Find a way to check in on people daily. Ask them how they are doing. Let them know you care and that you’re prepared to support them. Finally, and this one is the most difficult and the piece that is most often missing in wellbeing today — help people discover a greater purpose in their work and lives. So think about this as a continuum that we need to support people in their most basic needs, build daily habits that enable people to show up as their best selves, and then help them discover something bigger and more meaningful.
As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote the Mental Wellbeing of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Vic Strecher.
Vic Strecher, Ph.D., MPH, is a Professor in the Department of Health Behavior Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and is a renowned innovator, researcher, author, and speaker in the fields of behavior change, digital communication, and wellbeing. In 1997, Vic founded HealthMedia, a digital health and wellness company that was sold to Johnson & Johnson in 2010. More recently, Vic created Kumanu (Maori for “nourish” and “cherish”), a company that uses cutting-edge behavioral and neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and advanced predictive modeling to help people optimize their mental/emotional health and wellbeing. These successful ventures have reached tens of millions of lives. Vic’s latest behavioral, neuroscience, and epidemiologic research; his two books, Life On Purpose and the graphic novel On Purpose; his free online course; and the Purposeful and Resourceful applications his business (Kumanu) has created are aimed at improving human flourishing for all.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, 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?
Sure. As a behavioral scientist in public health, my focus for 20 years had been on the traditional behaviors and decisions we make for our health: quitting smoking, eating better, increasing physical activity, managing diabetes, getting a mammogram, etc. Standard tenured professor model going into the home stretch toward retirement.
Then, 10 years ago, my career path took a sudden turn to the existential when my 19-year-old daughter, Julia, unexpectedly died of a heart attack. With my ego broken open, I started a self-healing process, and part of that process was examining the authenticity of my career. Concluding that I was dealing with surface-level issues, not root causes, my work shifted to what I (as well as many others including Viktor Frankl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aristotle, etc.) consider a core need in our lives: to have a purpose and direction.
My position at the University of Michigan allows me to study the concept of purpose from many scientific perspectives with amazing colleagues from neuroscience, experimental, and epidemiologic fields. My experience in both the research and business worlds allows me to create interventions that help people find greater purpose and direction in their lives.
This career path has opened a world of possibilities and meaningful connections that I never expected. No way I’m retiring — have lots to do before I die. I thank Julia for this.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Ten years ago, a few months after my daughter had died, I found myself in a kayak 2 miles out on Lake Michigan, wondering whether I should keep paddling to Wisconsin — just 84 miles further. It was 5:15 a.m., it was 40 degrees outside, and I was in my boxers and t-shirt with no life preserver. Not very smart, but I didn’t care. About anything.
As the sun came up, the water around me started glowing and I felt Julia in me — I don’t know how to fully explain this — telling me that I needed to get over it. To get over myself. To get over my ego. At that crossroad in my life, I decided to turn back to shore, but only with the commitment to change my life.
The first thing I did when getting back to shore was take a sheet of paper and make a list of the things that mattered most in my life. Turns out they weren’t “things.” They were people: my wife, our older daughter, my students. They were causes: my science, the arts, greater wellbeing in the world. This experience formed the basis of a new life purpose. Unbeknownst to me, this all happened on Father’s Day. I believe it was Julia’s gift to me.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Work stress and burnout are on the rise. People spent 18 months dealing with multiple crises — a global pandemic, racial unrest, economic downturn, contentious political events, and major shifts in the way we work. When you factor in a lack of work-life balance caused by a lack of daycare, virtual schools, and remote working conditions, people are just exhausted. Those fortunate enough to remain employed face pressure to be more productive than ever to help their companies survive. The key to avoiding burnout and finding a way to thrive in the face of so much disruption is self-regulation or building mindsets and habits that bring better focus, intention, and purpose into each day. That’s not an easy task for most individuals.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Work is much more than a paycheck to most people. They want to feel as if their work means something, that their contributions are valued or that they are meaningful in some way. Leaders can create a better work culture by instilling a sense of purpose around work. Most of the time, people just don’t know why their work matters. Authentic purpose motivates people to bring their best self to work each day and it even affects the way they feel in their personal lives, with their families, and with their communities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
There’s a tie: One has to be Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote: “He who has a why to live can bear almost anyhow.” This quote helped Viktor Frankl survive three Nazi concentration camps. It was relevant to the darkest days of my own life and has guided how we at Kumanu help others make significant changes in their lives.
The second is by Jean-Paul Sartre: “Everything has been figured out, except how to live.” We’ve made so much progress in medicine, public health, and other sciences — yet we still have high levels of anxiety and depression. We make more money and are less happy. We need to help people live bigger, more purposeful lives, and that won’t be solved by medicine or public health unless there’s a shift in how we think about health (which isn’t just about morbidity and mortality) and wellbeing (which isn’t just about broccoli and treadmills).
