How to Stop Employee Burnout at Your Business – Elizabeth Ross Holmstrom

Stress. Burnout. Overwhelm. These factors are not just impacting your employees, they’re impacting your business. Discover how to re-invigorate your team with passion and purpose and reap the benefits on your own bottom line.

Rich: Our next guest has just led us through some really deep breathing exercises here at Fast Forward Maine and so we are super chill and ready to hit the ground running. She’s a natural entrepreneur connector in systems change architect. She has over 20 years experience in employee benefits and wellbeing as well as in leadership development. She’s a graduate of the Institute for civic leadership here in Maine and has volunteered with Maine youth leadership for many years. She served as VP health and wellness at a fortune 500 company with 26,000 employees and a half billion dollar annual budget. And has managed client relationships and special product development for several national employers throughout the health insurance system.

Rich: She left the corporate world after realizing that while her efforts were helping to mitigate healthcare trend, her work was not focused on the root cause of the problems she witnessed each day, stress, burnout, and overwhelm. After years of research and experience bringing mindful awareness to small and mid sized organizations, the need for Mindful Employer emerged. People want to work for companies that are aligned with their mission and values. They want to be respected in experience, in investment, in their development and they want time to connect with friends, family and wellbeing. Outside work she finds balance through spending time with Maine family and community, mountain biking, cooking, singing, lot of singing and quarry swimming along the coast of Maine. We’re very excited to welcome to the Fast Forward Maine podcast, Elizabeth Holmstrom.

Elizabeth: Thank you, Rich.

Yury: Welcome to the show.

Elizabeth: Thank you, Yury.

Yury: Elizabeth, so what were some of the things you observed that led you to start your company the Mindful Employer. For our guests, Mindful Employer can be located at

Elizabeth: Well, kind of what Rich had touched on when he did the intro was the witnessing of the burnout and the obsolescence there were sort of treating people as assets and as capital and resources. Capital I think is my least favorite term for humans. And what I witnessed in being in wellbeing over 20 year period is that most of the expenditures that we had and what we have in the US are on sick care, right? Are on care and when you look at the trends in that medical spend or the … that’s what we used to call it medical spend, in terms of their health insurance costs and other costs related to health and wellbeing.

Elizabeth: The top five are almost always negatively impacted by stress. So cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, those kinds of things. And if you look at the money that is spent on when someone is maybe not experiencing a health issue that’s immediately diagnosable, but is taking a leave of absence from work, right? For mental wellbeing, for other reasons. All of those really tie back to our wellbeing and stress is a huge component of that. And so that was really what I witnessed. So I’m delivering these dashboards that were basically delivering very good news to the suite of that organization. And we were reducing trend over time, which is what we are trying to, you can’t reduce spend, but you can try and reduce trend. And that was an exciting place to be. It was probably the most exciting place at that point in my career to be doing that work.

Elizabeth: And yet I’m looking outside of my office and I’m looking really at what’s happening to people. And that story was very different. That story was that people were crying in the office, people were taking leave of absence for mental health more and more and so that sparked this journey.

Rich: So the dashboards weren’t telling the whole story?

Elizabeth: Correct.

Rich: And just, I don’t understand this, when you say you could reduce trend but not spend, what does that mean exactly? Like what do you mean reduce trend and then why wouldn’t that lead to less money being spent by an organization?

Elizabeth: So there are healthcare trends or spend, which is maybe if you think of all size businesses I don’t want to just stick with the large publicly traded size businesses. We spend a certain amount of money on our healthcare premiums, right? That’s typically what the employer’s responsible for is paying for the premium, even though they share that cost with their employees. And so that is basically your spend and with large organizations, most of them, if they’re somewhat large are self funded. So they’re not only paying for the fixed costs in healthcare, but they’re also paying for all of the claims and they’re paying if they have a bad year and they’re paying if they have a good year. So the cost of that budget is basically your costs each year. And there’s a trend in that in terms of the cost of healthcare itself going up, the cost of maybe an increase in a particular kind of illness, those kinds of trends that are going to continue to happen until we figure out a solution on a larger level.

