UPCOMING WEBINAR (11/17) | A Personal Definition of Success


The Link Between Mental Health and Employee Engagement, with Katie Urtnowski

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Dr. Pelè (00:04):
Hello, everyone. This is Dr. Pele with the WorkProud Podcast. It is my pleasure to introduce you today to Katie Urtnowski, who is the vice president of people and culture at CNY Group of companies. How are you doing today, Katie?

Katie Urtnowski (00:24):
Hello. How are you?

Dr. Pelè (00:26):
It is such a pleasure to have this conversation with you. You want to know why I get so excited talking with chief people officers and folks like you? It’s because you guys are in the trenches, you’re getting it done. This is not theory. And I am so ready to learn from you today. How are you doing and where are you, by the way?

Katie Urtnowski (00:44):
I am doing great. I am actually in Manhattan. We are located in Midtown.

Dr. Pelè (00:49):
Manhattan. Okay.

Katie Urtnowski (00:50):
I’m in the heart of New York City.

Dr. Pelè (00:51):
Yeah. In the busy world, right?

Katie Urtnowski (00:53):
Busy world, yeah.

Dr. Pelè (00:54):
Buildings everywhere, crazy traffic, everything. Right?

Katie Urtnowski (00:58):
Traffic. We are right in Times Square. It’s actually quite a sight these days, as we get ready for the new year.

Dr. Pelè (01:06):
There you go. All right. Well, I wanted to ask you one very big question. We’ll get into details later, but as a vice president of people and culture, as I’ve said, you’re at the front lines.

Dr. Pelè (01:19):
If you were to boil this big topic down to one specific challenge that you see over and over, and that has become important to you, what would that challenge be?

Katie Urtnowski (01:31):
The challenge that I’m most passionate about is just understanding the impact of mental health on the workplace. It is extremely important for organizations to taking in account, not only physical health for their employees, but the mental health of their employees, because that is what’s going to make people engaged, efficient and productive.

Dr. Pelè (01:51):
Wow. Okay. Now you’ve got me started on this very important question. I have to ask you to define mental health. Because when you even use the words mental health, I’m sure like most people, we get a picture in our heads, but it’s much broader and much bigger than that. Isn’t it? What is mental health?

Katie Urtnowski (02:11):
It is. Mental health is exactly like physical health. So, there is a spectrum of things that go into it. So everybody, when you think mental health, you’ll jump immediately to mental health illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar or that kind of thing.

Katie Urtnowski (02:26):
But mental health is just so much more than that. It’s just ensuring that your mind is engaged and focused. That’s a big piece of mental health. That’s why it’s so important for employers to pay attention to it.

Katie Urtnowski (02:40):
So similar to your physical health, where you have to do preventative care. You can get a cold or the flu or have some big illness like cardiac disease.

Katie Urtnowski (02:51):
Mental health is the same. You have to take preventative care. There’s everything from just being down for a couple of days, to having a longer term illness.

Dr. Pelè (03:01):
When you shared what you just shared right now, you used one word that we all use all the time, and that is the word engaged. So many of us, when we talk about employee engagement and things like that, rarely do we put it in the context of mental health.

Dr. Pelè (03:17):
But I am so appreciative that you’ve made that connection, because I got to tell you, on Monday morning, when some of us wake up feeling a certain way, I mean, that’s-

Katie Urtnowski (03:29):
You have this dread in your stomach that you have to get it all back and get back into work. Yep.

Dr. Pelè (03:33):
Yeah. That’s got to have something to do with engagement of course, but it’s actually a health issue as well. Could you tell us how you found this path and this passion? How did Katie become this person who is passionate about this topic?

Katie Urtnowski (03:49):
Great question. I actually have had a very winding path through my career. I went to school initially for education, and I thought I was going to be a psychologist.

Katie Urtnowski (03:59):
I actually dropped out of school for a while, and then went back to school and went for business administration.

Katie Urtnowski (04:05):
I think that between that, as well as kind of the different jobs that I’ve held, I’ve really understood the impact of mental health, as well as my own personal experiences with it.

Katie Urtnowski (04:16):
So, I have had, also a winding career path. I’ve been in healthcare. I’ve been in insurance. I was in nonprofit law, prior to being in construction. Those are vastly different industries.

Katie Urtnowski (04:28):
One thing I’ve learned, is that people would drive everything. That’s why HR is so interesting to me, that it’s all about, how do you get people to grow and move and to continuing to make progress?

Dr. Pelè (04:42):
Mm, great question. How do you do that? I think that we’ll come back to how exactly you’ve experienced that and how you work around that. But isn’t it amazing, how so many companies say that their people are their greatest asset?

