Enhancing Employee Well-Being
CAREER
February 17, 2022
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Rachel Hodgdon is President and CEO of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a public benefit corporation with a mission to improve human health and well-being through people-first places.

She came to IWBI after nearly a decade at the U.S. Green Building Council, where she served as Senior Vice President of Knowledge and was Founding Director of the Center for Green Schools. Under her direction, the Center published 1,000+ pages of technical guides and original research, mobilized $275B+ investments in LEED certified educational facilities, and deployed 500K+ volunteers to transform schools on every continent. A widely sought after expert and inspiring speaker, Rachel's game-changing contributions to green building have been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Parenting Magazine, FOX News, CNN, and in leading industry publications including Metropolis, Grist, and GreenBIZ. Here, she shares strategies that foster healthier work environments and overall employee well-being.

What determines the state of our health?

Our physical and social environment, where we sit and who we sit next to, has a more significant impact on our health than our lifestyle, behaviors, access to medical care, and genetics combined. When you think about it, it's pretty profound that a zip code could have a greater bearing on our health than our genetic code.

That's why we created WELL. WELL bridges what we know to what we practice, and it's the leading tool and certification for advancing health and well-being in communities, organizations, and buildings around the globe. WELL puts people at the center of everything we do. We look across all of the different ways our built environments and our social environments can impact how we feel, how we learn, how we sleep, how we play, and how we perform.

What are the categories addressed in WELL buildings?

  1. Indoor air quality

  2. Water quality

  3. Light

  4. Movement

  5. Thermal comfort

  6. Dress codes

  7. Acoustics

  8. Material health

  9. Mental health

  10. Community

How is mental health addressed?

Mental health is something that I think will be of even greater focus in the coming months. We've referred to the mental health crisis as the second wave of the pandemic. We are looking at ways organizations can support more mindful behaviors within our spaces. That could be creating spaces for meditation in offices or grieving rooms in hospitals, in addition to mental health support through employee benefit packages.

When you think about it, it's pretty profound that a zip code could have a greater bearing on our health than our genetic code.

What inspired the WELL health safety rating?

Companies, building owners, and operators were looking for instructions that responded specifically to the acute health threats related to COVID-19. They wanted things that could be done from an operations and management perspective to slow the transmission of COVID-19 inside their spaces. They also wanted a certification to show others the efforts being taken.

What resulted was the Well Health-Safety Seal that could exist as a kind of shorthand for addressing the confidence gap that exists in welcoming people back into the spaces and places where we live our lives. People were looking for a third party to verify and validate that they had done all the right things and had their work checked. That was how the Well Health-Safety Rating was born.

What are the key lessons to take forward from this recent period of uncertainty?

The first is that productivity is a long game. Many of us who have been lucky enough not to suffer acute trauma have suffered from accrued trauma during the pandemic. It can build up from financial strain, anxiety about contracting the virus, social isolation, lack of childcare, or many other stressors. We have to tend to our employees with an eye toward long-term productivity versus short-term productivity.

You can't bank resilience in the middle of a crisis. You have to do it before the crisis strikes. If you're familiar with how Teslas work, they have this thing called regenerative braking, so that when you’re coasting down a hill, you can actually charge back to the battery. That's what we need to do at times, coast and put on the brakes in order to recharge.

Purpose is everything. You may have noticed a rise in organizations trying to identify and state their purpose ie something they're doing to make the world a better place beyond profit. It turns out that some countries are even mandating that companies have a purpose. In France, it's required that organizations declare a purpose beyond profit.

Organizations today are expected to be on the right side of history. Not tomorrow, but today. You’ll hear it articulated via a number of different keywords and acronyms such ESG or corporate social responsibility. This is a new dawn in many ways, a new era.

The final thing I learned is that taking care of the whole person is vital, and not taking care of the whole person is expensive. We must embrace the intersection of people and profit and acknowledge that more than 90% of a business's annual operating expenses is tied to its people. We know that when we don't care for the whole person, they and the business will suffer.

Start with the evidence. There is no good reason to make it up as you go along. There's so much good literature and evidence out there that shows you want to focus on.

How do you define health equity?

We define it as a way to create the conditions that give everyone an equal opportunity to live the healthiest version of their lives. A lot of the products we build are about how we create spaces and organizations that level the playing field.

Creating equal opportunities is a large part of health equity. Organizations play a huge role in creating an equitable society and future. That's why we're calling upon that magical combination of what we can do through building design, building operations, architecture, engineering, and construction in combination with leadership, human resources, policies, programs, and health care.

In the early stages of a company, what should founders implement to ensure they build a company that embodies the right values for their employees?

Start with the evidence. There is no good reason to make it up as you go along. There's so much good literature and evidence out there that explains what to focus on. Google and many others have conducted extensive research to help us understand that the most successful organizations enjoy high levels of psychological safety.

What does psychological safety entail?

A woman named Amy Edmondson out of Harvard School of Public Health coined the term psychological safety and wrote a book on it called Teaming. I've seen her speak many times, and she shares this case study about a space mission gone wrong that resulted in lost lives. In the post mortem they traced the problem to the very beginning of the mission.

Many people could have raised their hands, identified the issues along the way, and prevented the catastrophe from happening. However, they lacked the psychological safety to do so. So one of the things we've focused on most in our organization is building a foundation that starts with saying what's true, even when it's hard news to give.

What are some things companies can do differently this year?

Simplicity is key. The most important thing that any of us can do is stop or at least slow down to the extent possible. I think all of us are so exhausted from everything that we've been through throughout the pandemic that we owe ourselves a break.

And on the whole, we've taken far less vacation time than we have in years past because so many of us said, "Where will we go?" Staycations can be equally regenerative and rejuvenating. One of the most important things that I can do and that many of you, as leaders of your organization, can do is model good behavior.

For employees who feel their leaders aren't modeling good behavior, what steps can they take to change the organization's culture?

Let's start by defining what good behavior looks like. It could be: encouraging people to take a day off when they need it; telling people to shut down their computers when the workday is over; staying offline on the weekends; giving people time to pause; and encouraging people to take their vacation days, even when they don't have anywhere to go.

When leading from the middle, the best place to position yourself is right at that edge between what you can control and what you can influence. Keep redirecting your focus to the things that you can control and influence.

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