Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Hand squeezing smiling face yellow stress ball, isolated on white background

Take Action During April’s Stress Awareness Month

Reduce stress for a happier and healthier workplace.

April is “Stress Awareness Month,” making it the perfect moment to explore how stress affects both individuals and organizations. While stress is a normal process, it can take a toll when left unchecked. Alliant National HR Director Stacy Stolen discusses the consequences of runaway stress and shares strategies for creating healthier workplaces.

Stress 101

Everyone experiences stress, but have you ever wondered what exactly it is? Stolen says that while stress typically carries negative connotations, on a basic level, it is simply the body’s response to a demand. Any change in a person’s day-to-day life can be stressful.

Here are a few more important things to know about stress:

  • Stress affects everyone.
  • Not all stress is bad.
  • Long-term stress can harm your health.
  • There are ways to manage stress.
  • If you feel overwhelmed by stress, it’s important to reach out to a health professional.

Where does stress often show up?

Stress can be anywhere, but it frequently pops up in workplaces, where it can do sizable harm. “Workplace stress has adverse effects on workers’ mental health, with an increased risk of anxiety, burnout, depression and substance use disorders,” Stolen said. “Stressed workers are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as drug abuse or poor dietary patterns.”

The negative consequences of stress affect businesses as well. “It decreases employee productivity,” said Stolen. “Interactions with co-workers may also become strained, causing conflict, complaints and grievances; health concerns; and higher absenteeism.”

Reducing stress begins with awareness

Given how serious stress can be, it must be elevated as a topic of concern for businesses. Employees must also feel comfortable talking about their stress levels and seeking help when stress becomes unmanageable. According to Stolen, recent years have brought increased cultural awareness of the consequences of stress – which is a welcome change. “It has become more acceptable to ‘talk’ about stress,” said Stolen. Yet there is still more work to do. “Companies are still struggling to manage workplace stress,” said Stolen, “and perks like onsite gyms and nap rooms are not the answer to our problem. We must go deeper.”

How can workplaces better address stress?

Addressing the root causes of stress meansdigging into the psyches of stressed-out employees. “If your employees perceive your workplace as a threat, then you cannot build the trust your team needs to collaborate and innovate effectively,” Stolen said. “Employers need to shift from individual-level to organization-level approaches for reducing stress, which can foster employee well-being while simultaneously improving business performance.”

How does Alliant National reduce stress?

Alliant National has developed a plan to reduce workplace stress. Part of this includes the Alliant National Employee Engagement Team (EET), which helps employees “feel engaged, fairly compensated, rewarded, and personally committed to and inspired by their work.”

The underwriter also tries to let all employees know that it is not only acceptable to take time off to rest and recharge – but encouraged. Additionally, Stolen is working on a mental health “challenge,” where she reaches out to managers to determine if their direct reports have large PTO balances. The intention is to determine whether team members are using the time that they have earned, and if not, to understand why.

Alliant National also runs several internal challenges driven by its EET. These focus on stress reduction, fitness and kindness, and mix in other fun challenges such as. Examples include a baby pics challenge, trivia games; and virtual holiday celebrations.

Stolen notes that many of Alliant National’s initiatives revolve around encouraging laughter throughout the day. Now, humor can’t cure all ailments, but data has proven that a good laugh can have short- and long-term benefits, including:

  • Short-term benefits – Laughing doesn’t just lighten your mental load, it induces physical changes in your body:

    • Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.
    • A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response, and it can increase and then decrease your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.
    • Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce the physical symptoms of stress.

  • Long-term benefits – Laughter isn’t just a quick pick-me-up, it’s also good for you over the long term:

    • Positive thoughts release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more serious illnesses.
    • Laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.
    • Laughter makes it easier to cope with difficult situations. It also helps you connect with other people.

There is no magic bullet against stress, but progress is possible!

“I have no secret sauce or silver bullet,” Stolen said when asked about how she manages her own stress. “But what I have learned is that I need to unplug and be able to tell my boss when I am stressed and need help – not so I feel weak, but so I can be good to myself.” This is an effective summation of how we can all better manage stress in our lives and particularly in the workplace. Through a combination of honesty and proactivity, individuals can ensure that they keep their stress levels at a reasonable level. Businesses can also follow this approach during Stress Awareness Month and year-round to create happier, healthier and more sustainable workplaces for all.

