Employee Health and Wellbeing and Why It Matters With Margaret Furniss

“It will require organizations to rethink how they protect workers from harm, foster a sense of connection among workers, show workers that they matter, make space for their lives outside work, and support their growth. It will be worth it, because the benefits will accrue for workers and organizations alike.” 

The quote above was pulled from The U.S. Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing, released just a couple of weeks ago (October 2022). This is a strong step in the right direction to help support the mental health and wellbeing of our workforce in this country. Within the report, the following three stats are highlighted, showing where our workforce landscape is at present. 

      76% of U.S. workers in a 2021 survey reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition (anxiety, depression), an increase of 17 percentage points in just two years.

      81% of workers reported that they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future.

      84% of respondents reported at least one workplace factor that had a negative impact on their mental health

These stats have one thing in common: they show the importance of investing in and supporting employees’ health and wellness. Margaret Furniss is Vice President, Wellbeing Strategy + Experience for Beemok Hospitality Collection (BHC) and here at exaqueo, we’ve had the good fortune to partner with her and the BHC team this past year to help build a world-class organizational culture for The Charleston Place, BHC’s flagship property. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of conducting a #Walking1on1 interview [explained in question 6] with Margaret to ask her about her job, what BHC is doing in the wellbeing space, how they are looking at employee health and wellness, and why this work is so important. 

1. What does your title VP Wellbeing Strategy + Experience mean? What do you do for Beemok Hospitality Collection? 

VP Wellbeing Strategy and Experience consists of lots of different things – we’re a small team operating in ‘start-up’ mode to some degree so helping to create our framework is something our whole team is contributing to. I am working to define how we look at wellbeing within all the things we bring to life. It touches lots of areas including design, construction elements, programming, food and beverage, equipment and events – there are so many touchpoints that can make an impact. Some of it is tangible and some is not. There are parts that are happening now and others you won’t be able to see for a few years – it’s a bit like planting seeds in a garden and waiting for them to bloom.

2. Why is a role like yours so important to organizations at this time? 

I think this really speaks to where the world is right now. We've all been through the last few years of COVID-19, The Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, etc. We've seen people take a step back for the first time and reassess what matters to them. Collectively, people have recognized that life is short and that their physical and mental health are their most valuable resources – along with time. Optimizing health and wellbeing have become a top priority and a non-negotiable and the organizations who are recognizing and embracing that will be the ones that bring new innovations to market and create opportunities for themselves and their workforce – and ultimately be the ones that thrive.

3. What kinds of wellness initiatives have you implemented thus far at Beemok Hospitality Collection and The Charleston Place, BHC’s flagship property?

As a new company, we have a unique opportunity to be thoughtful and intentional in how and what we want our culture, practices, and policies to look like. There are so many things we can and will do. We’ve been approaching it in phases based on the size we are now, and the most critical needs of our teams. For us on the BHC side, we have taken surveys to identify how our team wants to be supported and are leaning into that based on the priorities we gathered directly from them. 

On The Charleston Place side, we are also working in phases – our first priorities were intentional culture design and employee spaces. We took time after our acquisition to be really thoughtful in including our teams in creating what our culture should look like – finding out what was important to them and letting them be a part of that. The culture piece is so critical and informs how we onboard, educate, and share how and why every role in the building is needed and important. The employees' space happened in tandem- taking care to improve the areas where our colleagues spend most of their day. From the hallways and locker rooms to the team offices. We’ve also focused on healthy menus in our employee cafeteria – eliminating fried foods and adding more wholesome ingredients. We implemented a wellness stipend that our teams can use to cover physical or digital wellness practices – meditation/mindfulness/sleep apps, gym expenses, or other wellness-focused activities that are outside our health benefits coverage. 

We’ve developed a community service program where our teams can come together– driving connection between them through an activity designed to give back to our community. We have also spent a lot of time digging into what some of our teams’ biggest pain points and how to address those. Parking was a big one being located in downtown Charleston. We’ve also spent a lot of effort on lifting up the current guest-facing ground floor experiences including Palmetto Café, The Boutique and the Coffee Shop, and are currently working on plans for The Charleston Grill and the Spa. It’s been impactful for the teams there to really see positive change happening in so many areas that they help bring to life each and every day. 

