The Key to Well-Being in the Workplace: Strong, Effective Relationships

Photo courtesy of ACP/Trunk Archive

The Key to Well-Being in the Workplace: Strong, Effective Relationships

More than 70 percent of Americans feel disengaged and unhappy at work, according to a 2017 Mental Health America survey. But imagine if “work” weren’t such a four-letter word. “Maybe you won’t want to go to work every day,” but you should have “a feeling of being part of it, of feeling connected and safe,” says Brigit Ritchie of WE, an experiential development group in Los Angeles. “That should be baseline.”

Ritchie and her partner Court Roberts say the fix is strengthening work relationships. If we better relate to ourselves, our colleagues, and the company (that is, if we feel we’re making an impact), we’ll be happier on the job. “As the truism goes, the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our relationships,” says Roberts. At WE, the two work with individuals and companies to help them better engage. They call their approach relational mindfulness. It’s a methodology that Ritchie says helps employers and employees break down barriers and build trust. It hones in on the nebulous but critical intersection of emotions and work. We need to feel seen, like we are an integral part of the bigger picture—therein is the key to a productive, rewarding work life, according to Ritchie and Roberts.

“That sense of belonging—of who am I? Does it matter if I’m here? What am I part of?—is such a key component in how people can thrive and do their best work,” explains Ritchie.

WE started as a series of workshops, but the response was so positive—people really do have frustrations with their office environment—that Ritchie decided to grow beyond the downtown community of women she was working with. People in her workshops “were saying, ‘Can you come and support our team or our company?’” says Ritchie. Now she and Roberts—who joined WE full-time a year ago—bring their workshops to companies across the country. (We were thrilled to have them visit goop HQ a few months back, as well as host an activation at In goop Health in Los Angeles.) How they work depends on the company, but the goal is always the same: Build a culture of engagement and recognition at work.

“If you feel valued, if you feel a sense of belonging, chances are that you are going to relate to other people around you in a way that is very human, very supportive,” says Roberts.

A Q&A with Brigit Ritchie and Court Roberts

What is relational mindfulness?

Roberts: Relational mindfulness is our methodology that incorporates tools and practices to increase our quality of life at work—and beyond—through effective relationships. It is the flow of relationship to self, others, and company.

The outcome of a culture of relational mindfulness is when we look at the individual as the employee, we’d see that they have a sense of ownership over their work. They’re going above and beyond. Maybe they’re dreaming up new projects; maybe they’re asking their manager for a challenge or for a way to get to the next level.

In the relationship with others, that individual would feel that they have support from their coworkers, their peers. If they need help, someone is there for them. Relational mindfulness gives them the tools to communicate clearly and work together from a place of connection and trust.

And relational mindfulness develops the relationship with the company, in that we’d see that the individual has a sense of belonging with the company at large. They see their contributions as contributing to the greater mission. They feel like they’re getting feedback on their projects and work. It’s the worst thing to feel like you spend eighty hours on something and you’re not sure if it’s making an impact.

When we look at an individual or an employee, those three dynamics develop and benefit through relational mindfulness. And through the lens of relational mindfulness, we can provide an individual with a sense of belonging.

How did it evolve?

Roberts: We’ve seen an evolution in the workplaces, especially in larger cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Companies are really valuing diversity. We’ve seen this value for diversity with the creation of employee resource groups (ERGs) for minorities in the workplace. And in more recent years, companies are really starting to value—and want—a culture of inclusion. They’re asking, “How can we invite other people into that and have a feeling where everyone is included?” In that evolution, the next stage, which we’re really excited about, is the culture of belonging. This is where everyone feels that they’re valued. It’s like a community. Employees feel that they truly belong at their place of work.

Ritchie: It is next-level engagement. It’s the idea of actively showing up and being engaged. Another way of thinking about it is feeling connected. You, an employee, are experiencing that for yourself and your community. And we’re seeing that the value of that is incredible. It creates an environment of psychological trust and safety where employees can do their best work. They can understand and tangibly see and touch their contribution. And that motivates them and energizes them. People, both employers and employees, are really feeling that sense of thriving.

It’s been such a gratifying thing to watch this engagement happen in cultures, both at work and in our community. All of it is so inherently relational. That is why at WE, we care about relationships. Relationships determine your quality of life in so many ways. If you have that sense of being connected, being part of something bigger than yourself, and you know the vision of the company and you can see your place in it, that’s belonging. Watching progressive companies and cultures buy into that seeded value and want to create the space for employers will create a space for employees to fully engage and therefore stay.

It seems like there’s a shift in which people want more from their jobs. They want benefits beyond a paycheck and vacation days. What are you seeing, and where does it stem from?

Ritchie: People aren’t talking as much about balance; they’re talking about integration. They’re saying, “What works for me from a well-being perspective at work is different from what works for you.” But what doesn’t change is this need for well-being and connection and belonging. At the end of the day, there is a hierarchy; there is a level of need to show up and do your work and be productive. But a health question to ask is: How can we do that holistically? That’s belonging.

