HOW BREAKING BARRIERS PAVES THE WAY TO SUCCESS
We often draw such a firm line between the idea of work and life, that “work/life balance” has become a common phrase related to finding the perfect ratio between the two. But we don’t leave our life at the door when we show up for work. So, what if we shifted that perspective to build work environments that support employees to thrive both in their work and personal lives?
“Many of us have been conditioned to show up as our ‘work self.’ The truth is, that’s not a healthy way to live,” explains Relay Resources Vice President of Human Resources Elizabeth Kurtz. “Allowing our employees to show their whole self means that we’re creating more meaningful relationships with them on a one-on-one basis.” As a nonprofit focused on helping people with disabilities and other barriers to employment, Relay Resources has a unique perspective on the relationship between our work and personal lives. “One of our objectives is to help people develop to their full potential. It’s critical to get to know people because everyone has different levels of abilities. We may not know whether an employee has a disability, much less what it is, so we need to make sure we’re applying these approaches across the board for every employee.”
Gallup consulting company outlines some of these management tactics in the book, First, Break All the Rules. “One of the rules you’re taught as a manager is to treat everyone the same, but you can’t, because we’re not all the same,” says Elizabeth. “We have different things to offer, process things differently, different experiences. So first you’ve got to break that rule and meet people where they are, not treat everyone the same.”
Jessica Nelson, a food co-packing production team member here at Relay, is an example of how navigating personal barriers alongside the right employer can result in meaningful work.
“I’ve had some traumas in my life,” begins Jessica. “At this rate, I can look back and see where it all started to get off track.” Jessica was an A student and skilled soccer player. She was active in traveling teams and even placed third in regionals. Then in high school she blew out her knee and her sports career was over. “That was so sad, because the love of my life was soccer,” says Jessica. Before she knew it, things started to change.
“I’m the first person in my whole family to go to jail. No one could believe it,” says Jessica. “I would have never thought in a million years I would do drugs or self-medicate. I was not that person. I’m still not, I’m not a bad person.” Those events began to take her down a path that she never anticipated.
“I was a daddy’s girl. He was always there for me and vice versa. I took care of him for a long time. Watching him dying was really hard on me. I started to lose my own identity. When he passed away, I was in jail. I’d tried to restart my life several times and had misfires,” remembers Jessica.
“I have a bad anxiety disorder that has been really crippling.” Jessica’s anxiety hit hard when stress built up in her life. At one point, she had a three-month attack that cost her a supervisor job. “My body broke down. I had a problem with self-medicating. Didn’t have insurance. Lost my daughter to DHS… After I got out of treatment I was in an Oxford House for a while. I learned through my time in recovery that some people are more susceptible to addiction. For the longest time I had such guilt. I kept myself sick because I was so disappointed in myself. I knew I could do better and that I was made for better things. Then, enter Relay.”
“I was freaking out that I wasn’t going to find a job. It was taking me forever. I went to so many interviews. No one else would hire me. I felt like I’m never going to have a good life, I’m never going to be enough for my daughter, I’m never going to be happy,” recalls Jessica. When she applied at Relay, she stayed in regular contact with Relay Recruiter Toni Delgado and Senior Vocational Specialist Jason Wilkey, who looked for an opening that would be the right fit for her. On the verge of homelessness and trying to get her daughter back, Jessica knew she needed to find a way to be stable. “I was so thankful to Jason and Toni because they really listened to me.”
Jessica started in the maintenance training program at Relay Resources. As an employee, she was eligible to receive preferred waitlist status for affordable housing through Relay. She soon moved into her new apartment.
“When I started in the maintenance program it was really cool to learn stuff like putting on siding, but all-in-all it was too much for me.” Jessica connected with Jason about other work opportunities at Relay and was transferred to the food co-packing business unit, which has proven to be a great fit. “I love Sherie and Melody! They are the best bosses. The whole group of us. It’s nice to be in a job where I can be 110% honest about what’s going on with me physically and mentally. And for my bosses to really care. That goes so far to making a good, strong group of workers. I feel like I can grow here. I’ve made a huge transformation since the first day I started working for Relay.”
