In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by self-described data geek Julie Alig, Ph.D. to discuss measuring well-being in the workplace.

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Well-being Essential Series. I’m Mari Ryan I’m the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview, where we explore topics that impact employee well-being. My guest today is Julie Alig. Julie, is a self-described data geek she is passionate about telling stories.  She lives by the credo that your data can help you answer the questions you’re facing. She works with businesses, not for profits colleges, universities, and other groups to uncover the stories in their data using statistics and visualizations.  Julie earned a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College in the City of New York with a double major in History and French literature. She went on to earn a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago. While a doctorate student she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to conduct her dissertation field research.  She lived for a year in Stuttgart Germany, where she conducted interviews with business owners in the machine tool industry. Julie, welcome. I’m so excited to have you here for this conversation today.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: Thank you so much for having me I’m excited for it also Mari.

Mari Ryan: We’re going to explore a little bit around topics related to employee well-being in measuring well-being.  One of the places that wellness and well-being programs often fall short is in creating ways to really measure well-being in their organization today’s conversation we’re going to explore what it takes to measure well-being in meaningful ways, so Julie let’s talk data.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: I love it.

Mari Ryan: So why is it important to measure well-being in an organization?

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: That’s a really good place to start Mari. Why is it important to measure well-being. I would say it’s important to measure pretty much anything that the organization thinks is important, and you know a lot of times what that comes down to is organizations will keep an eye on the financial metrics right exactly.  Any business or organization is going to want to make sure that they’re in the black every month, not in the red or if they’re in the red that they’ve got a really good strategy for getting out.  But you know, especially something like well-being you know the literature shows that you know it is so highly related to job satisfaction and we all know that job satisfaction is something that organizations have got to keep an eye on, especially as we’re recording this in the middle of better known as the great resignation, I think that you know organizations really need to be thinking about.  What they’re measuring and to go back to the old adage “you manage what you measure”. If you’re not keeping an eye on employee will be then you’re signaling perhaps implicitly or maybe even explicitly you’re signaling that you don’t see that as important. So I’ll stop there and see what your thoughts are about that.

Mari Ryan: I think you’re right. I think it’s a real strong statement as to whether it matters, because we all know you measure what matters.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: And to your point, I see a lot of organizations get tripped up right there at the beginning, like maybe they have the impetus to start measuring but then they start thinking. What the heck I have no idea where to start or they go in we’ve all seen how much data and especially big data is really revolutionizing so many parts of our society, especially business. A lot of organizations are thinking you know I don’t have big data. So even if I wanted to, can’t even really do this kind of measurement and I feel like you know I see that they kind of get stopped.

Mari Ryan: Right but let’s go there, because I think that’s a really important point well-being isn’t a particular number, like gross margin and employee turnover. It’s not just one number that’s easy to just grab and say “Oh look employee well-being went up this month”. It’s a bit harder to measure. Let’s talk a little bit more about how should an organization think about measuring well-being and what might be some of their sources of their data.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: Exactly and you’re absolutely right. Well-being is not you can’t boil that down to one number and a lot of times. I find that just kind of again that just is a stopping point it’s an obstacle that a lot of organizations aren’t sure how to get over or how to get around, and you know well-being is one of those kind of squishy. Terms that’s a you know that’s. An expert word their expert terminology squishy term but it’s something that no one has got a good measure of no one does. There, because there are so many things that go into us as a human right, what our well-being is much less us at our place of work or our organization that we’re part of maybe we’ll have a nonprofit board or something like that.  So, but that doesn’t mean you can’t measure it and that doesn’t mean that you can start nailing down parts of what that larger concept of well-being is and what I would say is you know there anything you Mari you have. I believe it’s five different components of well-being. That you talk about, and then there are different metrics that you can look at within each of those right so. I would argue that that’s the way to start looking at it, but I wouldn’t suggest simply going down that list, and you know, an organization going down at finding each one and throwing them on a dashboard something like that I would think more about you know their each components of wellness I would do what you know my social scientists training. To create some kind of like index variables around this so you know when you go to measure, a squishy topic like. My doctorates in political science, so if you want to measure something like political ideology, you’re not going to take someone’s opinion or views on just one item and make that stand in for their full ideology, I would suggest in a half suggested this with clients that we look at something more they’re going to be multiple measures.  And if we can combine them into one which I would do it to an index variable you can start boiling down, and you can take advantage of all those so across your five bring together the ones certain of them that you might have data for.  You might not have data for others, so let’s put those together and get a sense.

