Upwork’s Kelsi Rohrmann and Patrick Gilfether: 5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees
Listen to your people. Make your team meetings and 1:1s safe spaces for people to express their ideas, ask questions, and be heard. Encourage them to share how they’re really feeling and give them the opportunity to have difficult conversations. When your team knows they can do this without fear, it actually breeds innovation and agility — you can move past problems faster, you can minimize input and maximize output, and at the end of the day your team will feel seen, understood, and supported. This is sometimes easier said than done so as part of our remote work toolkit, we included a guide that teaches people leaders how to lead with empathy. This has been incredibly well received as many managers care but don’t know how to demonstrate it effectively — especially via a screen.
As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelsi Rohrmann and Patrick Gilfether of Upwork.
Kelsi Rohrmann is the Director of Organizational Effectiveness at Upwork, the world’s work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent. Kelsi oversees team enablement, learning & development, and the company’s executive admin team. Together they work to support Upwork’s globally distributed workforce and ensure they have the tools and resources to harness the power of their collective, remote organization and work seamlessly without co-location.
Patrick Gilfether is a Product Manager on the Client Growth team at Upwork. Patrick has been with the company for 2.5 years, most recently co-founding UpMIND, an Upwork Belonging Community (UBC).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Patrick Gilfether: I studied documentary film in college because I was looking for a tool that would allow me to impact social problems I cared deeply about. After college, I spent two years in Banda Aceh, Indonesia teaching English and working on conservation documentary film projects. Conversations with grassroots environmentalists there convinced me that the private sector was the most impactful lever for social change and that I needed to learn how to run a business. In 2017, I joined Stride Health, a health-tech startup, where I automated myself out of a job in customer support and discovered Product. I’ve been working in Growth Product Management at Upwork for the last two years. Currently, I’m leading a team leveraging ML and automation to orchestrate paid acquisition spend.
Kelsi Rohrmann: In college I double majored in Hospitality and Communications, with a focus on crisis comms. Elements from both of these studies gave me the ability to understand and connect with people through experiences. Right out of college I got a job with LinkedIn that really helped me understand the corporate world and the tech industry. It gave me the opportunity to see a company scale, what works and what doesn’t, and I’ve been able to bring that perspective to Upwork as I focus on helping our team members do their best work while contributing to their personal and professional development and growth.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
PG: Set boundaries around your work. For me that means taking time off when I’m burnt out as soon as possible, not keeping any work communications on my phone, and literally shutting down my laptop when I knock off for the day. For you, it might be different. I recommend experimenting and reflecting to find the boundaries that work for you.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
KR: Listen to your people. Make your team meetings and 1:1s safe spaces for people to express their ideas, ask questions, and be heard. Encourage them to share how they’re really feeling and give them the opportunity to have difficult conversations. When your team knows they can do this without fear, it actually breeds innovation and agility — you can move past problems faster, you can minimize input and maximize output, and at the end of the day your team will feel seen, understood, and supported. This is sometimes easier said than done so as part of our remote work toolkit, we included a guide that teaches people leaders how to lead with empathy. This has been incredibly well received as many managers care but don’t know how to demonstrate it effectively — especially via a screen.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
PG: I put these on my Facebook profile when I was feeling particularly deep as a 15-year-old, and they still resonate for me today.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” -Mark Twain
“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go for a spin down the road, without thought of anything but the ride you are taking.” -Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
KR: What makes Upwork’s approach to managing a remote organization significant is that we do it by leading with empathy. As work and personal lives got intertwined during these unusual times, my team members got a first-hand view of what employees juggle between their professional and personal worlds. From this knowledge, we’ve been able to craft policies that support employees holistically as remote workers. For example:
ChargeUp Days — Collective days of rest where the whole company has time off at the same time. These days allow team members to fully unplug and when they come back — they aren’t flooded with emails/slacks/fire drills that make vacation days lose their luster.
Upwork Belonging Communities — UBCs create spaces that center the professional needs and goals of all Upwork employees who identify as LGBTQIA+, Black, Latinx, Pan-Asian, veterans, women, caregivers and neurodiverse. They make it more possible for team members to find their unique fit within the Upwork community without having to sacrifice meaningful aspects of their identities.
Modern Health — A mental health platform that allows our employees and their family members to connect with mental health professionals for 1:1 therapy/counseling to help them be their best selves at work & home.