Elizabeth: And so we really spent our time, so let’s say the average increase from one year to the next was 10% or 8% or what have you. We would consider it a win if the average spend or the average increase was 8% and we were to able to keep our trend increase to two or 3% or even zero. And so it wasn’t stopping the trend from happening, but it was trying to mitigate how fast that trend was growing. How fast that money, that spend was going to increase.

Rich: All right, so you started Mindful Employer, what are some of the ways in which Mindful Employer serves other companies?

Elizabeth: I think it’s helpful to go back just a little bit about why Mindful Employer was started and that is in doing, I actually left and started teaching mindfulness and helping companies understand why important to be mindful in the work that we do. And that first bit of research that I did while I was in my previous role and through a pilot was around noticing that we don’t by and large take breaks at all. And yet our human bodies really need to have breaks in the day, right? And we need to be in touch with our wellbeing. We need to be in touch with self in order to be our best in the work that we do and for our wellbeing. And so in that work, in bringing forth these mindful programs into organizations, one of the things that I recognized was that there are companies that basically brought me in to do that work and then said, “Hey, that was excellent. Why don’t you come back next year?” And that isn’t really changing the trend, right?

Elizabeth: And so Mindful Employer was developed as sort of a culmination of my leadership development experience, my business development experience and that mindfulness work, which is how do we help companies have this conversation about the importance of human beings in their space, right? And what I’ve also observed is that over time, there’s a statistic here that I think is really important is that tangible assets have dropped in the S&P market value from 68% in 1985 to only 13% today.

Elizabeth: And that’s of a business, right? And so that means that more and more people are important. So we might know that innately and now the business data and science is basically supporting that innate knowledge that indeed humans are important in the work that we do. And so while some companies are beginning to look at how to bring mindfulness into an organization, what I realize is that they really need to stop a step back and look at how important human beings are in their work and how they as a company impact human beings. And so the research today is very strong that three areas are important in any work that we do, no matter how large your company is, purpose, leadership and connection to self. And so we’re helping companies start that conversation.

Yury: That is fantastic. That is a lot of information. So thank you for sharing of all of this, but what would you suggest to employees who operate in the environments where, you know, hustle, grind, hard work is kind of like the mottoes, like if you spend in the office 12 to 14 hours a day, you’re doing a good job instead of being mindful and present and aware of how you’re spending your time in the office, how do we go about that?

Elizabeth: I would point to the quality of work that’s actually coming out of that kind of environment, right? That is there a way in that particular environment to measure mistakes, to measure the wellbeing of your employees, to measure where is stress related illness impacting your company or impacting your leaves of absence that human beings are not designed to do work in that manner without pause and without breaks. It’s led to stress related deaths and workplace related deaths to be like the fifth leading cause of death in the US. So we truly are killing people.

Yury: That’s scary. So the follow up questions or what can we do to mitigate some of these stress and burnout employees are facing?

Elizabeth: I believe it’s in starting this conversation and understanding, having a better relationship. Everything in my mind comes down to communication. So if you understand, if you look at this data that we’re being given that shows that when employees are connected to your mission, when their leaders are engaging, they’re engaged in your employees being developed in their work and as human beings. And when there is time for self that those organizations are thriving well above their competitors. So we have Raj Sisodia of Babson College wrote Firms of Endearment and they have over … and they also wrote the book Conscious Capitalism with the CEO from Whole Food. And the data is strong that companies that are paying attention in these three areas are doing better work. And so from an employee perspective, you can really only try to educate, try to point that out, share an article with your manager, try to take a moment for yourself knowing that it truly isn’t leading to better work and to better outcomes. If you’re putting in 12 hour days and you’re not taking care of yourself.

Rich: Employees might have their hands tied other than trying to work it up.