4. How have you seen culture play a role in your work implementing wellness initiatives? 

Culture is the foundation of successful workplace wellbeing programs – it has to be authentic and top-down. Identifying what your team(s) want and need to feel supported is the first step. Every workforce is unique – so there is no one-size-fits-all. Listening to their real needs is the only way to build a truly supportive framework. Asking, listening, and taking action are the key – making sure your team feels heard and sees something actionable builds trust – and strong culture. 

5. In general, how have wellness initiatives evolved over the past couple of years? Since COVID? 

I started working and researching in the wellness space several years before COVID-19 and it was already a hugely growing segment. The pandemic really amplified that and pressed the fast-forward button. It brought to light areas people might have needed support before but were maybe afraid to demand it. Now, wellbeing has become a non-negotiable. The vast majority of the world is not only talking about but taking action on implementing new standards, practices, and offerings. If you look at the spending per capita on wellness – it has almost doubled post-COVID. The Global Wellness Institute is an amazing organization that tracks the movement of the wellness economy. By their definition, there are ten different segments that are considered “the wellness economy”. Across the board, all ten segments are outperforming the “general economy” globally. 

6. Today we are conducting this interview as a #Walking1on1. Can you explain what this is, how it got started, and what your hopes are for this initiative? 

Ha – I love the walking 1:1 and try to do walking meetings as much as possible. I first heard about the concept at last year’s Global Wellness Summit. The #Walking1on1 was an idea from one of the sessions that stuck out to me because I would always choose moving over being still and I love being outside. Following the summit, I challenged our office to get outside for their weekly 1:1s – and any other meetings when possible –  instead of sitting inside. Taking yourself out of your office environment can drive deeper connection and it’s often a much better meeting when you get outside the normal settings. Being able to move your body, see the sunshine, breathe in the fresh air, and see the natural environment can also create an elevation in your mood – so it’s a win-win.

7. Beemok Hospitality Collection had its first WELL WITHIN corporate retreat back in March. Can you tell us more about this retreat? What kinds of activities did you participate in? What did you accomplish? 

The purpose of the WELL WITHIN retreat was to bring our group together, as we had many new team members join around that time – including our whole hospitality team. Wellness is a core pillar of our brands, so it felt right to have that be something we explore together. For some of us, it’s something we are super familiar with while others were delving into this space for the first time. Wellness isn’t one size fits all so we intentionally created a lot of different ways to engage within the day so there were lots of different things people could potentially resonate with. We had several different speakers from meditation/mindfulness to evidence-based conversations, coaching/counseling leads, the business aspects of wellness, movement, healthy foods, and also in a nature-centric setting. The retreat allowed us to take a step back and question not only how we are taking care of ourselves, but also how we're thinking about wellness as a business. It’s a great way for companies to look at bringing teams together.


8. How do these employee wellness initiatives impact your employer branding efforts/recruiting efforts?

According to the new surgeon general’s report just released in October, 81% of candidates will be looking for employers that support their mental health and wellbeing in the future. When candidates are thinking about joining a company or taking a new position, this is top of mind for them. Potential candidates realize that they have an option. Given the competitive recruiting environment in today’s landscape, having a holistic workplace wellbeing plan is critical in attracting and retaining top talent. 

9. What advice would you have for other employers trying to put this type of plan into action?

  1. Listen to your teams and learn what their specific needs are – that’s a really great place to start. It will help inform the process and tell you what they're looking for and what you need to include. 
  2. Budget for it! Like any other big initiative, you should plan on it being an investment – make sure there is a dedicated line item in your annual budget.
  3. Don’t get overwhelmed – you don’t have to do everything all at once. Start by implementing one small thing and keep going – there are endless resources out there that you can lean on to help you build a comprehensive program.

The exaqueo team wants to give a big ‘thank you’ to Margaret for sharing her time and story with all of us. We encourage you to check out thebhc.com and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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