, unlike me, Monika has the tools to facilitate this change. Instead of jumping out into the unknown, if you want to know how to go about opting out and in, you should be in touch with her. Click here for more information.

Her book is in Danish, but I sincerely hope she will publish an English translation soon, because this book is definitely worth a read. In the meantime you can contact her directly. In addition to Danish she also coaches in English and in Swedish. For those of you who want to make a change but are at a loss as to how, this might be a solution for you!

Open your mind, there are worlds out there just waiting to be discovered

One of the misconceptions of opting out is that it is forever. Like any career transition, the work solutions we opt in to are anchored in time and space. What feels like the right solution depends on where you are and the challenges you’re dealing with at that particular time.

Opting out and in comes with a lot of soul searching. When you go through a life change you invariably spend time thinking about what’s important to you and where you want to go in life, which is a good thing. More people should. However, this is also a continuous process, because just like your career or lifestyle solutions, it is also tied to time and space. So you have to go back and keep reminding yourself what your terms are and check that they are still valid. I think once you’ve started a habit of of self-reflection, you don’t stop. And if you’ve been through something that pushed you to make a lifestyle change, you want to make sure that you don’t end up in that same situation again.

This is true for me. I think a lot about what I want to do, where I want to go from here. What was the perfect solution for me a few years ago as I opted out and in might not be anymore, but that doesn’t worry me. I know that situations change and needs change and that is fine. As a matter of fact, change is probably the only constant we have, and in a way I find that comforting. I find comfort in the knowledge that things will inevitably evolve, not matter what the situation.

But as I reflect over my choices, and the lifestyle changes I made as I opted in to academia, there is one thing in particular that I am especially grateful for. Working on a PhD really opened my mind. And I’m not talking about the actual research now, although obviously that opened my mind too. I’m talking about the insight I got into the fact that there really are different ways of living and working, there is no one right way to make a living.

Let me explain. Before I opted out, all I knew was what I had experienced. I had always worked in an organizational setting, and I didn’t really know of any other way of making a living. I sometimes longed to but I couldn’t imagine it. That’s why opting out can be so scary, because it means taking a step into the unknown. But after I did, I started to realize just how many people there are out there who work completely differently with different routines and different ideals, and that it can be done, that I can do it too.

And I think it is thanks to this insight that I have actually realized yet another dream.

I have always loved to paint and one of my passions has been silk painting. I’ve been doing it on and off for years, and took it up more actively after I finished my PhD (all of a sudden I wasn’t finalizing a thesis every waking moment and had free time to fill). I always had this, what I thought was a frivolous and completely unrealistic, dream of being an artist but I never really thought it was something that could happen, because I just didn’t know how to. I couldn’t imagine the lifestyle. Well something magical happened a few months ago. I was asked if I was willing to sell some of my silk paintings, and I was absolutely thrilled and definitely willing. The thought of my paintings adorning someone’s wall instead of gathering dust in my study felt great. And that someone wanted to buy something I had created without the help of publishers and copyeditors etc., was simply amazing.

This inspired me to start painting more and to start an Instagram account for my silk painting (with the help of and a small push from my wonderful daughter). I’m not going to quit my day job or anything, but I guess I can sort of say that I’m an artist now too. At least I’m a ‘silk painter of Instagram’. And I honestly think I never would have done this had I not been open to different ideas of what constitutes work.

So my wish for you this holiday season is open your minds. Realize that there are worlds out there that stretch beyond your imagination, and if you just dare to venture out there they are waiting to be discovered. Just because you can’t imagine them yet, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in the New Year with new blog posts.

Oh, and if you’re curious, you’ll find my Instagram account under @ingrids_silk_painting.

I’ll wear whatever the hell I want

I thought we weren’t doing that anymore; telling women over a certain age what they can and cannot wear. I thought we had already stipulated that people can and should wear whatever they please. But apparently I was wrong.