Inclusion graphic; people holding hand equity logo

Fostering Inclusivity During the Holidays and Year Round

Creating an inclusive workplace is a complex task. After all, people are anything but simple. None of us have merely one “self.” Every person is a mixture of intersecting identities that influence how people see us and, conversely, how we see them.

How, then, can a business foster an inclusive workplace, particularly around the holidays? As Stacy Stolen, HR Manager at Alliant National, explains, it requires being mindful of how our biases shape our perceptions while working toward a culture where everyone can be recognized and respected. I spoke with Stolen on the complexities of this work, what Alliant National is doing to promote inclusivity, and takeaways for agencies looking to build inclusive workplaces during the holidays and year-round.

Inclusivity begins with empathy

When asked how she defines inclusivity, Stolen said, “Simply put, inclusion and being inclusive is to have empathy,” adding that, “at a company-level, it takes developing a shared understanding that we all have our own unique experiences that occur within a society filled with inequalities.”  

Once this understanding is established, productive work can begin. “We can then start to relate and learn from others. ​This is important because empathy allows us to humanize one another and feel responsible for everyone’s safety and well-being. We can positively influence our surroundings and ensure everyone feels seen, validated, and heard – even if we don’t directly relate to everyone else’s experience,” Stolen said.

Easier said than done

What makes this easier said than done, however, are social constructs and the unconscious biases they produce. Identity composes a wide range of attributes – from race, sexuality and ethnicity to education level, family of origin and belief structures. Some of these identities, said Stolen, carry more power in the world than others. Depending on how someone identifies, they may find themselves unjustly stereotyped by the dominant power structures of society.  

Building an inclusive workplace, then, necessitates building a culture where people can feel safe and supported enough to interrogate their biases and push back on the inclination to stereotype. A first step involves simply accepting that such biases exist and that typically we have little opportunity to reconsider our ingrained beliefs. As Stolen explained, “Quite often, we interact with folks who look, feel, act like us, or have identities roughly like ours. Therefore, we can’t do anything aside from perpetuate these stereotypical beliefs about folks in other social groups. That’s because we aren’t being exposed to anything different to dismantle these inaccurate ideas. We need to break this cycle and cultivate mindfulness to expand our idea of what collective community looks like.”

It also involves seeing this work as more of a journey rather than a destination. “This work requires consistent and intentional engagement with yourself and others that you interact with daily,” said Stolen. “Just like anything else you aspire to change in yourself or in your environment, you must commit that same time and effort in showing up as an ally and advocating for necessary change.”

Taking action

So, what does this look like in practice? Stolen noted that Alliant National’s commitment to building an inclusive workplace involves investing in culture awareness training and dialogue. Additionally, in the New Year, the company is launching an internal committee dedicated to ensuring that its priorities are considered through an inclusive lens.

Stolen described how these efforts are not viewed as one-offs by the company. Instead, they are part of a continuous, holistic and ever-evolving move toward a more inclusive culture. This is an important feature of Alliant National’s larger goal of being a workplace where every employee feels comfortable bringing their authentic self to work and can:

  • Remain present even when uncomfortable;
  • Accept that we are all part of the problem and must work to change society for the better;
  • Learn how to empathize with others’ experiences that are different from their own;
  • Make mistakes while striving for a better tomorrow;
  • Educate themselves and those around them; and
  • Not expect those with the least power in society to do the brunt of the work.

How to promote inclusivity during the holidays and everyday

Holiday periods are a perfect opportunity to promote an inclusive culture, Stolen noted. For many, holidays are informed by cultural identity. It is important to be mindful around language and emphasize respect for all regardless of individual beliefs. “Just because you don’t celebrate certain holidays doesn’t mean that you are exempt from being aware and educated on holidays and religious practices that others celebrate,” Stolen observed.

Of course, there are many other ways to build inclusivity year-round, including:   

  • Researching histories of marginalized groups and investing in cultural awareness development.
  • Developing ally programs/affinity groups and creating places for folks to find community and to encourage dialogue around challenging topics.
  • Hosting “Lunch and Learns” that expand cultural humility and awareness. Alliant National, for example, recently hosted one titled, “Challenging Stereotypes and Microaggressions.”
  • Surveying your workplace to better understand understand your company’s culture better and find opportunities for improvement.