Mari Ryan: So that’s a great suggestion in terms of how to start thinking about this, so the model that you’re referring to is one that we use with our clients and it’s when a client doesn’t have a particular model or it’s just starting their well-being strategy and they don’t have a model we offer this, but when working on a strategy we create a model, so it might include you know. It might include financial well-being or connection and community or the environment or the physical well-being so that each of these different elements, or something we can then go and look for and just as an example, just to make this concrete for the audience. If we look at something let’s say financial well-being is become a big topic in the last few years in financial well-being well, we all know that employers provide lots of benefits to employees. Let’s take 401K as an example, so that’s a retirement benefit that employers provide. But if we started to see numbers, such as the loans against for one case starting to increase, we might see that as an indicator of people struggling to meet their day-to-day financial expenses or to meet their financial goals, so that can serve as a proxy for maybe telling us that people are struggling financially. So just wanted to put that as a concrete example to be able to say that you might not necessarily think that kind of a number is going to be a measure of well-being when actually it can be.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: Exactly and I, like the word you use their Mari – proxy. So again, you know, putting on my social scientist hat human behavior is not anything that we’re going to absolutely be able to nail down, we are not.  Look, we don’t have laboratory conditions right. Much as sometimes we would like it, we don’t right and so things are going to be squishy left and right. But that doesn’t mean that we still can’t measure and that doesn’t mean that just because we can’t. Like prove something without the shadow of a doubt doesn’t mean it’s not helpful so using proxies using index variables using things, then they might not tell the whole story or be able to close percent cause and effect or something like that they could share. That’s pretty far down the pipe.  And they can have like you said. Loans against your 401k, that’s an indicator that something is happening there. And it’s not telling us everything.

Mari Ryan: Right well.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: It sure is helpful and you walk out of there with more information than you had before, and I think that’s the name of the game.

Mari Ryan: Exactly. As we’re talking about these proxies. I’m curious as to whether there are other proxies that we might be able to use to more broadly represent will be.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: Honestly, I think that that’s going to take some effort on the parts of different businesses and organizations to do that.  I think in in the sense and I hate to throw it back to our audience on this, you know, but I think that the kind of data systems that a lot of organizations have today. They’ve got some good pieces of data in there. I would think you know I would suggest, starting with those and just like you mentioned, you gave your example of loans against for one case, think about others that could be used in a slightly different way. But the other thing I would say, is it’s quite possible that you’re just not going to have any in those data systems, and you know, like I tell my clients like I tell my students, also, that is not a free pass to simply throw in the towel and say you know this is we can’t do anything throw up our hands. It just means that maybe you have to start collecting data yeah.

Mari Ryan: One of the situations that I come across quite often, is that I see the data is managed by various departments and this becomes a challenge. Some of it might be an HR some of it might be in benefits or finance. How do you suggest organizations deal with this issue of siloed data.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: That is a really thorny issue and any organization that is dealing with it is most certainly not alone, I think you know, with the best of intentions, most organizations see a problem within one area of their organization and find really good software that answers it that solves it right, and you know, with the best of intentions. Not thinking about the other parts of the organization and not thinking about how the data flows.  It probably would be a good exercise to actually trace a piece of data through the flow from. For example, if you think about like a Call Center or a Customer Call Center even. Something as simple as hometown trace that through you know where does it get input. How does it get defined? Who uses it? What other so does billing use it? The warehouse, do they use it to this that the other use it, and that would be a really good exercise to actually get a sense of what the heck even have because, it’s a lot of organizations that they don’t even realize oh yeah we use this or that or we use HubSpot or, if all goes back to QuickBooks and starting there, then you have a good idea of what exactly the lay of the land is, and then I would say.  Integrating all those is I mean that’s like a full time project for.  A team from here to eternity. It’s almost fool’s gold. And this at this point, I would argue with most I would prioritize the types of data, the pieces of data that really have got to be well managed.  Well perfect short and that many other parts of the organization use so basically what you need is a data governance process here. It’s basically what I’m talking about, but I would say, I mean I’d be curious what you think with your clients, I have to you know reassure. Many of my clients that yeah you don’t need to be able to integrate them all, sometimes it’s you just build something off to the side and it gets the job done.