Katie Urtnowski (05:01):
It’s usually, what do you mean by that? [crosstalk 00:05:07] line item?

Dr. Pelè (05:08):
Yeah. And, and yet some of the actions might be far from that. Katie, could you take us down a path of what it takes to unpack this problem from the mental health perspective that you’ve described it?

Dr. Pelè (05:22):
How can we bring change to organizations? How have you experienced the challenge and how you’re solving it in your organization?

Katie Urtnowski (05:30):
I think the first thing is that it, it’s a socialization and an awareness of mental health. Again, comparing it to physical health, you are aware that you have to be feeling good, to be able to get out of bed and to eat and to do whatever it is that you need to do for that day.

Katie Urtnowski (05:48):
Same thing kind of needs to be considered for mental health. It’s incremental steps that an organization can think about, to help provide that safety, that psychological safety for employees.

Katie Urtnowski (06:02):
A lot of people will kind of tackle it and say, okay, well, we’re going to need to have a really robust EAP, which is an employee assistance program and all that.

Katie Urtnowski (06:11):
It’s important to have all of those steps, but it’s also important that you’re just thinking about who your people are and what’s the best way for them to work and interact with others.

Katie Urtnowski (06:21):
Socialization is so key. Socializing is so key to employee wellbeing and people wellbeing. And especially over the course of those last two years, we haven’t really been able to interact on that face to face level.

Katie Urtnowski (06:35):
I know at my organization, at CNY, we’re a construction and development services firm and construction is extremely face to face and hands on. Suddenly, that all changed.

Katie Urtnowski (06:46):
We had to learn how to work in a new environment and a new way of doing things.

Katie Urtnowski (06:51):
That’s stressful for people. Not being able to go see in the kitchen and stop and spend a couple of minutes with somebody can diminish your day.

Dr. Pelè (07:01):
Yeah. I have to say socialization, whew. In fact, I think I heard somewhere, that material things aren’t happiness. It’s really relationships that are happiness. And boy, does that ring true for me.

Dr. Pelè (07:17):
You mentioned you’ve been using physical health as an analogy most of us can understand. I really appreciate that because it helps me visualize what you’re saying.

Dr. Pelè (07:27):
I know that to keep myself physically healthy, I got to do the standard things, like exercise, good food. I’m sure there are other things, but I’ll just give those two.

Dr. Pelè (07:39):
What are the things, the very simple things that all of us… Since mental health is something we all are experiencing, what are the things we can do, tangibly, to contain it and to do a good job with it?

Katie Urtnowski (07:53):
Sure. I think something that’s extremely important to mental health is that sense of belonging and that sense of being a part of something. Right?

Katie Urtnowski (08:02):
There’s a basic psychological theory by Maslow, which he has this hierarchy of needs, which I absolutely love and use as an analogy for a lot of different things, because it’s that step building. You can’t do that next thing until you have that first step taken care of.

Katie Urtnowski (08:21):
So, people need to be able to feel that they’re a part of a group and they’re part of something. That’s where work can really come into play because you can identify.

Katie Urtnowski (08:30):
If you’ve got a good team and you like your colleagues and you feel proud of what you’re doing, that that becomes a part of who you are. Hey, I’m doing this amazing thing.

Katie Urtnowski (08:40):
That becomes extremely important and just for an organization to understand, because if you are able to leverage that and provide that sense of belonging to employees and people, you’re really going to kind of get that twofold back from people because they’re going to want to come to work. They’re going to want to do a good job because they like what they’re doing and they like going.

Katie Urtnowski (09:02):
That’s a big piece of it. Right? You talked about that Monday morning dread. I mean it’s sometimes if you really don’t like what you’re doing, that pit in your stomach is pretty deep.

Dr. Pelè (09:12):
Yeah. As far as liking what you’re doing or are not liking what you’re doing, and I’ll share this with you later, some of our studies on the topic of pride. We’ve found that, feeling proud of your work is huge when it comes to your sense of engagement and connection.

Dr. Pelè (09:29):
You mentioned something about Maslow’s, I want to go deeper on because I also love Maslow’s, but I’ve come to feel that a lot of people have misunderstood Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Dr. Pelè (09:42):
Let me explain what I mean, so that you can jump in on it. I feel that almost people say, forget about self-actualization, forget about happiness. Those are not important. Only get the tangible things done first, before that.

Dr. Pelè (09:58):
I’m wondering, is that true? Or shouldn’t we have at least that happiness as part of our journey. What do you think?

Katie Urtnowski (10:05):
I think that we absolutely should have happiness as part of a journey. I think what happens is that people feel that, that’s the end goal that they should be working for. And if they don’t feel happy, that they’re not doing the right thing.