Last week I didn’t see just one but two posts (suggested to me by Facebook’s generous and thoughtful algorithms – I think someone thinks I’m getting old…) in my Facebook newsfeed on fashion mistakes women must avoid as they age. One was for women over the age of fifty and the other I don’t remember exactly but it was for women older than that. According to these posts’ expert advice, the fashion mistakes you might make will either make you look old or frumpy or both. But at the same time you must look your age and avoid garments made for much younger women, because that will just make you look ridiculous.

This isn’t the first time I see advice like this. Last time I got fashion advice in my newsfeed it was things women over 30 should wear, and I’ve also seen fashion warnings for women over 40. At the time, it was followed by an outpouring of articles, columns, and blog posts protesting this preposterous advice, assuring anyone who cared that not only should women wear “whatever the f*** they want”, they also do. Countless pictures of fabulous old ladies breaking so-called fashion rules and wearing whatever they wanted were shared on social media, and I somehow naïvely thought that was the end of that. We had proven that advice on what you can or cannot wear is not just uninteresting and from an era long past, it is also simply not wanted. But apparently I was wrong.

The thing is – and I can’t believe that I have to spell this out – everyone is different. People look different and different things are flattering on different people. But not everyone even cares about that. For some people other things go before fashion, like comfort or practicality, and besides, what is flattering and fashionable is a very subjective thing, as well as varying, depending on time and place. But either way, when people wear what makes them comfortable and what they like, it makes them feel good about themselves and confident in their skin. That is much more becoming that wearing something you don’t like and ending up spending all day feeling uncomfortable and inadequate just because it falls into the category must wear for someone your age.

And consider this, do you ever see intricate lists for men of what not to wear after certain ages?

Enough said. Stop with the ageist fashion dos and don’ts already. Besides, I’m going to wear whatever the hell I want.

The shocking truth

I’ve experienced something important lately; something I am convinced will finally make a difference.

I belong to a minority; I am a Swedish speaking Finn. That means I am a Finnish citizen, but my mother tongue is Swedish. Of a total population of about 5.5 million Finns, there are about 300 000 people with Swedish as their native language. That is about 6%.

A couple of weeks ago five women from this minority started something big. They felt frustrated by the silence in our community after the #metoo campaign. Although countless women had participated in #metoo and shared experiences of sexual harassment and assault on social media, it didn’t really lead anywhere in our community. It kind of died out and these five women decided something had to be done. In such a small community, where a lot of people know or know of each other, it’s hard to speak out. So they decided to start a private Facebook group and invite as many women as possible to share their experiences of sexual assault and harassment within this Swedish speaking community.

I was added to the group quite early on and just within a couple of days the group grew to over 20 000 members from around the country. That is about 13% of all Swedish-speaking women (and girls) in Finland. Let that sink in for a second, 13% of the women felt this was so important they wanted to be involved. That’s a lot.

People started sharing their stories, many of which they had never breathed a word of to anyone before. For seven days my news feed was filled with almost nothing but these women’s accounts of sexual harassment and assault. It was heart warming to see how members of the group showed nothing but love and support for each other as they shared unspeakable memories and experiences for the first time. But it was also shocking and gut wrenching to read. During seven days over 800 stories were shared and so many of them were horrifying and violent accounts of sexual assault.

During this week it was difficult to even think about anything else. My head was filled with stories of little girls and women of all ages being violently raped, sometimes by complete strangers, but more often than not, by men they knew: relatives, colleagues, so-called friends… I felt sick to my stomach and my heart ached for them. I cried with them and for them when I read about the fear, the pain, and the shame, and although it was incredibly difficult to read, I couldn’t stop. I felt I needed to bear witness to what they had been through out of respect for them. We all need to. We need to acknowledge what they have gone through. We need to understand what goes on in our community and we need to make it stop.