Mari Ryan: The advice I give my clients is pick your battles, identify what’s really important and go after that. And then get it consistently, so that you have a regular stream of reliable information and data to work from but getting you know. This would often frustrate me when I go into work with a client and I’m asking for all of this different kinds of data. And they said “Oh well, we really can’t get that”. I’m like well, what can we get and then really just working from that so that’s the that’s the advice I generally give.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: Yeah, I get you know a lot of clients that I work with along those same lines, they.  You know, they say, oh we’d love to use you to talk about this or that or to figure out this, but we don’t have any data and. I go back to that when I say, do you run QuickBooks or something like QuickBooks you know something like.

Mari Ryan: I’m curious, what do you say to an organization that says, I don’t have any data to analyze.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: You have data. You’re just not thinking of it, probably in the in this way right you’ve got you really do have tons of data so even like to take my example a startup been in business for two or three years and is running QuickBooks they’ve got enough data to come up with some profitability profiles, to look at some you know.  Employee retention numbers and to start doing analysis they don’t realize it maybe because they just haven’t thought about using their HR system data and that employee survey that we did last year and QuickBooks data on repeat customers right they just haven’t quite thought of putting them together. And then, once I suggested is like “Oh, of course, we do we’ve totally got the data yeah”.

Mari Ryan: Well that’s great and it opens I think it opens up people’s eyes and helps them reframe it that, yes, we indeed, we do have things so that’s great. Julie, I’m curious as to from your perspective other things, or other advice that you would give to people who are managing well-being programs as to how to tackle this kind of thorny issue of measuring well-being.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: I would say I’m really think this is an opportunity to really support your employees and your team members, and I say it, because okay I’m not saying this just because I work with data all day right. But if we think about the kind of ecosystem that we are all working within right now very personalized right people want to know that their employer understands them yours them cares about them in so much as you know, and we, as consumers, even we want to more and more, we want to have that personalized experience, maybe sometimes a little too personal you know. But we want to have kind of that personalized experience and we also want to support companies that are taking care of the environment of their employees and also, even though these are hard to measure well-being is hard to measure there isn’t any one metric right.  It almost opens up a world of opportunity for an organization to be able to say okay there isn’t any one definition out there well-being there are many. For us, we have asked our employees, for example, asked her team members, what does well-being mean to you, we have this structure that.  Mari as you know, these five different areas or something like that, what are the ones that makes sense for us for you in your daily life in your life at work within us within the Community and then build your own that’s and that’s that I think that it’s squishy and not many people do that, but it is methodological. And it’s also really listening to your employees and to your team members and that really is what anyone wants much less you know employees today, so I would say it, it really is an opportunity not to shy away from.

Mari Ryan: Well, it is indeed a huge opportunity and I’m so glad that you brought that sage advice to our audience today. Julie, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing where can they find you.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: Thank you for asking, I have a website jlaanalytics.com. If you go to that slash media there’s a page there that has all of my podcast and panel presentations and all of that. So you can get a sense of the kinds of work that I do with clients I’m also out on LinkedIn you can get more of a sense there about the kinds of work that I do and the types of trainings that I teach the talks I give yeah.

Mari Ryan: Excellent Julie thanks so much for being here today it’s always delightful to spend time with you.

Julie Alig, Ph.D.: My pleasure, thank you, Mari.

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