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Expert Interview: Jamie Larsen

June 30 2020 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by Jamie Larsen to discuss workplace volunteer programs. Jamie Larson

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Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials 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 wellbeing. My guest today is Jamie Larsen.

Jamie is the founder and CEO of Generous. Jamie has always had a passion about community service. She first formed the idea that would become Generous while working to match college-aged volunteers with Boston-area charities. Her mission is to help companies engage their workforce, foster deeper connections and relationships, and impact their communities for good through employee-driven volunteering.

Jamie earned a BA in public relations, advertising, and applied communications from Brigham Young University. As an undergraduate, she received a special award for community service and giving, demonstrating her passion for volunteerism from an early age. She is an active volunteer in her community, in her church, and she is the mother of five children ranging in age from three to nineteen. Her favorite pastime is road-tripping with them to quirky museums around the U.S., and she loves people, and parties, and pop tarts and doing good in the world.

Jamie, welcome, I’m so excited to have you here today.

Jamie Larsen: Mari, thank you for the invitation to be here.

Mari Ryan: It’s my pleasure. Our topic today is creating connection and community through volunteerism. Community and connection are two of the core elements of the model that we use for employee wellbeing. So, there are two of those important dimensions. Today as we explore this interconnection between the topic of volunteerism and how it impacts the wellbeing of those who are touched by the volunteerism. This volunteering is not only good for those individuals who are receiving the volunteerism activities, but research is now showing that there are health benefits to the individuals actually doing the volunteer work. Jamie, I’m curious; from your experience, why is volunteerism good for our wellbeing?

Jamie Larsen: That’s a great question. We know that people feel better when they volunteer. They feel better emotionally, they feel better socially, and they feel more connected. A recent study showed that it improved the mood of those who volunteer. Ninety-four percent said it improved their mood, and 78% said it reduced stress levels.

I have to say one of my favorite researchers and commenters on this particular topic is the past U.S. Surgeon General, Vivic Murthy, and he has talked extensively about this topic, and in particular in 2017, he said loneliness is the worst epidemic in America. Forty-seven percent of adults now in the U.S. have some type of loneliness that they are experiencing, which has huge repercussions for health.  What they found was a much higher early mortality rate for people who are experiencing these symptoms.

In 2015, researchers at UCLA looked into what was happening in the body around this, and the cellular changes that are happening to us. Loneliness is causing a stress reaction, and with these rising levels of cortisol in our body, they’re seeing increased inflammation. They are seeing increases in things like heart disease, and metastatic cancers, and psychological disorders that we’ve known for a while.

Dr. Murthy explains it from an evolutionary perspective that we used to all be sitting around the campfire, and one of us would take turns keeping watch at night so that everyone else stayed safe and had a chance to sleep, and then we would rotate that job, but we needed one another. We still do today.

When we are in a situation that we don’t feel support, we don’t feel like we belong, we don’t feel like there’s anyone we can turn to, it truly does affect our health. He and many others are looking toward workplace as a place to help people find these healthy connections.

Another thing that I think is super-interesting; recently there was an article in Forbes that also talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs and the modern day equivalent of what those should be. They called it the Six Fundamental Human Needs for a Healthy Life. They kept the first four – Maslow had also taught us about, which is food, water, shelter, and sleep. Researchers, after another 75 years of research, have found that we also desperately need others in our lives, and we need novelty. This coming together with others releases brain chemicals, in particular, oxytocin, which is kind of a social bonding chemical. This idea of novelty in our lives, doing something new, or learning something new will release dopamine, which is not just pleasure as we’ve always thought, but also a motivator.

So, workplaces stand, if good brain chemicals are happening for their workers, and that’s coming through volunteerism that’s making those things happen in their life, we’re seeing a lot of health benefits from implementing volunteer programs at work.

Mari Ryan: It certainly sounds like this is a great antidote for stress, which is wonderful because we all know that work is often a primary source of stress. I’m curious, from your experience, what are the benefits to the employers? Those are great benefits to us as individuals when we’re doing volunteer work, but what’s the business case, so to speak, of why an employer would want to be doing this? What’s the benefit to the employer of volunteerism?

Jamie Larsen: I would say, first and foremost, it is about the culture in the workplace, that by having volunteerism as part of that workplace culture, you infuse it with this energy and direction toward things like helpfulness and caring, and teamwork. That goes a long way with also creating these health benefits and lower stress. One thing CEOs and leaders of organizations can really be super-effective and influencing employees around this, when employees know the work culture cares about these things, and they see this idea of helpfulness being part of what is being talked about and what’s valued, I think they feel safer and feel like it’s a healthier environment.

Beyond that culture, when we really get down to it, we can look at things like retention, engagement, recruitment, and even employee advocacy as huge cost savings or value-driven priorities that can come from having effective volunteering programs. If we just take turnover all by itself, right now American businesses are looking at about a 10-15% a year turnover across industry. If you equate that, they say average … losing an employee it takes about 33% of their yearly salary to replace them. If you fast forward, take average salary in our area, greater Boston area, maybe $70,000 a year, employers can be looking at up to $30.5 million a year from this employee turnover cost.

All that we can do to reduce that and engaging workers and help them find friends at work, and building these bonds is hugely valuable. Engagement is another huge topic that companies are talking about that volunteerism can have an impact on. Engagement is probably costing companies more than turnover. Turnover is easier to quantify, but Gallup estimates that companies are spending $30.5 billion in turnover, and $400-600 billion a year in lost work, either from cyber-loafing or employees just not showing up for work, and not caring about the work they are doing.

Many of these things … there’s a huge dollar value for companies in engaging employees through volunteer work.

Mari Ryan: It sure sounds like it. I’m curious as to whether employers are starting to create the link between volunteerism, the contributions to the community, and their brand. So, we have some big sports teams here in New England and volunteerism is a big part of some those; I’m curious as to whether you are seeing companies really looking at this as part of their brand story.

Jamie Larsen: Yes, absolutely. I would say in this space the companies that are doing that are doing some incredibly good things. I think what companies are struggling with the most right now, and even larger companies with bigger budgets to work on this, is engaging employees in the process of the volunteerism.

That’s challenging to do, but over and over again, employees have told us they want to be part of the process, and they want to be volunteering in groups. So, I would say those two things are super-valuable for companies to pick up and run with.

Mari Ryan: Great, that’s great. When we’re thinking about what employers can do, there’s certainly a responsibility or role that the employer can play in all of this by taking the lead, what can employers do to encourage volunteerism in their workforce?

Jamie Larsen: Oh, this is a great question. Okay, this is, and many reasons why, I started Generous. Generous helps company-run employee volunteering programs that are engaging for employees, and if you take the step of putting employees in the driver seat and letting their passion and cause interests drive the work that is being done, they need support in that, or it’s tremendously costly for companies on the other side to have lost time from the workers doing this.

Generous comes in and helps support workers and allows them to be the high-level decision makers on what charities the company is supporting. We found it really drives engagement and drives retention and just this overall feeling of goodness and energy in an office.

Mari Ryan: That’s so wonderful, because that’s where the connections, that’s where the community comes into play, and all of that is about wellbeing.

Jamie, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work you are doing, where can they find you?

Jamie Larsen: Find us on the web. We’re at Generus.net.

Mari Ryan: Fabulous. Thank you so much for being here today. It’s exciting to hear about the work you are doing, the impact that it’s having, not only for the individuals in the companies that are doing this work, but in the communities and the charities where they are making those contributions.

Jamie Larsen: Great, thank you, Mari.

Mari Ryan: Thanks so much.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace volunteer programs, wellness, employee experience, employee wellness, worksite well-being, volunteering

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.