Katie Urtnowski (10:19):
I’m not so sure that, that’s the case. There’s some things that you’re going to be passionate about, that you’re really going to enjoy doing more than others.

Katie Urtnowski (10:29):
So, I think people have to understand that, yes, if you’re going to work and you’re not feeling content and you’re dreading it and you cry in your car every day going to work, you should think about, why are you having those reactions? Because something’s not right there. That’s your body and yourself telling you that something’s not right for you.

Katie Urtnowski (10:54):
It becomes extremely important to have that feeling of, you said it, pride in what you’re doing.

Dr. Pelè (11:02):
Yeah. Let’s get tactical here because you’ve made some really important points, especially around belonging, which I couldn’t agree more.

Dr. Pelè (11:10):
But for someone listening to this, a leader, a CEO, CHRO, people officer like yourself and they’re saying, “Okay, I got it. I’ve heard the words before, but now I want to know what I’m going to do on Tuesday and on Thursday.”

Dr. Pelè (11:25):
Are there maybe two or three very specific strategies that you’ve seen to be working, maybe better than others?

Katie Urtnowski (11:32):
Sure. I think it starts on day one. Actually, at CNY, it starts before day one. Every new hire comes in and they’re assigned an onboarding buddy. That onboarding buddy, actually can reach out before the employee even gets to CNY, just to say hello and introduce themselves.

Katie Urtnowski (11:52):
They’re supposed to be an ambassador of CNY, to help that person integrate into the culture, as a touch point to let them know how things at CNY work and just be another person that they have as a resource when they’re getting here.

Katie Urtnowski (12:09):
Another great thing is, is to just provide opportunities for people to socialize. It doesn’t have to be big ones.

Katie Urtnowski (12:18):
I mean, there’s always the company happy hour and bowling and all these… or virtual paint night. We’ve done all of those things. But even something as simple as just, if you are having a virtual meeting, allowing it to start a couple minutes early and stay a couple minutes late, so people can chit chat before you get into the meeting.

Katie Urtnowski (12:38):
That’s that water cooler talk that not everybody gets to have anymore because they’re not necessarily in the office.

Dr. Pelè (12:45):
Yeah. Yeah.

Katie Urtnowski (12:45):
That’s a big part of it, is making those connections, so that people feel that they have a sense of belonging, that they have a team behind them.

Dr. Pelè (12:55):
I wrote down three points that you just made. I want to repeat them because I think they’re that important. They are just critical.

Dr. Pelè (13:01):
You’re creating the onboarding buddies that show you that sense of belonging, even before you’ve joined the company. That’s smart. I love that.

Dr. Pelè (13:12):
Then the second one was, always create these opportunities for people to socialize and create those water cooler moments that many of us have lost in the pandemic and so on. I think that’s just amazing.

Dr. Pelè (13:24):
How about within the context of work itself? Some people find that they’re very engaged in their work. Others, not so much so. We’ve all seen the very difficult research around engagement.

Dr. Pelè (13:38):
Do you have any specific strategy about how… And you used the word engagement, in a mental health context. Do you have any specific approaches to engagement, specifically in the mental health context?

Katie Urtnowski (13:52):
Sure. I think that a piece of it is, you have to understand that people work in different ways and that people…

Katie Urtnowski (14:01):
This is a training kind of understanding. Right? There’s different ways that people learn. So, you have to be able to provide different ways of learning.

Katie Urtnowski (14:11):
You have to write it and you have to speak it and you have to have people play it back. Right?

Dr. Pelè (14:15):
Yep. Yep.

Katie Urtnowski (14:15):
Same context goes, when it comes to working. People have different work methodologies. They have different flows. They have different communication styles.

Dr. Pelè (14:23):

Katie Urtnowski (14:23):
So you, as a employer, have to understand that there’s different ways. Get to know your employee, so that you can connect with them in the way that works the best for them. That is extremely important.

Katie Urtnowski (14:40):
I do it a lot with my team, is what’s the best way? Is it an in-person meeting? Some people like texting a little bit more. Some people really want to have that phone call.

Katie Urtnowski (14:49):
Some people are okay with being left alone for a couple of weeks, and some people want check-ins weekly, so that they can make sure that they’re staying on task.

Katie Urtnowski (14:59):
You have to recognize the work of who that employee is and then incorporate that into what you’re doing as an organization.

Dr. Pelè (15:08):
I hope you don’t mind. I’m really just trying to get all these answers from you because I really appreciate this analogy and this lens, this paradigm really, that you’re using to see the world. Not everybody focuses this way.

Dr. Pelè (15:22):
In fact, you mentioned a word, a phrase rather, called psychological safety, earlier on.

