Workplace Wellness? Not Just A Perk: Q&A with Thrive Market’s John Foster
Thrive Market’s head of talent is out to prove you can sustainably boost performance by nurturing employee well-being.
John Foster is the Head of Talent and Organization/Chief Wellness Officer at Thrive Market, an organic grocery e-commerce platform that has raised $141 million in funding and is touted as one of the “hottest startups that investors, founders, and networkers in the Los Angeles tech scene are buzzing about.” His role includes a special mission: the company believes improving employee well-being will also measurably improve performance, and John’s working to prove it. We spoke on the phone about what wellness actually means in the workplace, how startup “perk wars” are misguided, and why neglecting employee well-being costs employers dearly.
“It’s broader than just physical wellness; it’s also about managing trade-offs and finding purpose in work.”
What is “wellness” in the workplace?
It’s the ability to sustain high performance over time, through uncertainty and ambiguity. So you have all your possible human forces available and ready to deal with whatever you’re working on.
It’s broader than just physical wellness; it’s also about managing trade-offs and finding purpose in work.
Why does that matter, from an employer’s perspective?
The reason employee well-being is essential for a company is that sustaining high-performance is very difficult. People are used to sprinting and burning out, but that’s very expensive. You’re constantly needing to replace people.
So companies need to change how they operate?
Yes. I’ve been working with people in high-performance settings for most of my career, but it was in my role at [design and innovation consulting firm] IDEO that I started to unpack and understand this challenge facing so many workplaces.
Traditionally, corporate environments are hierarchical, very directed, and focused on operating efficiently. You have a machine model that assumes every job is predictable and that people are interchangeable. But the world is different now. You can’t just tell your people what to do: their job is to figure it out. Creativity, problem-solving, ambiguity, and uncertainty define work today.
Because they were struggling to adapt, these traditional Fortune 500 companies would hire IDEO to solve complicated customer-facing problems. As head of HR, I would often get called in to help teach our culture to them, and I really got to witness the challenges they were facing.
Is wellness something every organization should be looking at, or is it only relevant to certain types of workplaces?
That was one of the main reasons I came to Thrive Market. Our company is dependent on our teams working to fill and ship orders: two hundred people at each of our fulfillment centers in Batesville, Indiana, and Reno, Nevada. These are hard-working everyday people who don’t necessarily have specialized degrees. They are performing hourly shift work. And we believe our wellness model can help them achieve sustainable high-performance just as well as anyone else.
We’re just getting started, but as we start doing well-being interventions and offering more support, we believe we’ll measure much higher rates of productivity. And more importantly, we believe we’ll see lower turnover and higher rates of attendance as people are better able to cope with stress and feel like they can bring their whole selves to work.
So yeah, I think wellness is important for every employer.
What does Thrive Market do to help employees be well?
Our belief is that managing time is at the core of well-being. Time is your single most important resource. So, if you’re going to be a high-performing person, you need to understand how you’re spending your time. Is it spent on the things that matter most?
We’ve been developing an eight-factor model for self-assessing how what you spend time on contributes to your wellness. Achievement, purpose, and connectivity are some of the factors. We want people to be able to choose to spend their time on work that incorporates as many of them as possible. As you get used to self-assessing throughout your day, you start to make better choices about how you use your time.
We also try and incorporate the factors into how we operate. For example, in our fulfillment centers, every box includes a personally signed note from the person who fills it. This was the founder’s idea: he wanted our people to find a bit of personal connection with the recipient. It helps the employee think about who they are serving, and feeling connected is one of those wellness factors.
Do benefits play a role in fostering wellness?
Wellness is not something you can bestow with a bunch of perks. I think for many startups, this has gone off track and turned into an arms race where companies try to one-up each other. For example, recently I heard someone boasting about the pet bereavement benefit at their company!
Perks can play a role as a resource for people to find more balance in their lives. Dry cleaning pick-up, an on-site chef, a dog-friendly office, a child care center – when used right, these can help do that.
“Our belief is that managing time is at the core of well-being.”
Does Thrive Market’s fast growth, and the uncertainties and changes that come with it, pose any challenges to your wellness work?
I kind of think it’s the whole point. If you want people to be operating in a really creative, fast-moving high-energy environment, they really need to be taking care of themselves.
We know that we’re growing fast. If you join us expecting an organized, stable, predictable role, that’s not what you are going to experience. We don’t want operators, we want builders. The growth probably makes that even easier for us, because when we hire someone it’s easy to say, “By the way, this is new, everything’s broken, and it’s your job to figure it out.”
Facebook talks about their “hacker culture”. I think at Thrive Market, we’re looking at our culture as “messy”. Human well-being is the core of our mission. Tackling that is inevitably messy because there is no silver bullet; there is no single variable you can tweak for everybody in the country to live healthily. It’s complex, it’s individual, and it’s quite subjective – because it’s human. Businesses usually hate messiness. They want predictability and simplicity. But everybody’s life gets shaken up sometimes: a child is born, a parent dies, your car gets wrecked. One of the most important factors in being well is knowing how to deal with the kinds of changes, uncertainties, and stresses that every human faces.
Should the responsibility for wellness always be tied to an organization’s talent function?
As the head of talent, my purpose is to help people perform at their best. I think that’s true for every head of talent, or director of HR, chief people officer – whatever you call the role. The best practice is helping people perform at their best by looking at whatever levers you can pull to get the best possible, sustainable output.
What’s the first thing employers should do to begin addressing and improving the wellness of their people?
Talk with your employees and see if they know what’s expected of them. Because if people understand what’s expected, they will automatically have less stress. That clarity will do more for well-being than anything else you can do.
I don’t advocate launching new programs as “benefits”. That’s usually a waste of money because employees have to be ready to consume them. Instead, start small and experiment. One of the things I’m working on is determining our total cost of employment. Once we have that, we can A/B test what we offer employees and optimize for what makes people feel and perform their best. It’s design thinking: rapid iteration, fail early and often. That should be what HR always does.
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