Gwen Burbidge, CHRO at WeTransfer – a secure, creative, collaboration tools B corp. with 350 employees, shares their paradigm shift in employee well-being to double down on prevention.
Gwen, you are Chief HR Officer at WeTransfer for over three years now, a dynamic and innovative company in the high pace, high growth tech industry. What are the challenges you are facing with respect to employee mental health and well-being?
We Transfer is a B Corp social enterprise, which means that most of our employees are very concerned and engaged in societal issues. We see a lot of concern for the environment, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the war in Ukraine and many other topics.
On one hand there is a strong will to contribute to addressing these issues, but on the other hand a feeling of powerlessness. Besides this, a lot of our people who had moved countries to work with us had to build up their social networks during the pandemic, which was very hard. We currently see employees trying to adjust again to the ‘lingering COVID’ reality, and other macroeconomic recessions. So, there are a lot of external factors just now that influence the mental health of our employees.
In our organisation, mental health issues are the number on cause of sick leave.
How much priority and focus do you believe employee mental health requires?
A lot! In our organisation, mental health issues are the number one cause of sick leave. We believe that creating a culture where people can be themselves and don’t have to hide that they are struggling with their mental health or with who they are is critical. It’s our responsibility to shape an environment where people work best, and you do your work best when you feel in a good place; when you have a supportive and inspiring manager and team, when you work for a good cause.
Do you think there are specific challenges for the tech industry related to mental health?
Yes, I used to work in health care where nurses need to be in continuous contact with each other to care for patients, so they have much more human contact and therefore opportunity to see if a co-worker is not feeling well. In tech companies, most people work remotely behind their screens, so, it’s very hard to see how someone is doing. You must put in a lot of effort to build those relations and to make sure people aren’t getting lost.
Also, there are many young people working in tech, and this generation seem to be struggling more. They rightfully feel a sense of urgency with respect to the impact we have on the environment and other societal issues. They question whether they want to raise a family in what is perceived to be a grim future. Furthermore, we work in a dynamic, demanding industry where change is a constant factor. When you are struggling with your mental health, change is the last thing you want in your life and work. If you have a group that is susceptible to mental health issues, then it’s hard to move at pace and stay ahead of the curve. So, I think it’s crucial to focus on it. Besides, it’s an extremely tough experience to go through a burnout or a mental health crisis. We therefore focus on building resilient employees who can embrace change.
We work in a dynamic, demanding industry where change is a constant factor. When you are struggling with your mental health, change is the last thing you want in your life and work.
With the nuanced challenges of a young workforce in the tech industry, can you share what approach you take to proactively address employee well-being?
We focus on prevention rather than cure. It doesn’t always work and often a burnout is not only work related. But work can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, we therefor try to be on time to prevent escalation. We have both more general and personalised preventive tools. For the general tools, we teach our managers how to identify mental health signals, how to act, and what they can do to help their employees. Once or twice a year we have a period dedicated to mental health where we have lectures, exercises, like breathing exercises or a lecture on sleep for example. Some of our colleagues who went through a burnout or bereavement or similar will talk openly about their experience and share what worked for them and what didn’t work for them. We have engaged a dedicated external online and offline coaching company to help people get back on track. We have just implemented summer Fridays where we moved to a 4-day week over summer to help aid recovery and to have time to reenergise and focus on non work related important things in life. Furthermore, we keep track on what’s going on for our employees and predict their need. For example, we’re having more and more young parents, so we consider things we could do as an employer to make their return to work easier.
My dad always says that you should only insure the things you can’t afford, and we can afford a couple of people off sick for a while.
Did you construct a business case for such a programme?
No. We didn’t need a business case because we decided to cancel our insurance that pays out when people are sick, and we used that funding for prevention instead. Sick leave insurance is a very high cost. My dad always says that you should only insure the things you can’t afford, and we can afford a couple of people off sick for a while. It feels much better to use that money and try to prevent people from falling sick, right? Of course, you can’t prevent everything; you never know what’s happening in people’s lives and how well they’ve been equipped before they join you to deal with change and adversary. So that’s how we fund most of the initiatives. We also invested in an extra module for our employees with the health care provider, offering them extra physiotherapy, or extra psychological support. But also, extra resources to take care of their sick relatives. In that way people don’t have to call in sick or take vacation and then report sick in a later stage because they used all their vacation days to take care of their mom and are exhausted.
Can you share your well-being philosophy?
I think it’s our responsibility to make sure that we create an environment where people can do their best work, and you do your best work when you feel like you’re in a good place, you have a supportive and inspiring manager, you work for a good cause, and have a meaningful job. We can’t control whether you get a disease or not, or we can’t control what’s happening at home, but we can try to help you develop and learn as an individual as well as a professional. It’s important to take an organisational approach to well-being and not only an individual approach.
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