Roberts: It’s been exciting to see how the millennial generation and Gen Z are looking for companies that mirror their personal values. Those generations have introduced this new way of thinking where they want to be closely aligned with their companies. It’s much more integrated. And so often, they know they’re spending huge amounts of time at work. Particularly if they’re at a start-up, where they may spend sixty, seventy, maybe eighty hours a week at work. They understand that is a huge community in their life; those are their friends. So the need to belong is vital. Those relationships need to mean something in order to have a quality of life.

How does WE bring a culture of belonging into a company’s fold?

Ritchie: We start by working with people to give them mindfulness tools. We create intentions and an awareness to see how people—employees and leaders—are showing up. That can be through breathwork or a simple practice of pausing and slowing down. We give you the tools and skills to be able to understand how you’re connected and to see how you belong.

We also give people emotional-intelligence skills so they can relate to one another on a new level, so they can ask for something when they need it and learn to truly listen to one another. This nurtures a new level of vulnerability and empathy that help to build camaraderie.

Roberts: We work with employers to have transparency about where the company is at. So employees know the vision and the values of the company. That is so connective for employees to feel that sense of being a part of it. For example, we work with companies to create feedback frameworks. How can companies deliver feedback regularly, consistently, and in the moment so employees can grow?

And again, employees need to feel safe. If an employee is dealing with a level of stress because they think they’re replaceable or they’re always watching their back, they can’t contribute and be engaged. And therefore they can’t do their best work. They’re in survival mode. Our work with companies creates a culture of safety, trust, and acknowledgment.

Your programs are customized to each company, but can you take us through the main pillars of your workshops and retreats?

Roberts: Our workshops are realized through five specific ideas. The first is this idea of active participation and active listening. During our workshops, we talk less than 20 percent of the time. This allows each individual to be engaged, to really unpack each topic and the exercises for themselves. There is no hiding in the corner on your laptop or phone during our workshops. You don’t have the time. It’s fast-paced. This is such a great way to learn.

The second is the idea of creative play. We incorporate hands-on, artistic activities to help people learn and to connect. And to conceptualize certain ideas and things.

The third is an environment of inclusion. We use intentional dialogue and listening as ways to get people in a nonhierarchical space. This gets people to a place where all voices are heard and everyone feels like they belong.

The fourth is helping to create a work environment where people can develop both personally and professionally. Statistics show that employees are attracted to companies that will help them develop as a human. What does development look like? What resources does the company have? What are the growth opportunities? This has far-reaching impacts. We believe if you’re a better person at work, it’s only going to positively impact your personal life. And vice versa.

Lastly, our work is process-oriented with any company. We do quarterly, six-month, and annual programs. Repetition is key for reshaping culture. Burning those new neuropathways and reengaging time and time again in these topics helps you learn them. If you only practiced mindfulness for one day, it wouldn’t have an impact. I can’t tell you how many of the one-off trainings that I’ve done in the past that have just faded. We use the phrase “transformational experiences.” Culture takes time. These things are habitual. It’s not a quick fix. We want to take the time to go deeper and see that the impact is real.

What’s a sign of an engaged work culture?

Roberts: From what we’ve seen, the work cultures that are the most engaged are the ones where feedback conversations are happening on a regular basis. An employer is constantly telling her employees where they’re hitting the mark, where they can step up, in face-to-face conversations. And the employees are asking what they need to do.

Our programs are designed to take you to the edge of what you’ve previously thought possible for relationship and growth. There can be an element of discomfort that comes with taking a risk, attempting to learn something new about yourself, or practicing vulnerability. We welcome moments of awkwardness and silence and questioning, because those are often transformational parts of the learning experience.

Is the idea to potentially help people transcend biases?

Ritchie: Biases are so fascinating. People are down on biases, but it’s a fact that every human has biases. We have to compartmentalize. There have been countless studies to show that we, humans, are naturally biased. However, this is because we understand things only in relationship to our own experiences. What we can do is bring a level of nonjudgment and curiosity to our biases. To continuously question and be aware. We can ask questions and take a moment to consider if we’re making a biased assumption based on our own experience. If so, how can we turn the needle a few degrees? How do we grow and evolve? In order to have an empathetic culture, we have to constantly be questioning biases. We need to keep unpacking them. We need to be mindful.

Roberts: We’re greatly inspired by the work of Ellen Langer. Her definition of mindfulness is to pay attention. So when it comes to biases, we talk a lot about them at WE. It doesn’t serve us to have shame or judgment around them because they’re going to keep happening. So we pay attention. At the start of many workshops, we practice putting biases out on the table. We acknowledge them and go from there.

Brigit Ritchie has been facilitating personal and professional development for women in a variety of industries for ten years. As founder of WE, Ritchie believes the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our relationships. Her vision is to develop Relational Mindfulness® to equip people with relational skills in both communities and companies. Ritchie has a studio art practice as a painter and is a mother of two living in LA.

Court Roberts is a partner and creative director at WE. Her range of workplace experiences in ad agencies, social enterprises, and start-up cultures informs her work in creating more inclusive and emotionally connected cultures. Roberts merges her insights from transformational coaching with conceptual art experiences to develop Relational Mindfulness® in companies and communities.