SUPPORTING EMPLOYEES SUPPORTS BUSINESS
When someone has barriers that prevent them from employment or makes work difficult, it has a direct impact on both their work and personal life. In 2017, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was at 9.2% and the unemployment rate for people that were formerly incarcerated was 27%. These are large, untapped talent pools. At Relay Resources, we believe that everyone has value to contribute and that providing people with the tools for success is beneficial to us all.
By encouraging employee engagement, organizations can improve both retention and customer outcomes. Elizabeth notes that supporting employees not only supports the Relay mission, but also makes good business sense for any organization. “When you treat people with respect and authenticity, you will have more engaged employees,” says Elizabeth. “Engagement is a psychological connection to where you work and who you work with. When people are engaged, they care, and they are going to do better work. Better customer service means happier customers, which grows business. It’s a virtuous cycle. Treating people well and helping them feel listened to and appreciated benefits us as an organization in the long run.”
The financial benefits of supporting employee success go beyond better customer service – there’s a high cost to replace employees that leave. According to PeopleKeep, the cost of employee turnover varies based on position, industry, and wage. Studies from the Society for Human Resource Management and the Center for American Progress estimate costs in the range of 16-50% of the annual pay of the employee being replaced. Employee replacement incurs costs through things like recruitment time, lost productivity, and new employee training.
Supporting employees in their success and continuing growth supports businesses financially and culturally. No company has all the answers, but the key is recognizing the importance of constantly learning and working on improving. Elizabeth explains that employee engagement programs at Relay are an ongoing evolution, with things like Mental Health First Aid training, an ethics and reporting hotline, focus groups, and updates to employee communications working together to help improve the employee experience. Combining these tools with leadership training can help ensure higher success of implementation. “As an organization that is focused on helping employees overcome barriers, we consider our employees to be our customers, too,” says Elizabeth. “It’s mission-critical that we’re hiring people into our management positions that are both really excellent at what they do, and they really get it on a cultural level. Then we work with our managers on interacting with each employee as a whole person.”
With management support, Jessica continues to grow in her position. “I’ve mostly been working on packaging hazelnuts. I love how fast paced it is,” says Jessica. “Working on that project makes me feel like I can shine.”
Between food co-packing projects, Jessica received a special assignment with the Supply Chain Solutions business unit where she worked with Shipping Lead Rebekah Shaw. “Rebekah is so awesome! She showed us the work that needed to be done and I ended up falling into a role where I was taking the lead on some things. It was great! Somewhere along all the traumas I’ve had, I lost that part of me. But working on that project, my leadership skills started to come back.” Rebekah told her that she was doing a great job and Jessica began to feel like a leader again. “It was only a two-week project, but I feel like I’m so much more positive. It really kicked my self-esteem into gear.”
“I feel like I can grow into a leadership position here and make more money and be happy. I didn’t think that was possible — to work at a place and make a good living and have a good quality of life, and love where you work. Here, that’s possible. That’s what’s amazing about this place — everyone that has gone the extra mile. I’m just so grateful. They’ve been really supportive.”
As with all things in life, Jessica’s journey is ongoing. “My daughter is coming back and my goal right now is to get a car. It has been so hard to distance myself from being a mother for a while, but it was crucial so I could heal. I needed to discover myself again and to rebuild myself on a firm foundation.”
“I couldn’t imagine being where I am today without Relay, honestly. I sit in my apartment and I think about how far I’ve come just in the last year. I am so dang proud of myself!” Jessica beams as she describes having her own place again. There’s a giant lilac bush outside her apartment window that fills with blooms in the Spring. “I feel special there, just like I feel special at Relay. I feel like I can conquer my fears and all those things that have broken me down. I have myself back and I’m not looking to the past except to teach others. There’s a phrase we use in recovery that says, ‘You can’t keep what you have without giving it away.’ I want to share my story to try and help other people. I just want to keep going.”