On this episode of ALPS In Brief, at the beginning of Lawyer Wellbeing Week and Mental Health Awareness month, Mark sits down with Liesel Brink, head of HR at ALPS to ask her a loaded question: Why would an employer want to invest time or money in prioritizing employee wellness?

Transcript:

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:
Hello. Welcome to ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence Building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. I’m Mark Bassingthwaighte, the Risk Manager with ALPS, and I’m delighted to have as my guest a colleague, Liesel Brink, who has been with ALPS for five years and she is the Manager of HR at ALPS. In her prior life, I guess, leading up her background, she has a vocational certificate in business administration and a bachelor’s in applied science among other things that she’s done over the years, like still, in fact, serves as a consultant with HR Solutions. Oh, I’m sorry, HR Specialties. Excuse me there, Liesel.

And I’ve been excited to learn that for the past 23 years or so, she has been involved with the Moose Organization, and, boy, so I look over her bio, there’s a long list of responsibilities and it sounds like you have been very, very active with this. And that’s awesome. Great for you. Well, let me just say welcome and I guess explain, we’re here to talk about wellness. And before I jump into some questions with you, Liesel, I’d like to share for our audience. May is a month where nationally we focus on mental health, it’s a Mental Health Awareness Month, but May is also a time where the ABA and Bar Associations really try to prioritize wellness. And that’s why I really wanted to have you participate here today. And, can we generally, just start out, how would you define wellness? I mean, what does that term mean to you as someone responsible for part of the wellness program in ALPS?

LIESEL BRINK:
Well, thanks for having me, Mark. It’s a pleasure to be able to speak with you in this forum. I always love hearing your ALPS and briefs, so thank you. And talking about wellness, I love it. It’s not something that everyone always thinks about and that’s one of the reasons why I like it. For me, the definition of wellness is thinking about yourself in the full picture or the whole picture rather than breaking it out into little bits. You want to think about yourself as a whole.

MARK:
Okay. Then that makes sense to me. One the things that I have done in past years is write about the importance of finding balance between our personal and our professional lives. And of late I’ve really decided that’s not right, at least for me, because if you have to find balance between two things, it sort of suggests or implies that one is unhealthy and the other we need to work on. You see where I’m going? And I like how you… Wellness really encapsulates this in the sense that we’re talking about oneness, wholeness, something like that. Okay. Very good. Let’s see. I have a list of questions here I want to look at and talk about. Why do you feel that wellness is important, generally, in the workplace setting? Why would an employer want to invest, whether time and money? Thoughts.

LIESEL:
Yeah. Well, it’s a loaded question, Mark. If I may say that, one, an employer wants to consider wellness for their employees for a variety of reasons, one being the return on investment. If you’re considering helping employees think about financial wellness, that’s less stress on them perhaps in the more ability for them to focus on the work that you’re asking them to do. If you’re thinking about a health aspect of wellness, whether that be in biometric screening or physical activities, that might enlist or allow, excuse me, individuals to actually think about their health a little bit more which could possibly lead for less absenteeism at work. Just a few reasons why an employer might want to consider wellness outside of the fact that it can improve morale at the company, even though it’s a small company, and it can also improve the culture.

MARK:
I like where you’re going with that in terms of underscoring health, physical health, looking at financial wealth. I am not a mindfulness guy, and my wife tries to get me to go there at times. She thinks it would be good for me and I won’t disagree with her, but for a long time I sort of equated mindfulness, the mindfulness movement, to the wellness movement and sort about… I’m thinking goat yoga and all of this crazy stuff. And that just doesn’t… But I’m not saying goat yoga is not a good thing, but it doesn’t speak to me. But you’re really… Again, just underscores the… Looking at all aspects of a person’s life. Before I go with my next question, I’d like to share, too, a little bit of a background or story about ALPS just as somebody that has been with the company now a little over 22 years. And ALPS, I really feel very blessed to have been with the company all these years.