There is no time like today

Building an inclusive culture takes work; there is no doubt about it. But as the holiday season continues, there is no better time to begin nurturing greater respect, empathy and belonging in the workplace. Stolen noted that when companies commit time and resources to encouraging inclusivity, great things can happen. “Workplaces that commit to inclusivity become more instrumental to their employees, customers and communities.”

stress management word cloud supported by a hand underneath

Take Action To Minimize Stress

Stress can impact anyone, and workplaces are not immune.

It can be easy to minimize the impact of stress on individuals, but given how ubiquitous and harmful it can be, it’s worth taking seriously. With the real estate season heating up, let’s take a deep dive into stress, address how it shows up in the workplace and look at what organizations like Alliant National are doing to support workers.

Stress: the lesser-known facts

When you break stress down, what exactly is it? On a basic level, stress is the body’s response to a demand, the impacts of stress can be acutely felt in the workplace. Any change – good and the bad – can technically be stressful.

There are so many important things to know about stress, but some of the lesser-known facts include:

  • Stress affects everyone,
  • Not all stress is bad,
  • Long term stress can harm your health,
  • There are ways to manage stress, and
  • If you feel overwhelmed by stress, it’s important to reach out to a health professional.

Where does stress often show up?

While stress can be anywhere, it frequently pops up in workplaces. Stacy Stolen, HR Director for Alliant National, explains that this can have significant consequences for employees. “Workplace stress has adverse effects on workers’ mental health, with an increased risk of anxiety, burnout, depression and substance use disorders,” said Stolen. “Workers who are stressed at work are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor dietary patterns.”

The negative consequences of stress aren’t just limited to employees. It can affect businesses as well. “It decreases employee productivity,” says Stolen. “Interactions with co-workers may become strained, causing increased conflict, more complaints and grievances, health concerns and higher absenteeism.”

Reducing stress begins with awareness

Given how serious stress can be, it’s obvious that there needs to be increased cultural awareness around the topic. And according to Stolen, some things are moving in the right direction: “It has become more acceptable to ‘talk’ about stress,” says Stolen, “but companies are still struggling to manage workplace stress – especially where recent layoffs may have created more stress and burnout. Companies are starting to realize this, but perks like onsite gyms and nap rooms are not the answer to our problem. Companies must go deeper.”

How can workplaces better address stress?

So, what does it look like when workplaces get serious about addressing stress? For Stolen, it means digging into the psychological reasons that are driving a stressed-out employee. “If your employees perceive your workplace as a threat, then you cannot build the trust your team needs to collaborate and innovate effectively,” she said. “Employers need to shift from individual-level to organization-level approaches for reducing stress at work, which can foster employee well-being while simultaneously improving business performance.”

Some may be quick to say this approach is unrealistic; but rest assured, it’s not. As Stolen explains, “My years of experience have taught me that burnout prevention requires reducing workplace stress while also upping employee engagement.”

What is Alliant National’s approach to stress reduction?

Under Stolen’s leadership, Alliant National has put together a plan of action to help reduce workplace stress. While the company has not yet achieved every goal, it is making good progress toward lowering the amount of stress percolating throughout the organization.

One initiative that has been making headway is the Alliant National Employee Engagement team, which is designed to help “employees feel engaged, fairly compensated, rewarded, and personally committed to and inspired by their work.”

Another goal is to actively create a culture where employees not only feel that it is permissible – but encouraged – to take time off to rest and recharge. Part of that involves constantly reminding employees that they have the freedom to take breaks, take their accrued PTO, pursue a flexible work schedule or ask for help in managing their stress.

Stolen is also working on a mental health “challenge,” where she reaches out to managers to ascertain if their direct reports have run up large PTO balances. The intention behind this initiative is to get a better sense of whether team members are actually using the time that they have earned, and if not, to understand why. This upcoming mental health and stress reduction challenge follows on the heels of one conducted in December of 2022.

There is no magic bullet against stress; but progress is possible!

When asked about how she herself manages stress, Stolen was candid: “I have no secret sauce, but what I have learned is that I need to unplug and be able to tell my boss when I am stressed and need help – not so I feel weak, but so I can be good to myself.”