One thing became painfully clear though. It was the fact that whether or not you become the victim of assault really just boils down to luck. Although I have had my share of sexual harassment and been in some deeply disturbing and sometimes scary situations, I have been incredibly lucky because I have never been assaulted the way many of these women and girls had. I realized when reading these stories, that I have been in so many similar situations, but luckily no one ever harmed me the way they had been harmed. What cannot be stressed enough, is that these women and girls did nothing wrong. More often than not it happened in a place they thought they were safe with a person they thought they could trust. The truth is that nothing they did – or could possibly have done – warranted the assault. The only thing that could have stopped it from happening was the assailant himself. The only thing that can stop a rape is if the rapist decides not to rape.

These stories of sexual assault still echo in my mind. Like the story of the woman who was assaulted by a man while his friends cheered him on. Or the countless little girls who were molested by grown-ups they knew and trusted. Or stories of hands and fingers painfully stuffed into underwear and inside bodies completely without warning by strange men. Or the young woman who was pinned down and violently raped by a guy she thought was her friend. Or the woman who woke up with blood all over her bottom…

Gruesome as it is, it’s important that you hear this because if you don’t, you can never appreciate what exactly it is we are dealing with, what it is that so many women go through, and the fear that is a reality for such a large part of the population.

Now imagine that you actually know the people who shared these stories. As I mentioned before, the Swedish speaking community in Finland is quite small, and many of the stories shared were by friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. When it turns out someone you know has gone through something like that, it just makes it so incredibly real.

So look around you. Look at the women and girls in your vicinity. Chances are some of them carry the burden of violent assault, which they are too ashamed to speak about, because this phenomenon is by no means just a Swedish-speaking thing. This is global. Chances are they have never told anyone because they might fear that they won’t be believed or that they will be stigmatized or lose their job. So look around you. How many of the women and girls you know might have experienced such unspeakable things?

Well, after seven days of sharing, empathizing and crying over each other’s pain, many of us – over 6000, more than 4% of all Swedish speaking females – signed a petition and the campaign was made public. Many of the stories have been anonymized and published here: http://www.astra.fi/dammenbrister/

It’s gruesome reading but go and read them anyway if you can (they are in Swedish). These women’s experiences need to be acknowledged and understood. Only if all of us – men and women – really understand what is going on, and the extent to which it is going on, will we manage to create change. Because that is one thing that is for sure, it can simply not go on this way. It has to stop.

#metoo #dammenbrister

Give yourself a break

I’ve been very busy during the past couple of weeks. I’ve been preoccupied on several different fronts; some things work related, some things not, some things positive and fun, some things not so much, and some things just plain exhausting. And, to tell you the truth, I was shocked to notice that it’s been two weeks since I last posted on my blog. These two weeks have gone so fast!

Last night when I noticed how long it’s been, I thought I should quickly put a post together to publish first thing in the morning. After all, I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than two weeks between posts. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was tired, I wanted to spend my Sunday evening with my family, and to be honest, my mind was completely blank anyway. Despite all the things I have experienced lately, all the eye-opening events, and all the meaningful discussions I’ve had with people, I couldn’t think of anything to write about. I didn’t have a single idea, and had I had one, I don’t think I would have had the energy to write about it anyway.

So I didn’t. I did nothing even remotely work related last night and it felt great.

The thing is though, I like writing blog posts. I like engaging in discussions and I’ve really had some interesting ones since I started blogging. It feels meaningful and it gives me energy. At the same time, since I have readers, I don’t want to let them – you – down. I want to keep my end of the deal and post regularly just as I’ve promised. I tend to be hard on myself though; I tend to push myself, regarding anything that I have promised myself or others that I will do. Sometimes it becomes too much, but a promise is a promise, right?

You will be happy to hear that I have actually gotten better at being kind to myself. As the years go by I’ve realized if I can’t count on myself to be forgiving then who can I count on? I think this is especially important today in our hectic work cultures but also in society at large where even free time has become so streamlined and professionalized. And I think this is especially important for women. Women are taught from a very young age to be good girls and that they have to do their very best, or rather even better than that, to succeed.