MARK:
And as any company, it’s had its good days and its bad days. Its tremendous successes and some struggles. And I’ll be honest and share, there have been times where, as you were talking about morale, was not always what could it be or should be or what I would hope for. And wellness was not something that… There was never a focus on it. And as a person that’s gone through, having you join the company, new CEO, I can just share. There has been a sea change that is phenomenal and I would say the work that you have done and that David have done, our CEO, really has… I mean, the two of you are responsible for this. I mean, let’s just be honest about that.

MARK:
And you made me a believer. You really have, and it just… Again, morale. I’ve never experienced in a workplace setting, out of my whole career done all kinds of things over my life that allows me to feel so much as a team, sort of a home, that kind of thing. So I’m trying to share to our audience the value and significance and just hearing how this can impact somebody directly from the source. Now, so, okay. So, with all that out there, we’ve talked a bit about how you see this as important to a company, but can you talk about ALPS specifically? Why did… and we do all kinds of things and please feel free to share the kinds of things that we’ve done. You can go in any direction here, but why was wellness so important to you and to David in terms of… For ALPS?

LIESEL:
Right. So to be completely honest, Mark, it started off with just the health insurance costs, right?

MARK:
Yeah. Right.

LIESEL:
Everyone knows that those are astronomical and a large part of anyone’s budget. And we were trying to find a way to start honing in on what is costing us so much. Like other small companies, we don’t have access to a lot of the data that can give us those answers. So what we decided to do was start small. Invite a biometric screening company in and incentivize employees to participate in that so that they could start thinking about their own health. And for us not to be a big brother about it, right? We’re not telling them that they have to do this. It was totally voluntary, but it was free. So, why not participate? And, yeah. And so that’s where we started. And from there, there was an ask. One employee came and asked, “Hey, can we do fun stuff during the year?”

LIESEL:
And, being a department of one, I said, “Sure. How about we try quarterly,” and with a budget of $50 for the year, you start small. You can create a certificate for the team that wins if you want to do a team challenge. And that’s how we started it out. We incentivized individuals to participate in group activities. Hiking, we all met at… And when I say, “We all,” there were two or three of us who showed up and we did a hike together. We incentivize people to take the stairs at work. We also did a corporate gift, compression socks, which is also an aspect of wellness, right?

MARK:
I still have mine.

LIESEL:
And so… idea, right? And we did another challenge this past winter. We had individuals wear their socks sometime during one week, and they took a sock selfie. And so, it’s little things like that that can start individuals thinking about their own health overall. And not to jump ahead, Mark, but one of the other things that in the last two years I’ve been trying to push a little bit more about is mental health. And we offer some services already. We have an employee assistance program.

LIESEL:
And then I also found out that through our life insurance company, we have additional employee assistance available to us. So law firms can possibly, or any employer, can be looking at something like that that’s already out there that they just didn’t know about. And then there is a free National Mental Health Crisis number that employers can push out. If you’re having a tough time, call this number. They’re here to help. And just breaking down the stigma that seems to be around that.

MARK:
We’re a diverse group of people, and that’s going to be true pretty much of the workforce at any business regardless of how, unless you’re truly, for instance, just a sole attorney, it’s just you. But how do you try to determine what the needs are and then follow up and try to meet the needs of this diverse group that you’re working with in terms of trying to keep us all well? Is it sort of spontaneous, do you…

LIESEL:
Well, Mark, every HR person has a crystal ball and that’s how we determine everything. No, I… To be honest, we did work with our insurance broker and we put together a survey that we did push out to all of our employees to tell them what… excuse me, to ask them, what aspects of wellness are they interested in in having us focus on? And from that survey I was very surprised we had a large percentage of individuals who participated say that they wanted more help with financial wellness.

MARK:
Yeah. Okay.

LIESEL:
Yeah, it was exciting to see and also something that allowed me to reach out to a local credit union and bring in someone to help us with budgeting, and they were nice enough to do it as a community service to us. So, again, with that small budget, which, that was in the first year, helped out a lot. So the survey definitely… But even putting out the question to the employees in general, some people are comfortable enough to saying, “Hey, it would be fun if we could do X, Y and Z.” Or, “People in my department would like to do this.” So, giving some leeway could be beneficial depending on the size of the company.