In many ways, this is an effective summary of how we can all get better about managing stress in our lives and particularly in the workplace. There is no magic bullet, but with understanding, trust and open communication, real inroads can be made toward achieving more sustainable and healthy levels of stress.

Groucho Marx diguise

Make Your Marketing More Authentic

It is safe to say that public trust in institutions these days is at an all-time low. According to recent reporting, only 7% of Americans have “a great deal” of trust and confidence in the news media,[i] with only about a third saying they trust the U.S. Congress.[ii]

When it comes to the business world, the perception amongst Americans is no better. Only 14% of citizens find big businesses to be trustworthy,[iii] while over 70% have little faith that brands will deliver on the promises they make. One conclusion that can be drawn from these statistics is that displaying authenticity in your marketing has never been more important. In this blog, we will talk a bit more about why authenticity matters, as well as how you can weave it into more of your marketing initiatives.

The Power of Authenticity

Why does authenticity matter? Well, because it can make a real difference in dollars-and-cents. 86% of customers are on the record stating that brand authenticity is important when deciding where they are going to shop.[iv] In addition, Gen Z, one of the most powerful up-and-coming consumer groups, wants to purchase from companies that support social and environmental issues over those that do not.[v] What is abundantly clear is that companies must put authenticity front-and-center to compete in the marketplace today and tomorrow.  

How You Become More Authentic

Luckily, there are a variety of easy steps business leaders can take to start promoting brand authenticity:

  • First, clearly define your values. After all, being authentic means that you are what you say. But you can’t live up to what say you are until you define it. And no, that doesn’t mean simply just listing your products or services. Instead, develop a comprehensive brand story, including a “promise” for how your company will help customers live better lives.  
  • Next, communicate your story. You have likely already heard about content marketing: a strategy for using content to draw people to your website and convert them into leads. However, you can also use content marketing to highlight your brand story and promise. To do this, reduce how often you’re hard selling and produce more educational content. This can solidify your reputation as a helpful resource rather than merely a money-making entity.
  • Consider reviewing and revising your brand’s image – including fonts, colors, slogans, logos and imagery. So much of how human beings perceive others depends on non-verbal characteristics. Think about what’s right for your target clients. If you want to position your business as a socially conscious enterprise that Millennials and Gen. Z. will love, then those principles must also be reflected in your brand aesthetics.
  • Put the human at the center of your communication. It isn’t good for companies to drift into cold, impersonal communication – which certainly doesn’t scream authenticity. Always remind your customers of the real humans working hard behind the corporate veneer, figures who are passionate about helping them solve problems. There are variety of ways you can do this – from taking people behind the scenes of your business to running employee spotlight features on your blog.

Authenticity is the Way of the Future

In our digital-first economy, customers are growing increasingly savvy, and unsurprisingly, this has changed their expectations. It is no longer sufficient to have good products or service; customers are also prioritizing companies that are invested in improving their lives and communities. Just like any other market trend, companies that don’t adapt do so at their own peril.


[i] Americans’ Trust In Media Remains Near Record Low (gallup.com)

[ii] Trust in Federal Government Branches Continues to Falter (gallup.com)

[iii] How small businesses became the most trusted institution in the U.S.  – Marketplace

[iv] Authentic Marketing & Trust in Business | Lindenwood University

[v] Gen Z Is All About Authenticity | Clyde Group

A business man moving a chess piece

Tips to Enhance Your Strategic Plan 

When you look at companies that have succeeded in turbulent times you, will find those that embrace strategic planning fare the best. Strategic planning is found to have a positive impact on organizational performance and is a must for enhancing an organization’s capacity to achieve its goals.

As a title professional, now may be a good time to review your strategic planning process and look for ways to improve it.

Before you begin, it’s important to realize what a strategic plan really is. A strategic plan is a complete and comprehensive activity. It is not document or slide presentation created at the beginning of the year and then tucked in a drawer. The steps of the strategic plan include selecting your team, analyzing current situations and considering future possibilities, defining objectives, creating the plan to realize the objectives, communicating and implementing the plan, and monitoring and adjusting the plan. As you see, “planning” is an important element of the strategic plan, but it’s certainly not the only element.

Here are some things to keep in mind while building and executing the various parts of your strategic plan.

