Long hours at the office, all-hands-on-deck deadlines, always-on technology and the road warrior lifestyle – that’s business as usual in the A/E/C industry. But is it killing us?

In this issue of The Friedman File, we examine an area of critical importance: executive and employee wellness. We spoke to firms that are making it a priority – and seeing impact from productivity and effectiveness to recruitment and retention.

At international planning and design firm Sasaki Associates (Boston, MA), the wellness conversation is personal, and the 250-person firm is tackling it head-on. It started when, during the firm’s leadership transition two years ago, now-Managing Principal James Miner found himself in the emergency room with alarmingly high blood pressure and a personal wake-up call.

It inspired him to start a new conversation at Sasaki. During an emotional staff meeting, he shared his personal story and his vision for a healthier workplace. “It was very tough to do,” he says. “And it resonated. Other principals and senior associates spoke up and shared their experiences. People felt it was now OK to talk about this.”

There are no easy answers.

Wellness and balance mean different things to different people. And it touches everything from staffing and workload, to design industry culture and client expectations, to 24-hour technology and generational changes in what’s expected as people move up the ladder.

Many firm leaders feel guilt about taking time out for exercise or working less than 60 hours per week. It can feel selfish, even unprofessional. The truth is, the time you spend improving your own health, productivity and focus will actually help you build a stronger firm.

Research shows what we all know and often overlook — ignoring our health will catch up to us. That’s why 600-person A/E firm DLR Group (Omaha, NE) requires its senior principals to undergo regular confidential health check-ups.

And it’s why 150-person structural engineering firm Silman (New York, NY) now has a wellness director and a wellness initiative that brings stress management, movement, nutrition and other initiatives to staff across three offices.

Wellness starts at the top.

Silman President Joe Tortorella says his experiences with stress reduction have made him a better leader and mentor, one who is able to recognize the “tells” when someone is stressed or needing a break. Yet the wellness program was also born out of asking staff what they wanted in a new office. Offerings include a quiet room for meditation and naps, weekly yoga, Pilates and MELT classes, and lunch seminars on mindfulness, cholesterol and healthy cooking. There is a monthly breakfast club, a running club led by a senior principal, and individual and team challenges with healthy incentives such as gift certificates for local food coops.

“We hear from employees: ‘I never thought I could see myself doing this, but it’s made a difference in my stress level.'” he says. “For us, it’s helping people live a better life. As an owner, isn’t it wellness for you when your people are happier, more relaxed, and more focused — and thus, more productive?”

A 2013 study conducted by the Harvard Business Review and The Energy Project backs this up. It revealed that leaders who encourage — and model — working in more sustainable ways have employees who are 55% more engaged, 53% more focused, 77% more satisfied and 1.15 times more likely to stay at the company.

Are the principals burned out?

Firms can enact policies to encourage wellness and balance, but individuals also need to set their own boundaries and advocate for their own health and well-being, says Miner. They won’t do that in a culture where the opposite is rewarded or where they feel like they can’t say no.

“The way you carry yourself in the office is a big deal,” he says. “If you’re on the road all the time looking haggard, and you think this is OK, it is not. People are watching and asking themselves, “Is that really what I aspire to? We want to offer role models that make them say “Yes, I do want to be a leader at Sasaki.”

To that end, Miner schedules time for exercise during the workday, invites staff to walk or have lunch and makes it a priority to be home by 6 p.m. when in town to be with his wife and three young children. Business trips remain a challenge.

The firm also hired a generational expert, a leadership trainer and coach to work with senior staff. It’s role modeling, and part of a strategic plan to cultivate more women leaders and address generational shifts in fatherhood and childfree professionals who value a meaningful personal life outside the office.

Employees are encouraged to build peer relationships to cover for one another, to respect other people’s personal priorities (it’s not just family), and learn how to set boundaries that allow them to say “no” when necessary.

Silman’s wellness center is “definitely a recruiting tool,” agrees Tortorella.

“Clients also look at us differently,” he says. “For us, it’s not about measuring the benefits. Work-life balance is the most important thing to us, and this industry is not conducive to achieving this balance.”

Build a sustainable culture.

Is it time to address your own — and your firm’s — approach to wellness? Here are a few places to start, from those who are doing it:

  • Reward leaders and senior staff who model work-life balance and who exhibit empathy and emotional intelligence.
  • Add wellness objectives to your firm’s strategic plan. Know where you want to go, and how you will define success.
  • Talk openly about what it takes to get ahead, what’s valued and what’s expected.
  • Let go of the guilt and allow yourself — and your staff — to recharge.
  • Address staffing and operational issues that contribute to heavy workloads, and empower employees to say “no”.
  • Set clear expectations around email and voicemail use and availability, including response times and off-hours use.
  • Every day, balance achieving something with enjoying something.
  • Get up from your desk and out of the office. Take a walk or eat lunch away from the building.
  • Treat yourself like a business and have a personal strategic plan. Know what you want personally and professionally, and take steps to create your own balance.
  • Limit meetings to no longer than 90 minutes, or institute walking meetings, or off-site coffee and lunch meetings.
  • Create fitness or wellness rooms or offerings, nap spaces, and provide healthy, high-quality food at meetings.

Have you instituted executive and/or employee wellness initiatives at your firm? If so, I’d love to hear about them. Call me at (508) 276-1101 or email me at rich@friedmanpartners.com.