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 that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
Employer-provided wellbeing programs are not new. But leaders who care about the physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing of their people are recognizing that the solutions they are providing are falling short. Historically, wellbeing has largely been focused on physical health (think step programs, smoking cessation programs, or weight-loss challenges), employee assistance programs (EAPs), or healthcare benefits that include costly and hard-to-access mental health benefits. We all became acutely aware of the gaps in employer-provided wellbeing benefits amid the pandemic. Other issues, often not visible to employers, such as social determinants of health (SDOH) bubbled up as pressing employer challenges — factors that are more prevalent and unaddressed than people realize. Given all this context, there are several steps that employers can take to provide a more holistic approach to wellbeing. First, you can’t fix what you don’t measure. Employers need a stigma-free way of surveying and understanding their employees’ wellbeing needs. With objective measures in hand, leaders are better equipped to take the second step, which is to invest in wellbeing solutions that are easily accessible and address all of the unique needs of their workforce — physical, mental, emotional, and financial. Once they put the right pieces in place, HR and business leaders will be positioned to move on to the third step — addressing the underlying root causes of poor wellbeing. In our research at Kumanu with our partners at ProMedica and Harris Poll, we know that emotional self-regulation and basic needs (SDOH factors) are the two missing pieces in holistic wellbeing. What I’m talking about is improving the whole of the people you work with and seeing them thrive and capable of finding greater purpose in their work. The fourth step is quite simple — find a way to check in on people daily. Ask them how they are doing. Let them know you care and that you’re prepared to support them. Finally, and this one is the most difficult and the piece that is most often missing in wellbeing today — help people discover a greater purpose in their work and lives. So think about this as a continuum that we need to support people in their most basic needs, build daily habits that enable people to show up as their best selves, and then help them discover something bigger and more meaningful.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
Any workplace initiative that is successful must be embraced and championed from the top and up from the front lines. That means senior leadership to front-line managers must be aligned and visibility committed to employee wellbeing. A measurement strategy and tools for two-way communication between the organization and employees is also key to supporting mental wellbeing. Most employers are oblivious to the needs of their people and then wonder why their turnover rate is high or that absenteeism is high. Without the ability to gather insights and address employee wellbeing challenges, people are left unsupported, unseen, and unheard. Enabling employees with the right solutions that are easy to use, responsive, and address some of the gaps in wellbeing that we just discussed is how you show your people that you care. The sad reality is that most organizations rely on costly healthcare benefits or short-term initiatives to address wellbeing and it’s creating gaps that employees notice. Leadership can also create a culture of wellbeing by being vocal about providing a holistic approach. When people see their CEO or manager talking about wellbeing and using solutions themselves, it removes the stigma too often associated with mental and emotional wellbeing.
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?
I think that, as individuals, in our work, as a community, and as a society, we’re in a liminal space. We’re crossing over from what we were used to — from what was relatively safe and comfortable — to something potentially very different. We’re in the space in between, not quite ready to leave the previous space and not knowing what the future holds.
Liminal spaces can be scary and stressful. They can make us anxious, sleep poorly, and even make us depressed. Or this cross-over space can be viewed with anticipation and opportunity for something new, different, and possibly better. Having a purpose means being in touch with your core values — what matters most. Honestly and authentically considering your life purpose can provide a North Star into this new space.
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?
We think a solution focused on mental and emotional wellbeing must start by accepting people where they are in their journey. Every person has unique challenges in bringing their best self to work each day. First understanding what people need to address their basic needs — physical health, food, transportation, or finances. Once those are addressed, people can begin working on mental wellness. Shortcomings in those areas cause people immense pressure and stress that makes it difficult to improve emotional and mental wellbeing. As far as strategies for mental health habits, our research, in collaboration with Dr. Ethan Kross (Director of the Emotions Lab at the University of Michigan and author of the best selling book Chatter), has found that seeing a bigger picture, finding a silver lining, family, and religious rituals — very purpose-driven habits — are most strongly associated with resilience and emotional wellbeing.
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’m a huge fan of Loving Kindness Meditation. You can find it in our Purposeful application or elsewhere online. It’s easy and proven effective in not only strengthening your life purpose but also improving your physiological state. What’s unique about this meditation is the expression of compassion not only toward those you love, but also those you have a difficult time with. I think we could all use a regular dose of this these days.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Viktor Frankl’s famous book Man’s Search for Meaning has influenced millions of people going through difficult times. It had a huge influence on me when I needed it the most.
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. 🙂
I think you already know the answer: My purpose is to help the world find transcending purpose and direction. Research has now clearly shown that having a purpose greater than your own hedonic pleasure is really good for you — physically and mentally. Traditional religions can motivate such purposes, but I’m also interested in people who may not be traditionally religious. I’m interested in people who are lost and, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggested, don’t know how to live. There are billions of those people.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Kumanu research, product news, and insights on how employers can holistically support employee wellbeing can be found here.
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!