Cross-generational conversation on health and well-being

To kick off 2021, AlixPartners’ NextGen employee resource group is exploring various forms of health and well-being and their influence on our personal and professional lives.

In this cross-generational Q&A, AlixPartners Managing Director and Head of Organizational Development Jeremy Borys,based in our Detroit office, and Consultant HongFei Li, based in our Shanghai office, interview each other on lessons learned from a challenging year, how companies can prioritize their employees’ mental health, and the value of embracing uncertainty. 

HongFei: We work on complex projects at a fast pace. 2020 brought significant uncertainty, change, and personal concerns—both health-related and otherwise. As the lead of our organizational development team, which focuses on firm culture, talent development and retention, and team effectiveness, what insights do you think we have we gained about our firm and its people over the past year, considering these added pressures?

Jeremy: At AlixPartners, we think of ourselves as doers, but I have observed that we're also deep thinkers and reflective on these issues. We’re also very creative. I've seen many unique and interesting ways that we've approached meetings, projects, brainstorming sessions in a largely virtual environment. I’ve also learned just how passionate, caring, open, and funny we are.

I have also learned several interesting things about our firm last year. One discovery is that every assumption that we had about how work should be done has been challenged. We’ve also been emboldened, and we're just pushing the limits constantly of our capacity for change. The message I hear across the firm is everything is on the table.

Another thing I’ve noticed is how leadership is emerging at all levels. New colleagues are taking responsibility and setting the direction. This has been a game changer for us. Being kind of locked in has actually unlocked us in many ways.

HongFei: There’s been a lot of talk in the media and business world about preparing for the “new normal,” which may lead to more permanent changes in the way we work. How do we prepare for it, both on a personal and professional level, when we don’t yet know what it will look like?

Jeremy: That’s a good question. So, there's a number of things to keep in mind here. The first is: we will define this. It’s not just going to happen to us, so we need to have some confidence that all of us will have a say in how the new normal is going to work.

A second thing is we need to break our conventional thinking about time. We tend to think of how many days here or how many weeks there, but that’s really an arbitrary measure. Instead, we need to start thinking about the value of interactions. What things require us to be face-to-face versus what things are better virtual?  

Lastly, we need to be confident. A lot of people are talking about the new normal like it is far out in the future. But every day right now, firms like ours are building toward how this is going to actually work. All of us have to be willing to embrace that ambiguity, deal with things that are still taking shape, and stay agile in our thinking.  

HongFei: I think people who work across all industries, particularly those of us at the beginning of our careers, can feel as though prioritizing our mental wellbeing is at odds with work expectations. What is your advice for finding that balance?

Jeremy: First of all, we have to know our own limits. How much do I want to work and what are my commitments to my family or to myself? And when we define those limits, we have to advocate for ourselves.

The second thing is we have to look at expectations as objectively and honestly as possible. What are the real expectations? What am I expected to do? Am I overblowing this or am I not taking this seriously enough?

And relatedly, we need to be clear about the tradeoffs of our choices. I’m 45 and I still struggle with this sometimes, but I remember being 25 and thinking, what am I willing to give up to get an opportunity, or to get more exposure, or to test myself and see how far I can go? And with that, we can’t accept one thing, but then hope for something else. I can't accept a job or a role and know what’s expected of me, and then hope that it's going to be different. That’s not going to work.  

All these things tie into mental health and burnout. Burnout is really doing a ton of work without purpose. You and I will get up in the morning, and we'll be busy all day whether it's home things, or fitness, or work. If we're doing things that we feel don’t have a purpose, then it really bothers us, so we always have to define the purpose.

Now, to take this conversation in a different direction, there have been many positive developments regarding mental health in the workplace and I think your generation has been pivotal in driving more awareness around these issues. What do you think companies can do to ensure they’re proactively addressing the mental health needs of their employees?

HongFei: It’s an interesting question. For my parents, if they had a good job and a family, and they didn’t have any physical health issues then they felt like they had the perfect life. But as things have gotten more competitive, people are working harder, which is leading to more stress and burnout. These issues are particularly impacting students and recent graduates, and they are changing how we decide where to work. A company’s reputation on how they treat their employees is becoming as important as the opportunities they can offer.

I feel fortunate that for AlixPartners, employee well-being is a clear priority: from our engagement onboarding protocol, where all the team members discuss their working preferences or outside commitments with each other, to our career coaches who provide individualized feedback for our career growth, to just our day-to-day interactions, where everyone takes some time to ask about your family or your weekend plans or to talk about a movie they just saw. We have a very friendly, open, and supportive culture.

A company’s reputation on how they treat their employees is becoming as important as the opportunities they can offer.

Jeremy: You’re a member of AlixPartners’ NextGen employee resource group, which has made our people’s mental health one of its key objectives. How do you think NextGen has helped foster more conversation around mental health in the workplace?

HongFei: We are focused on encouraging dialogue across levels. AlixPartners is well-known for our senior-team model, so I have many senior colleagues in the Shanghai office, but I have never felt excluded from any conversation just because I was less experienced. I think that openness and willingness to hear different perspectives has been key to helping everyone understand the importance of our colleagues’ well-being.

For example, I just had my annual review and someone from my project team gave me feedback that I should focus on setting boundaries now to avoid unhealthy habits later that could have long-term consequences that impact my effectiveness, my relationships, and my well-being. It was amazing to hear feedback like this and to know how supportive my colleagues are.

Jeremy: Can you share any insights or lessons you learned in 2020 for maintaining work-life effectiveness and prioritizing your own mental wellbeing?

HongFei: I’ve learned a lot from this challenging year. When I worked from home, I would follow the same daily schedule—I would wake up at the same time and eat meals at the same time—and this helped me set boundaries between work and my personal life.

A second thing I learned was that in addition to setting expectations with my colleagues and my clients, that I also needed to set expectations with my family. It was a hard lesson to learn, but just little things like letting them know if I was staying late or had upcoming travel helped them not to be so worried about me. 2020 taught me how important communication is for alleviating stress.

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