LIESEL:
The other thing I would say, Mark, is that, starting small is fine because wellness is just about getting people thinking about these different aspects. Because most of the time we’re so involved in our lives, in the things that we have to get done in that day and the things that are causing us stress. These are the things that are pulling our focus, and having a wellness program or even wellness monthly emails get people to at least come out of that thinking for a short period of time.

MARK:
What do you think about space? Physical space? Office setup, those kinds of things? I mean, is there a component to wellness there as well?

LIESEL:
Definitely, Mark, and as far as the morale goes, I would say that that would be something that could be high on the list as far as ergonomics, making it available to employees to have an ergonomical evaluation of their workstation done. Locally, I know that our office supply company is able to do that for us. I know that our insurance broker has someone on staff that was willing to come in and do that with us. It also allows employees to, as far as risk to the company, minimizes Workers’ Comp claims.

MARK:
Sure.

LIESEL:
But also allow someone at the end of the day to possibly not go home with a headache or not have that stress. I do feel that that’s important, and one of the first steps a company could possibly take in that mindfulness/morale for the company as whole.

MARK:
Yeah. I can recall many, many years ago in a prior life, prior job, a big company, actually a government job, sort of big government office, but horrible lighting, these big old computer screens and you’re just stuck and, oh, the headaches. You just… And I agree with you that just surroundings can make a huge difference. As you think about the past five years with ALPS, you have any thoughts on what has worked well, what hasn’t worked, and would you do anything different? Just…

LIESEL:
Yeah. Five years. That’s great. I can’t believe it’s been five years already. It seems like yesterday.

MARK:
I know. It goes so fast.

LIESEL:
Yes. So, I would say what has worked well, variety, right? Not…. We are lucky in our company. We have a lot of individuals who love to be physically active. But what I like to think for individuals is not just catering to the individuals that are already thinking about their health. I like to try to get individuals engaged who aren’t normally engaged. So, variety, fun, and one of the things that was most successful was the quick walk during our break. We did one during the morning break and one in the afternoon break, just so those that were interested could participate.

LIESEL:
And, again, we’re very lucky. Just outside we have a walk path that we could do a quick 10 minute walk and everyone could be back in the office within an allotted time. One of the things that I personally took to heart but I’ve grown from is that participation wasn’t as high as I would have liked it to be. And in talking with and networking with other HR professionals, I found out it was higher than theirs. And so, I was like, “That’s fantastic.”

MARK:
Yeah. Yes.

LIESEL:
You try to get individuals into that set of thinking about their health overall, but you can’t make them do things. And that’s one of the things I would stress to individuals, is try your best, provide the resources, but don’t stress if there’s individuals who just aren’t participating.

MARK:
Okay. I was just sitting here thinking, we’re in the, thankfully, at least here in Montana and nearing the end of this COVID stay at home situation. Our state is in the process of slowly “reopening.” Who knows what’s going to happen around the country and whether there’s… You hear all kinds of, “Oh, my gosh, we may be back into this situation again at some other point.” I don’t know.

MARK:
But I think, regardless, there’s been a shift in this country that this COVID pandemic has accelerated a little bit. And it’s a move toward telecommuting, and I think telecommuting has been happening, but I think it’s accelerated a little bit and that’s not going to go away. I’d just be curious, we’ve never talked about this before, but in terms of wellness, in the telecommute context, are there challenges? What are your thoughts about that? I’d love to hear.

LIESEL:
Yeah. So, to be honest, we’ve kind of been doing this week, been fortunate enough to have individuals who work remotely on our staff regularly, but to the extent that we have now and to the extent that the world is doing this, yeah, it is a bit of a struggle to be fully aware of what individuals are able to do when they’re at home. So, taking that into consideration, trying to include things that people can do within their own home, making more touch points with employees, more connections with them, whether it’s on the phone, or, we’re lucky enough to have video options, too, to be able to engage with them on any questions that they might have or walk them through any of the challenges that we’ve set up in our wellness program.

LIESEL:
I will also say that we have opened up a platform for our employees through our information and system for employees to share resources on like children’s yoga or the things that can be beneficial for everyone in the household now that everyone is home. I also encourage individuals to share humor, work-appropriate humor, but humor, because laughter after all is the best medicine, right? And it’s not beneficial for everyone, but it does help individuals kind of remove themselves from their current thinking for a moment and put their mind into a different spot.

