Welcome to AllVoices Experts, a series discussing emerging trends and technologies shaping the Future of Work. We’re on mission to create safe, happy, and healthy workplaces for all and we’re excited to learn from experts who share our mission.
Today we're chatting with Jaime-Alexis Fowler, Founder and Executive Director of Empower Work, the first confidential textline for work issues. She is seasoned leader with a track record of building agile, high-performing, healthy teams from early stage startups to a 60-year-old $100M international NGO.
Tell us a little bit about Empower Work, how it came about, and what you do there.
Empower Work started with a question: how can we better support vulnerable workers at critical moments? In 2017, I’d increasingly been taking calls or coffees whisper-network style when Susan Fowler’s memo came out. One night, after one conversation, I turned to my husband and said, ‘there must be some kind of crisis text line for work.’
The woman I’d been chatting with wasn’t going to make headlines, but it was another #MeToo experience. She was first generation to go to college and had leveraged the heck out of her early career network and somehow connected with me. She was depleted and overwhelmed when we talked. She’d left college with massive student loans and was drawn to the tech industry with the promise of high wages and advancement in ways her family had never seen. She knew some of the challenges that might come her way—she’d experienced plenty throughout life. But she hadn’t expected the demeaning, pervasive toxicity of her small startup. Several weeks earlier it had reached a boiling point and she’d had no idea what to do.
As we wrapped our call, I was struck by how she’d needed someone weeks earlier. The situation had taken a wrecking ball through her confidence, and as weeks had passed with no support and little recourse, it had shaken her faith that going to college and moving into a future-forward industry would kick start her family into the middle class. When we chatted, she’d all but given up hope and was thinking of leaving her job and heading home to find different work and potentially a different career.
I started Empower Work because no one should face that kind of challenging, livelihood altering situation alone.
What started with a simple question has now grown to supporting thousands of workers across the United States. Trained volunteers, who are dedicated to giving back and helping others, provide confidential, immediate support, blending emotional and tactical to ensure every person who connects with us feels heard and able to take a next step.
We meet workers where they are–on the bus, in a breakroom, or now during COVID, at home– at the touch of a text or keyboard. Thanks to our support, over 90% of folks who connect say they feel better, and take an action that results in an outcome they want such as reporting someone for harassment and seeing new policies put in place or asking for a pay raise and getting it.
The impact has been profound. One woman who connected with us last year after experiencing harassment and discrimination shared, “I wanted to write my own ending to my story, and I have. I have a new job. I am well supported. And most importantly to me, I have a new sense of the strength I possess.”
How can companies support their employees’ wellbeing/mental health/other, in the wake of both COVID as well as the uprising of social injustice occurring in the US?
2020 has been a year. And that’s an understatement. We’re collectively experiencing the lack of a social safety net. COVID, the economic crisis, and for many across the U.S., the climate crisis, along with the deep structural and systemic racism that pervades every element of life have in many ways felt like a tsunami across workplaces. The negative impacts on workers has been heartbreaking, angering, and for many of us involved in Empower Work, an even greater call to action.
One of the most important actions we’ve seen for employers–that employees have shared repeatedly in conversations with us along with a national survey we conducted–is communications. Employees have expressed frustration at both the slowness and lack of information shared about health, safety, the conditions of the business, and perspective on the racial justice. The simple act of acknowledging all that’s going on in the world can be meaningful to employees. As one shared, “I feel unheard and unseen.” Employers can shift that in proactively and consistently communicating–both listening deeply to what employees needs and concerns are, as well as providing timely communications.
That ties directly into mental health and well-being. The uncertainty of the world at the moment is negatively impacting mental health. One worker wrote, “Everyone feels trapped, like traffic gridlock. We need to know how we are actually going to get out of this mess. It's hard to look forward when we don't know what is coming. The uncertainty is the worst thing.”
Workers have shared that they’re having trouble sleeping, concerned about their mental stability, and worried that the stress will impact their physical health putting them more at risk during the pandemic.
Providing both thoughtful and reflective communications to help provide clarity amidst uncertainty combined with offering resources to employees–whether free mental health services like Crisis Text Line for acute mental health concerns or supportive practices internally like being able to take paid mental health days can be simple, powerful ways to show investment in employees.
Many employees feel their only way forward from a workplace issue is to leave their job -- how do you think we change this narrative, and what would you advise employees going through this now to do?
Leaving a job because you feel unsafe or unsupported is a normal–and reasonable–action. It’s self protection. When people ask about advice on what to do in those situations, my favorite answer is: it depends. So much of a decision like whether to stay or go, whether to fight to change something or simply decide to live with it, is deeply personal. Two people experiencing similar situations may respond totally differently because they have different important things at stake. So my best advice: find a partner, friend, former colleague, mentor, Empower Work counselor–anyone you trust who can be a sounding board–and walk through some questions with them. What’s most important to you? What do you value? What would happen if you did nothing? If you took an action? Playing out those scenarios with someone who can deeply listen to you is powerful and may help you find the answer that’s best for you.
The world has changed immensely in 2020. What do you think are the new major challenges we face today as it relates to workplace safety?
Racism, sexism, and deep structural inequities. They’re interwoven threads pervasive throughout U.S. culture. And that culture is part of our workplaces. Valerie M. Hudson recently shared her research (along with Donna Lee Bowen and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen) on the intersection of gender and national security. She posits, “What you do to your women, you do to your nation.”
What we do to women in national policy in the U.S., such as not having universal paid leave or childcare, undervalues women. We are seeing the ripple effects of that right now during COVID. Experts are sounding the alarm that the pandemic and the lack of support for women will set us back 10+ years.
What we do to people of color in U.S. policy, such as voter ID laws that are a form of discrimination and ‘prove it again’, undervalues and demeans.
Policy and culture are interrelated. Even the healthiest, most open, diverse, and inclusive workplace is still part of the fabric of American policy and culture. And that directly impacts emotional, economic, and physical safety for workers.
What inspires you to do the work you do at Empower Work?
What drives me every day is the gap that led to our start: 80% of working Americans lack access to support at critical work moments, exacerbating already record high inequity. I’m inspired every day by the dedicated peer volunteers who believe too that everyone deserves support, by our larger community that’s working towards systemic change by implementing new policies or approaches in their workplaces and partners taking worker-based insights that we share anonymized from our aggregate data and using them for research to offer recommendations and improve workplace conditions. And I’m inspired by those who courageously reach out for help. One person shared recently, "honestly you have offered me tremendous hope where I didn’t think I had any." She said the conversation had brought light to darkness. There is a lot of darkness in the world right now, but the collective forces working to change it bring light to me every day - and fuel my impatient optimism that we can build healthy, equitable workplaces where everyone can thrive.