Elizabeth: Exactly.

Rich: But speaking as an owner, what can I do to show my employees that their work has purpose or meaning? Like what are some tactical things that as I go back to my office today and think about it.

Elizabeth: So what is the mission of your organization?

Rich: I would say that we are created to help small businesses get more business online. I could probably do it better than that, but I’m only on my second cup of coffee for the day.

Elizabeth: And I think that’s a great example. I think most of us, when I do work with companies are not able to really quickly articulate what their mission is. And that might be because you’re not saying it all the time in what you do. So I think the first thing if you’re thinking about how do your employees relate to your mission? How often do you communicate your mission, right? Especially for a small companies or growing companies. I know you’ve been focused on some great tools and your show is startup. And so as you grow, like I know what my mission is right now, right? And the people that work with me know what our mission is. But as we grow, in order to keep that fire burning for everyone, we need to articulate that mission in every bit of reporting, in our onboarding, in our review process, in everything that we touch. We have to make sure … think of Patagonia, right? You have to make sure that the why we’re here is embedded in everything you do.

Elizabeth: And so that’s number one. I would say the first thing is that we have to all be aligned around this purpose. The second thing is your leadership and making sure that, oftentimes people are only managing people in your organization because that’s the next step in their career, but should they be managing people? Right?

Rich: Right. Well, and so I guess it’s great to say leadership and it’s great to say like mission and talk about it and I 100% agree, but are there things I can do? Like, are there tactical things like obviously the mission? Do I literally put up not motivational posters or things with kittens hanging off trees, but like are there things like that that I should be doing? Do I literally go to a developer on my team and help draw that line between that update you’re doing is impacting this client’s wellbeing, his or her employees, his or her family, that sort of thing?

Elizabeth: I believe that if you’re doing the mission well it is all around your organization, it is in your report. And so if your job is to help companies grow, right? And to be more impactful then I would think that you have to measure that when you’re reporting out. And so that’s tying back to your mission, when you report out to your employees how well you’re doing, you can say, of these six clients that we brought on this month, this is how much we’ve raised awareness to X product that you’re trying to raise awareness of. These are how many, I know you measure clicks and you measure how people are getting there, you measure dollar value. So all of that also ties back to people. How many employees does that company have? Did you help them grow? How many employees?

Elizabeth: I like to think of every single employee is a family that you’re supporting. So that wellbeing as a business. One of the things that I think is really interesting in our foundational thinking is conscious capitalism. And so it’s you as a business Rich, everything that you do as a business can either positively or negatively impact your customers, your community, your employees, your shareholders if you have them, your environment. So it’s important to kind of broaden your thinking. And so that’s what Mindful Employer’s helping in terms of tools is to lay out those three areas and ask those questions and have those conversations. So the tactics are to ask your employees how well they’re connected. Ask your employees whether they feel like you’re giving them work life balance, right? Because if you are, then chances are you’re doing as an organization.

Rich: Sounds good.

Yury: Awesome. Well, you know, we talked a lot about leadership and we know that leadership has been around for a very long time. So, what changes must happen in leadership now to impact change and why does the leadership style of the past no longer works?

Elizabeth: I love that question. Yury, thank you. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in leadership. So think about boss leadership, right? Most of us had a boss. In a hundred years ago, the way we were managed were through tasks that we completed, right? “Did you do this, this and this today, Elizabeth?” And if you did, that’s great. That’s no longer working in the kind of knowledge based society that we’re living in. And I would also say that we’ve also spent time in our education system training people how to learn and how to think. So when that person that is working for you is given a task to do, chances are what they want to know is what outcome do you desire. And then I want to be set free to achieve that outcome from you with check-in points, right?

Elizabeth: So the boss leadership needs to turn over and become coaching leadership, right?

Yury: Coaching leadership.