Candle in the Window — ‘Candle in the window’ refers to signaling a safe place to seek support/assistance. If a team member is experiencing an unsafe or unhealthy home working environment, whether due to domestic issues, mental health, or addiction, or for any reason, we want to help. Through the Candle in the Window program, Upwork will provide team members with paid access to a workspace outside of their home.
Calendar blocking — We’ve always encouraged employees to be authentic at work, which includes being open about their parenting and caretaking duties. Parents are encouraged to block their calendars when they’re in parent mode and “guest stars” (children and pets) are always welcome to make cameos during video calls.
Addressing Zoom fatigue — Being on Zoom all day can be taxing. We empower employees to determine if they can have conversations via Slack or email instead, which reserves meetings for essential tasks such as brainstorming, large group decisions/getting buy-in, or big announcements. If a meeting is necessary, Upwork team members shouldn’t be afraid to break the meeting norms sometimes. When able, we encourage them to take the meeting via phone and go for a walk to give their eyes a screen break. Additionally, we don’t require team members to always have to have their camera on as we know there are personal reasons why they might prefer to be off screen.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
PG: Today, we live in a world where one’s professional judgement can be called into question based on their relationship to mental health or neurodiversity. You can change that by talking about it, changing policy, and building safety. Everybody can do something to shift our culture here. What can you do?
KR: At Upwork, we’re raising awareness of the importance of supporting employees’ mental health in a variety of ways. First, we regularly survey our employees to see how they’re doing and where the company can better support them. That information is used to help shape our workplace policies like our Candle in the Window program and mental health benefits. Second, we formalized our commitment to mental inclusivity by launching the UpMind belonging community. Although it’s a relatively new resource group, it’s already been a tremendous resource for employees looking for a safe place to talk about mental health and share tips for addressing what can be a taboo topic at work.
From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?
PG: I’ll share some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice on this topic, as I think it’s a good reminder that we can’t effectively care for others when we aren’t first caring for ourselves:
“If we take care of the suffering inside us, we have more clarity, energy, and strength to help address the suffering of our loved ones, as well as the suffering in our community and the world. If, however, we are preoccupied with the fear and despair in us, we can’t help removing the suffering of others. There is an art to suffering well. If we know how to take care of our suffering, we not only suffer much, much less, we also create more happiness around us and in the world.”
Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest developing good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?
PG: It’s different for everybody. My recommendation is to find some practice of reflection. That could be journaling, meditation, talk therapy, taking a walk…anything that helps you to understand yourself better. I’ve personally found it important to hold these practices loosely. Every time I’ve become overly bound up with pursuing one, I’ve found it to become more stressful than helpful. Others benefit from structure, however. All that is to say, that I encourage you to proceed with curiosity. Try things and find what works best for you.
Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?
KR: I’ve always struggled with anxiety and as a kid I took singing lessons. My voice teacher was the one that taught me how to use Diaphragmatic Breathing (or belly breathing) to be a stronger singer but also to overcome my stage fright. It helps me still to this day. This deep breathing technique can lower stress levels, heart rate, blood pressure and can even help you fall asleep. Even though I don’t sing anymore (other than in the car), I do this breathing exercise before presentations, stressful meetings, or when I let my thoughts get the best of me at nighttime before bed. When I don’t practice this, I can feel the difference and it shows in how I present myself.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
KR: I’ve always been fascinated by F. Scott Fitzgerald, mostly because I’m convinced it was his wife that really wrote everything. But The Beautiful & The Damned had a profound impact on my view of the world growing up. My family struggled in many ways including financially when I was young and the stark contrasts portrayed in the book — wealth & waste, dreams & reality, immaturity & wisdom, beauty & self-sabotage — they all kept me grounded in my beliefs that you are responsible for your own happiness and that can’t be achieved with material objects. I try to remind myself that the best people and things in life are free, it isn’t always easy, but gratitude and attitude will take you a long way in finding your place in this world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
KR: I know I’m not the first person to say this but the movement I would like to start is restructuring the curriculum all children go through during K — 12 to include the real-life skills that will set them up for success as they grow and become adults. Things like how to regulate your emotions, how to have healthy relationships, fiscal responsibility, how to do your taxes and SO much more! We can’t assume that kids are getting this knowledge from their parents, when most of the time the parents are just as lost as their kids. I strongly feel that with this type of education, we can help our children avoid common pitfalls like debt, addiction, and other vicious cycles.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!