Employee feedback, unique perks key to managing work-related stress

Yoga classes, ‘Thirsty Thursdays,’ summer hours help CBT employees relax

Employee feedback, unique perks key to managing work-related stress
A “Suit Yourself” casual dress program was designed by employees at CBT, seen relaxing in the collaborative space. Credit: CBT

Stress, for many, is an integral part of working life. While some stress can be positive and even invigorating, it’s well-known that intense or prolonged stress can negatively impact people’s health, relationships, job satisfaction, productivity and more. 

At Collins Barrow Toronto (CBT), a financial services advisory firm, planned and unplanned client needs typically determine deadlines and a sometimes unpredictable volume of work for professionals and many other staff. So, as in many workplaces, stress is often a natural consequence of getting the job done.

Another contributing factor is that the predictable and finite “busy season” associated with the financial services industry is now essentially a thing of the past. Evolutions in client size and complexity, multiple service lines, and ongoing advisory practice make most areas of CBT busy all year.

Rapid growth has driven annual workforce increases totalling 86 per cent in the last five years.  While this makes for a stimulating workplace, rich with opportunities, such a pace can also result in increased stress. 

CBT’s leadership has been very purposeful about becoming an employer of choice. Reducing stress helps support a positive work environment. So, how do we do it? 

We start by making the working experience and personal well-being areas of priority for the firm, and by making regular, proactive efforts to enhance them. 

Wellness initiatives include fitness contests, a walking group, sessions on resilience and mindfulness, chair yoga, and a visiting registered massage therapist.

We offer a wellness subsidy to staff for such things as gym memberships, sports equipment, and nutrition or yoga classes. In 2015, we introduced a new, fully flexible health spending account benefits plan to provide greater health and dental coverage choice — and greater peace of mind. Health benefits are frequently reviewed and adjusted as required.

Social interactions are also strongly supported. Occasional “Thirsty Thursdays” events — complete with a bartender, themed food, beverages and games — have certainly introduced a bit of fun into the workweek and helped people from across the firm get to know each other better.

A major investment in the employee experience in the past year is 1,300 square feet of custom-built collaborative space on the sixth floor. This comfortable, high-tech facility attracts a lot of attention and gets a lot of use for planned and impromptu meetings. It includes a treadmill desk and several unique seating areas, all with plug-in monitors and network access, enabling staff to have quick huddles or to work independently in a more relaxed and engaging environment than a typical meeting room.

We also listen, and avoid making assumptions about the wants and needs of employees. We resist the temptation to simply “plug and play” the latest new thing another company is doing.  While we can be inspired by trends, asking questions and drawing out frank feedback about what will work for employees is key. This is done at least once a year via an all-employee survey that helps us determine employee engagement and the efficacy of our workplace practices. The survey is anonymous, but can be sorted by practice area and job level to identify trends. Typically, CBT scores well but we guard against complacency as there is always room for improvement and innovation.

CBT also conducts focus groups and “pulse” surveys to drill down on specific topics, such as compensation or dress code. We have learned employees have many of their own ideas and we continue to experiment with a variety of initiatives, including those that employees have helped create themselves.

Not surprisingly, improving work-life balance has emerged as a common theme and some of our most popular initiatives address this. “CBT Days,” for example, enable employees to turn a three-day public holiday weekend into a four-day mini-break, and summer hours enable employees to leave work at 1 p.m. on Fridays in July and August.

Also, a firm guideline of not sending emails after 7 p.m., if the content can wait until the morning, helps employees unplug and relax in the evenings. Another way we manage email is to try to avoid using it to connect with in-house colleagues on Fridays, if possible, and encourage people to just call or stop by someone’s desk instead — just like the old days.

Many employees expressed the desire to work from home occasionally and so we invested in a communications system that lets them be as connected and efficient remotely as they are in the office.

“When my baby daughter had the flu, I was able to be at home with her and continue working rather than taking time off unexpectedly,” says Tim Nakai, senior manager in the deal advisory team at CBT.

“That definitely reduced stress as I didn’t have to worry about how I would meet my work commitments or deal with a backlog upon my return. The new system also gives me the flexibility to be home in time to help with my daughter’s bedtime routine and then plug back into the office again later, if I need to.”

Another initiative aimed at easing workplace pressure is a “Suit Yourself” casual dress program, designed and named by employees. Nakai participated on the internal committee which set the policies for dress code guidelines at the outset of the program.

“Employee input showed that while casual Fridays were appreciated, employees prefer to dress as they deem appropriate for their day,” he says. “Surprisingly, we found that younger staff are less inclined to want to wear jeans to work when not meeting a client, because wearing a suit boosts their self-image and confidence.”

Conversely, senior staff, including those at partner level, have more of a preference for casual wear than their newer, junior colleagues. This demonstrates perfectly the importance of effective listening before implementing change, because we would have assumed these preferences to be the other way round.

Clearly, CBT is making a serious effort to reduce stress — and it is paying dividends. Hiring is up, and turnover is down year over year. Feedback, both anecdotal and via surveys, has been positive overall and soon a new integrated HR management system will help us analyze data more effectively. Importantly, we are demonstrating to employees that we care about them, value their opinions and want to provide a happy and positive workplace. We are also demonstrating that we trust them to use their own judgment when balancing work responsibilities with other aspects of their lives.

It’s so important to listen to employees and address issues promptly. It may not be possible to tackle everything when trying to reduce stress, so it’s important to be strategic, track results and adjust accordingly. This will show that leaders are listening and committed. Finally, get staff involved so they can take some ownership of the new programs and put their stamp on things too.

For CBT, reducing work-related stress continues to be an important investment. As a professional services company, our offering is essentially the quality of our people.

By providing the best possible working experience, we believe we will be better able to attract and retain the best available talent. This is good for clients — and good for business.

Sarah Llewellin is the human resources director at Collins Barrow Toronto. She can be reached at sfllewellin@collinsbarrow.com or for more information, visit www.collinsbarrow.com.

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