But as I said, the older I get the more forgiving of myself I get, and strange as it may sound, I have started to realize that I am only human. I still do my best to keep my promises. Sometimes, however, things happen and that’s just life, and if that is the case, I ironically find that others are usually more forgiving and understanding of my situation than I am.

So with these thoughts, triggered by my need to live up to my own sometimes unrealistic standards, what I’m trying to say is be kind to yourselves. If you aren’t nobody will be, and you can probably really use a break.

Better meetings please

The other day I came home from work feeling completely inadequate. I had been at a meeting, which had been fine. The problem was that I had to leave early because while I had allocated an hour and a half for the meeting, which was plenty based on previous experiences of similar meetings, when I got there, the chairperson announced that we would reserve a total of two hours for the meeting. Argh… I didn’t know that. Had I known I would have allocated two hours, but now I had another appointment two hours later and would have to leave 30 minutes early. I mentioned this to the chair and he took it well enough, although I have to say, he didn’t look terribly pleased. I, on the other hand, having a slightly unhealthy guilt complex, felt bad that I was letting them down and I was kicking myself for not being able to foresee that the meeting would in fact be longer this time.

I was feeling pretty bummed when I got home, until it dawned on me: I couldn’t possibly have known the meeting was going to be that long and had I known, of course I would have reserved the right amount of time. And do you want to know why I didn’t know? Well, because although I was sent an email with the starting time, I was never sent an agenda nor any information about how long the meeting was going to be. And that, my friends, is just bad meeting manners.

Seriously though. I generally don’t like meetings. I remember my first job out of business school; I was working with the marketing team at a company and they had the longest meetings. They would go on and on and on and most of the time we would talk about things not on the agenda, which would have been fine except that as I was sitting there, bored to oblivion, work would pile up on my desk in my absence and I would have to work late to get everything done. It was just a total waste of time.

Later I found that bad meeting habits are really quite ubiquitous. In all my different jobs, I would go to countless meetings and much of the time I would wonder if we really all needed to be there for all of it. As a result I have developed a strong dislike for meetings over the years, but recently I’ve realized that it’s not meetings as such that I don’t like, but rather bad meeting culture.

Meetings serve an important function. They allow people to meet and discuss issues or get updated on important information. Often, however, people call meetings and invite all too many people to discuss all too many things that aren’t even relevant to everyone. Sometimes a meeting isn’t needed. Sometimes a one-on-one conversation is much more efficient. Or a ten-minute huddle in the hallway where team members can effectively update each other on what they are doing, how it is going, and what they need help with. Everyone doesn’t need to be involved in every discussion.

Also, if there is no agenda, I tend to avoid going altogether (although in the aforementioned meeting that wasn’t an option unfortunately). Meetings without agendas are more like social gatherings. Don’t get me wrong, I like social gatherings, but not at work when there is business to attend to.

In order to avoid bad meeting behavior and seriously frustrated colleagues, I’ve taken the liberty to write down a short checklist to help you create a better and more productive meeting culture where you work. It really is quite simple.

  1. What is the purpose of the meeting? Plan the agenda and participants accordingly. People who just need to be informed do not need to be involved in a lengthy discussion. If it is a matter of FYI for some people on your invitation list then maybe you need to plan a separate meeting or just use another medium to spread the information.
  2. The invitation should always include: starting and ending times, place, and an agenda. See my comment above regarding social gatherings. Also people need to know what is going to be discussed. Is the meeting even relevant for them to attend?
  3. Stick to the agenda and the schedule. Preferably have someone chair the meeting, but if no one is chairing, see to it that someone is responsible for making sure you stick to the agenda and the schedule. People need to be allowed to leave when the meeting is supposed to end. They have other things they need to do and running overtime is just disrespectful of their time. If you have more to discuss, plan a follow-up discussion with the relevant people.

That was it, not very complicated. So here’s to productive meeting behavior. Trust me, it will make all the difference.