Selecting your team

Be really honest about your team’s strengths and weaknesses, and where you might need to upgrade. An essential requirement for performing the strategic plan is to make sure the members of your team are up to the challenge – psychologically strong, honest, respectful of competitors, accountable, focused, principled and confident but not arrogant. Are their moods appropriate? Nothing thwarts a plan like negativity from a leader, and nothing helps motivate a team who can share their passion for the future of the organization. Ask yourself: do the members of your team embrace the importance of strategic planning, or do they think it’s a distraction from the “real work?” If you’re a business leader, it’s important to reinforce the importance of strategic planning, particularly in a challenging market environment.

Analyze current situations and future possibilities

The next step is to assess current situations and future possibilities both inside your business and outside in the market. The idea here is to ground your assessments about the current situation. Asking the question “where are we now?” is a way to think about this analysis. Internally consider your systems, procedures, and people. Look at your income and balance sheets, sales projections, customer satisfaction, market share and competitors. A SWOT analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) is commonly used. When you have considered the present circumstances and characteristics of your company, then move externally to review and write out your assumptions about customers, competitors, the market, and the economy. Try to stick to the facts and leave emotion and speculation out of your data gathering. As human beings, we have a habit of overestimating our capabilities, so it’s important to ground our assessments. 

Defining objectives

With your facts in hand from gathering data, now it is time to set objectives. Asking the question “where are we going?” is a common way to think about this phase. Consider the future you would like to see for your business. What are you hoping to produce at the end of the year, in 18 months, in two years? People tend to think in one, short time horizon, so it’s important to consider your objectives over multiple horizons of time. It may also be helpful to view your business objectives in light of your organization’s Mission, Vision, and Values.

One problem with many plans is that there are too many strategic objectives. Keep it simple and real. Get clear about what’s important and urgent and what is not. Of course, remember that people − real human beings − must perform your plan. Be realistic about what your team can do, and what they cannot do. Finally, do one last “gut check.” Ask yourself if your objectives are competitive enough. Said another way, will you be satisfied if you achieve your objectives? While it’s important to think simple, it’s also important not to think too small, particularly in a challenging market like we have now. You need objectives that will get the job done.

Strategies and tactics to realize objectives

Now it’s time to ask “how will we get there?” How will the objectives you have outlined be achieved? Consider the work your organization faces as you seek to convert on your objectives and make a plan specifying the members of your team who will do the work, by when, to what standard and how much you expect it to cost. It’s helpful to think in terms of SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timebound. After you have a rough plan, it’s important to try to pick it apart. To plan with confidence, it’s worth considering where the plan is most likely to break down. Some common flaws include poorly trained employees, poor data gathering and analysis, underestimating competitors, disregard for the importance of new tools and technology obligations, overestimation of sales skills (or other skills), and the lack of new products and services to keep up with change.

Communicating and implementing

When communicating your plan to the company at large, keep it simple, keep it SMART and make it important. Your plan has taken a lot of work and it represents a brighter, more successful future for your company. It’s a big deal, and it’s worth getting excited about. Your management team has a key role in holding the strategic objectives and tactical focuses outlined in your plan. Reinforce them. Be proud. Encourage your team to repeat over and over again what the team is doing and why. Use the same language, the same distinctions, the same graphs and charts. Communicate budgets, timelines, and what people are doing what. Honor their work by sharing key metrics and tell stories about milestones achieved. Hold regular meeting rhythms for key employees that focus on breaking down barriers and resolving issues that stand in the way of team goals.

Monitoring and adjusting

The final step in performing the strategic plan is to monitor, evaluate progress and adjust as needed. As a traveler checks the signs along a road while completing a journey, so to must we track progress toward our objectives. If you are a leader, it is important to maintain discipline and enthusiasm for the plan. Remember that adage that no plan survives first contact with reality, so adjust as needed, but … resist the temptation to trash your plan completely. On tough days that temptation may be strong, but remember the brighter future you and your team have envisioned. Keep progress moving toward your goals, even if you must take a step backward now and then. In closing, the strategic plan is a living and evolving set of commitments. Performing it requires continuous updates, interpretations and assessments of key metrics and situations. The more effective your practice of the strategic plan, the nimbler and more resilient your company will be; greatly enhancing your likelihood of success in these turbulent times.

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