How to approach building a workplace stress strategy - an interview with Ruchika Sikri
Ruchika Sikri is a General Partner at Wisdom Ventures, former Head of Wellbeing Learning at Google and investor in WONE. Ruchika led Wellbeing and Mindfulness Learning Programs & Strategy for several years at Google, where she designed, facilitated, and curated programs for over 120k employees. She is currently advising several start-up founders and non-profits who are innovating in this space, as General Partner of Wisdom Ventures.
In our whitepaper, 'Managing Stress: Your Hidden Advantage', we highlight perspectives from three prominent experts in the field of workplace stress, including Ruchika. In our interview, Ruchika shared her lessons learnt from the inside, leading wellbeing learning at Google. Dive into the complete interview with Ruchika below, and download the whitepaper at: https://resources.walkingonearth.com/stress-whitepaper
What inspired you to focus on wellbeing in the workplace?
My journey spans 25 years in the tech industry, including roles at Microsoft, Cisco, and Google. At Google, I spent eight years as the Head of Wellbeing Learning, where I had the opportunity to establish, launch and scale our wellbeing learning program, including mindfulness and compassion learning.
Joining Google was such a great opportunity, but it was also very inviting to work non-stop. I was also a new mother to my two year old daughter at that time. The excitement, the opportunity of working in a place where innovation was all around us, and smart people were all around us. I’m the kind of person who wants to just learn quickly and connect and network and contribute a lot. I lost the sense of creating boundaries in my life. And it basically resulted in health challenges early on in life. My heart would be palpitating a lot, I wouldn’t sleep enough, and it all caught up with me.
I went to a doctor onsite at Google and they asked me to try out a box breathing practice to calm my inner thoughts, and they worked with me to help draw boundaries around work and personal life. It made me realise how stressed I was. I joined a meditation group on-site, led by a group of volunteers at that time, and it really did help me become more aware of the choices I was making daily, it helped me to stop working 14-16 hours a day, to pay more attention to my family and my own health. I was lucky to have that support. That was the beginning of it all for me. Now at Wisdom Ventures, my life’s calling is to help scale these learning opportunities globally.
What advice do you have for those looking to find a healthy balance of good and bad stress?
Stress is actually a good thing. When we are trying to do something like get from our home to the office, finish a project or meet a deadline, there is something in us that inspires and motivates us to take action. That’s good stress.
Then, when the stress becomes too much it starts stepping into mental fog, body challenges, physical, mental and emotional challenges. That’s when the stress has gone over the boundary, and has become bad stress.
At Google, to help our employees understand this difference, we launched a programme called G Calm. The aim was to raise awareness on the difference between good stress and bad stress through an online portal. Employees were given card decks to sort, to help them understand how stress shows up in their thoughts, body, sensations and emotions. We found that even something as simple as helping educate people on the language for good and bad stress, was phenomenally informative for these amazing star performers who came from Howard and MIT and Oxford.
How did Google leverage data to understand workplace stress?
We had a whole department dedicated to people analytics so that we could understand the statistics around how employees were doing, what they’re valuing and what their challenges were.
We ran multiple surveys to hear directly from employees. We had an annual survey called Google Guides that gave us a pulse on how employees were feeling, and provided deeper insights such as how manageable workloads were, and whether we were offering enough resources to help them navigate stressful situations. We also ran a quarterly People Health Survey across physical, mental and emotional health.
We used the information gathered in these surveys to guide the creation of our wellbeing programmes.
Where do you think the responsibility lies between the individual and the business when it comes to stress management?
I believe that organisational health and wellbeing rests at three different levels.
Organisations need to take responsibility for managing their employees' health and wellbeing effectively. They need to have in their credo, their mission, their value system that employees are humans first and resources later. If we don't show up as human beings, healthy, well, human beings, the quality of our work is not going to be great. Organisations need to identify that this is an important thing and take measures to collect data and give options to employees.
Encouraging managers and leaders to feel empowered and authorised to care for their teams is the second level. Leadership layers, starting from the CEO all the way to first line managers, need to adopt and adapt to that company value of caring for their employee’s health and wellbeing. They need to exhibit behaviours for good wellbeing and walk the talk.
The third is employees themselves. I had a stress related problem and had to take the initiative to go to the doctor and find a meditation group, sign up for yoga classes and learn through books I read and programs I attended. All of that was around me at Google. If employees don’t take the responsibility when the organisation is supportive and the leaders are supportive, they can still end up with bad health.
We used this framework to embed health and wellbeing in the DNA of the company, by implementing our programs around these three levels.
Why do you think businesses are not giving more importance to investing in workplace stress?
One reason is a lack of education on the direct relationship between health and wellbeing, and productivity. It was a surprise to me as an early workforce employee in a tech industry, how much of my personal life and my health and wellbeing impacted the quality of work I produce at my workplace. I realised over time that if I'm not healthy, if my team is not healthy, if my department is not taking care of their health and wellbeing, then the kind of work we're producing is not of the highest quality.
A second reason is budgets. It’s hard to put $1m aside every year for company health and wellbeing. Big companies are doing it and are hiring Chief Health Officers, but it needs to trickle down into small and medium businesses too. I’m noticing now I’m in the Venture Capital space that there are approachable solutions, like what you’re creating at WONE, that don’t require a $1m budget. I think there’s a lack of understanding of all the approachable options out there, for their workforce.
What advice would you give to businesses who want to help manage stress to drive performance?
The connection between stress and performance is really riding the wave of good stress. We need to have goals. At Google we had ‘Moon Shots’ - let’s shoot for the moon so we can land on stars. That was a good stress that managers created for good performance and it accomplished a lot for the company. But also watch out - make sure you give people resources so that as they gear up for that good stress they are also managing their health and wellbeing.