Elizabeth: We’ve coached our kids from the time they were hitting their first tee ball. And so when they come into our organizations with education that’s helping them think and learn and all of the games that they’re playing, help them think and learn and then having been coached and then we set them in front of a manager that’s going to then look at their tasks that have been completed for the day. That is not a situation that’s going to work for you. And so that’s why we have to change leadership from boss style leadership to coaching style leadership.

Rich: Now you offer survey through your company Mindful Employer that gets to the heart of all of this. I understand it’s got a paid report and there’s some one on one time with you, which sounds awesome, but what can you share about the questions that you ask as part of that survey?

Elizabeth: Its six simple questions. So really it’s leading back to those things. So how well are your employees connected to your mission and to your purpose? How well do they believe their work aligns with that purpose? The other piece that’s really important around the leadership and around that coaching is that how well do I believe that my immediate leader is invested in my professional development and my growth? And then the other pieces is bringing our authentic selves to work right around diversity and around really getting rid of labels. So we ask am I able to bring my authentic self to work? Can I bring myself? The other piece is when we get into the third layer, which is self, is am I both supported and encouraged to practice my own and to practice work life balance, right? The eight hour work day and the 10 hour work days, those are going away.

Elizabeth: We need to allow people to really work on an outcomes basis and change that relationship so that we have more freedom in how we execute things. And then we have therefore more freedom in how we manage our work. And so we get at those questions. We also ask about, because we are in a mental health epidemic at the moment, we ask a question about whether or not if I am not doing well, do I have the resources or is there a place that I can go for support.

Rich: When you’re doing these surveys, are these surveys for the employer or the employees?

Elizabeth: They’re for the employees.

Rich: Okay. I was going to say because I’m sure there were a lot of tone deaf managers and owners out there who think like, “Yes, I’m absolutely giving all of these resources to my team-

Elizabeth: You got it.

Rich: … and the team is like, “I feel like I’m just banging my head against the wall.” Yeah.

Elizabeth: That’s exactly right. So the only way when you’re in the midst of a paradigm shift like this, the only way to go through is with communication. And so these six questions, this isn’t the panacea, although it’s a great way to start. If you don’t know the answer from your employee perspective, it’s called an employee pulse check, right? We can be running around with high blood pressure and everything feels great, right? We don’t know that we have high blood pressure until we go to the doctor and they’re like, “You might need to address this.” And so I call it the pulse check for that reason because we don’t know. We put all these great programs into place and we think we’re doing the right thing as an owner and yet we don’t truly understand our employee perspective until we ask.

Yury: It sounds like we have to have a mindful employer who would be willing to engage with you to learn more about his employees. But what if the person who is listening to our podcast is an employee of the company who believes that your work can contribute to the success of the organization that he or she works for? So how can they engage with you without overstepping their boundaries?

Elizabeth: We are building a toolkit because I do believe that when you’re going through shifts such as this, that it’s from the top down and it’s from the bottom up. I literally was having a conversation in a store over here on Exchange Street with the owner who asked what I was doing. And a person that I don’t know, walked over, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’m sorry I was eavesdropping, but I would love to work for a company like that.” Really? I just said those three things, and she said, “I would love to work for a company like that.” So we’re building a toolkit that will really just give you a couple of articles that can be shared with your leadership, can give you some simple practices like you said, Rich, you know, asking in these different areas for, how can I make a suggestion for balance and work if that’s the thing that I’m struggling with. Right?

Rich: Right. And I would say, I mean it’s been 20 plus years since I’ve been an employee of anybody, but I would think that I would want to take this to my manager or boss and if I got zero results well we happen to be living in a time where there’s like 3% unemployment, so …

Elizabeth: You go elsewhere and honestly that’s why people are willing to start having these discussions. Honestly.

Rich: It could be a low unemployment rate is the fact that we need to keep our employees happy and the cost of turnover and the cost of burnout and all these other things you’ve mentioned today.

Elizabeth: Yeah. It far exceeds the cost of investing in the current employees you have is a much better investment than turnover.