MARK:
Yeah, couldn’t agree more. Let me follow up with just two thoughts to underscore your point. We’ve been very blessed as a company for many, many years to have Nancy as our receptionist, and I can’t remember how many years ago she started this, but there’s always this morning email to the office with something funny. And she tells her stories, and I’ll tell you, my wife gets a kick out of these. We get to laugh in here at home, but it does make a big difference. I do think humor is a great way to deal with some stress at times, but also just to feel good. If you start the day with a smile or a laugh, I think the odds are of the rest of the day being a little happier go up. And let me also share for our listeners, and I am one of the people you’ve referred to in terms of telecommuting for many years now, I think 10 or 11, something like that.

MARK:
People have asked me how has COVID impacted me? And I’ll sit here and say, “There’s some things. Staying at home and not being able to go to a restaurant, those kinds of things. That’s not fun.” But from a work perspective, we’re currently visiting via video on Microsoft Teams, and ALPS has really, significantly or substantially increased the use of teams during this process, and we’re going to continue, I’m sure, to have this tool available for years to come. But the ability to video chat as opposed to just sending an email or picking up a phone, I can’t tell you what a difference that makes. It’s hard at times, as a remote person, to feel included in terms of what’s happened at the office. There’s lots of little things that go on at the office that we’re just not part of because we’re not there to have these conversations.

MARK:
But that changes significantly with video. And I think a lot of folks… the technology and the tools are already there. It’s just not being utilized in a way that could be beneficial. So, I’ll throw that out there. I’d like to shift and as we start to wrap this up a little bit, bring this back to law. And a significant portion of our book really is the solo small firm space. So when you think about a small law firm and an attorney or an office manager just saying, “Oh, we really should look at this,” or, “I’d like to take… But I don’t even know where to start.” What sort of practical tips or advice would you share that might get them moving in the right direction?

LIESEL:
So, Mark, I actually have previous work experience in law firms.

MARK:
Oh.

LIESEL:
That’s where I started many moons ago.

MARK:
Oh, wow. I did not know. Very cool.

LIESEL:
Yes. And so I have a little bit of understanding of law firms. To be honest, there are a lot of free resources out there for anyone to take part of. We talked about ergonomic reviews. There are free resources out on the internet for how to set up your workstation properly, where your monitors should be versus how your chair should be and where your knees hit and how they tip the floor. So those are free resources. Hanging up your employee assistance program flyer or posting the free mental health phone number anywhere in the breakroom, those are free and fantastic good steps in as far as other free options, small places to start. Maybe having a lunch out at the picnic table as far as just disconnecting from work for your 20 or 30 minute lunch. Those are good things to start people in wellness.

MARK:
Right. I’d like to circle back to one of your earlier comments as you wrapped this up, too. You shared, in terms of ALPS, you started out with 50 bucks and try and make something happen and you were talking about just a small staff. I want to underscore that because I think that’s really important. You never get anywhere until you take that first step. And if you just take the step and start moving, it will evolve. None of us move forward day-to-day in what we’re doing work-wise without making some mistakes now and again, but you do have to take that step. Well, I’m going to wrap it up here, Liesel. Do you have any final comments you’d like to share?

LIESEL:
You know, Mark, just start small. Every little bit is helpful, and don’t be afraid to reach out to us here at ALPS if you’d like some more tips and tools.

MARK:
Well, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.

LIESEL:
Thank you, Mark.

MARK:
And folks, for you listening to the podcast today, I hope you found something of value. And as Liesel said, please, we are here. We are your resource. Feel free to reach out to me anytime. My email address is mbass@alpsinsurance.com, and you don’t need to be an insured to talk with me. If there’s something I can do to help or connect you with Liesel, if that would be helpful, that’s what we’re here to do. One final comment for you, regular listeners. In a prior podcast I talked about trying to ride a thousand miles this year. If you’re curious as to the current count, I’m at 305. Here’s hoping. Have a good… Bye-bye.

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