Rich: Well, and you mentioned earlier like you know, back in the old days we were spending a lot more money on machinery than people, but the bottom line is I’m sure we were taken care of that machinery, you know?

Elizabeth: Thank you. That’s a great example.

Rich: And now, it’s like we kind of assume that our employees are able to take care of themselves, but we all know how busy and difficult it is in sandwich generation. You’re taking care of your parents and your kids at the same time and it definitely can be a challenge.

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

Rich: Tell us a little bit about what comes next for your business. I know you’re thinking about building this network of mindful employers. What does that look?

Elizabeth: So my thinking is that as you’re rewarding people who are doing well, we want to help those companies be known, right? So there’s a brand called … we’ve developed a certification mark called Mindful Employer Designation. That’s not rewarded by us. It’s rewarded by your employees. So the first company that’s taking that, actually this week is Katy Insurance here in Maine. They have almost 400 people and they’re in five states and they are going to be one of our founding partners, and we’re very excited about that. What’s next is really thinking about this ecosystem as a way to build companies up who are doing this work to let employees know that they exist, right? Because that person that I just talked about that walked in the store, she’s not working for a company like that. She would love to find a company like that.

Elizabeth: So we’re going to be building on our site a list of companies that have been given the designation by their employees. And then we are also going to do all of all we can to promote those companies to promote business between those companies. There’ll be a video for each company on the site that we produce for them that helps them talk about what they do so that we can try and build these businesses up between one another and truly build an ecosystem that creates a better society for everyone in terms of work.

Yury: Elizabeth, could you help me to understand, so what’s the difference between this designation and designations like the best places to work for?

Elizabeth: This designation is really focused on the employee experience, right? On that true connection to your culture, to their leadership and to their personal wellbeing. Right? And so it’s also really easy to understand. So we’ve interviewed hundreds of people, 98% see the logo and say that’s a company that would care about me as a person. So really I think it’s more of a refresh because those companies are doing great work, best place to work, great place to work, B corps, they are already mindful. They can fly the logo. So it’s really about creating something that’s easily identifiable and connected to that human experience.

Yury: Got you. That is awesome. So speaking about the human experience and the next step forward, if you could change one thing about the Maine ecosystem to improve it, what would it be?

Elizabeth: I want Maine to lead in this work. I want Maine to lead in conscious capitalism and to lead in creating mindful places to work because it goes beyond living and working in Maine, and it’s how we work in Maine. How we work together collaboratively, how we allow space for people to thrive, and because of our collaborative nature in this state, we could truly put Maine in the forefront of this work. We’re also uniquely positioned, even if you look at climate change predictions, that we’re in a great spot in the country to thrive on a lot of levels, and I think part of the equation has to be making sure that we’re a very welcoming place for people from everywhere because we can’t have enough babies to fill that need.

Rich: So you mentioned that being Maine and having mindful employers, do you see this then as like a state initiative, like a government thing or do you see this as an employer led thing or is it just more of a groundswell of this is the right time and the right place?

Elizabeth: I think it’s a combination.

Rich: Okay. So there is definitely some government involvement?

Elizabeth: I think it’s a true collaboration. Absolutely.

Rich: All right, sounds good.

Yury: Well, hopefully you know, Fast Forward Maine will be your stomping grounds.

Elizabeth: That’d be great. I’m loving the work that you guys are doing. Thank you.

Yury: Thank you.

Rich: Thank you. We mentioned earlier, where else can people find you online?

Elizabeth: You can find me at elizabethrossholmstrom on LinkedIn and you can also email me I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on this work. It’s really fascinating for me to hear from others.

Rich: Cool, and we’ll make sure we put those links in the show notes. Elizabeth, it’s been great. Thanks for coming by.

Elizabeth: Thank you, Rich. Thank you, Yury. Appreciate.

Yury: We appreciate your time. Thank you.