Dr. Pelè (15:30):
For most leaders and managers who come from the school of maybe tough love or let’s get this done right now and just, we’re going to be in your face every five seconds, how do you show people what psychological safety is and why it’s so important and how to do it, how to do it right?

Katie Urtnowski (15:53):
It is. I mean, listen, I’m in construction. Right?

Dr. Pelè (15:56):
Yeah. You start to use the word emotional-

Katie Urtnowski (16:00):
Hey, wait a second. Yeah. Is it like this? Hey, Vinnie, where’s my hat?

Katie Urtnowski (16:05):
Exactly. No, I think it is very interesting because the way that I break it down for people is, again, it’s this term, psychological safety. Well, oh my God, what the hell does that mean? Right?

Katie Urtnowski (16:18):
It’s simple things. It’s just making sure that you’re providing people the ability to voice their opinion. It’s making sure that people feel that, if something is going wrong, they know who to go to, to have that taken care of it.

Katie Urtnowski (16:32):
It’s making sure that you’re clear on what your policies and your procedures are, and also understanding that nothing is set in stone.

Katie Urtnowski (16:41):
I think this is also something that really starts to happen, is that everybody thinks that you have to tackle a big thing all at once. That’s not really it.

Katie Urtnowski (16:51):
My dad actually taught me this. My dad is a track coach or was a track coach for 39 years, college track coach.

Katie Urtnowski (16:58):
He taught me that it’s not about winning. It’s about doing your personal best, that it’s small, incremental steps that will lead to monumental change.

Katie Urtnowski (17:09):
I know that’s a tenet in change management, but I think it is so true, is to understand that it’s making small, little tweaks and recognizing that you can change something if it’s not working right.

Katie Urtnowski (17:21):
Or maybe it works right for six months, and then it has to adjust a little bit. That’s especially important with people because people are changing all the time.

Katie Urtnowski (17:29):
So, keeping that in mind for management becomes the best way that you can provide safety, that psychological safety to your employees.

Dr. Pelè (17:40):
In all fairness to managers and leaders who are focused on the bottom line, getting results, dollars and cents, I mean, we’re in business after all. They do have to care about outcomes and results.

Dr. Pelè (17:53):
But it’s such a fine line, to make sure you not only care about the outcomes and the golden eggs, but also the golden goose. Right? Take care of the people and really treat them in such a way that they’ll continue to give your golden eggs. Right?

Katie Urtnowski (18:09):
Yeah, absolutely. Employers need to know that, that’s what employees are looking for. That workforce is changing. You see it now, is that people, they have more expectations from their employer. You, as an organization, need to recognize that, so that you can meet those needs.

Dr. Pelè (18:30):
Yeah, absolutely.

Katie Urtnowski (18:30):
It’s basically human stability. Right?

Dr. Pelè (18:32):
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Katie Urtnowski (18:32):
Just recognizing that we are all human.

Dr. Pelè (18:36):
We’re All human. Hey, Vinnie.

Katie Urtnowski (18:38):
From the CEO, all the way down.

Dr. Pelè (18:38):
Vinnie, I’m human. I’m sorry. I’ve been watching too many Godfather movies or something.

Dr. Pelè (18:46):
Katie, let’s talk about something that I already shared with you, one of my favorite topics. That is pride and happiness and a personal sense of real connection to what one does.

Dr. Pelè (18:58):
It’s a little rare. You see over there, WorkProud? I get to be proud of my work and that’s so important, but not everybody gets that.

Dr. Pelè (19:09):
I’m wondering what your perspective is, especially from the mental health angle. How do we help people feel proud of their work?

Dr. Pelè (19:16):
The research is very clear about this. I promised I’d share that with you, the WorkProud study that we found.

Katie Urtnowski (19:22):

Dr. Pelè (19:23):
Some strong connections between pride and engagement, but how do we do that? How do we help people feel pride, besides letting them hang their guitar in the background?

Katie Urtnowski (19:32):
I think there’s a couple of things that, as an employer, we can do. I think it’s extremely important that employees are prideful of their work.

Katie Urtnowski (19:40):
I also think we have to recognize that what that level is for an employee is going to vary. There are some people who are going to live and die by their identity of their employer, because work is really important to them and they’re willing to do whatever it takes.

Katie Urtnowski (19:57):
There’s some people who believe in work-life integration and have other interests outside of work. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be fully engaged and have pride and do things and be a great employee for employers. But again, it goes back to the individual.

Katie Urtnowski (20:16):
So, how do you ensure that people are connecting to their work and have that pride and that sense of happiness? I think there’s a couple things.

Katie Urtnowski (20:24):
One is that you need to give them ownership of those tasks, because I think the quickest way to disengage an employee is to solicit feedback or ask for them to do something and then take the credit or not listen to what they say. It can very easily go badly that way.

Dr. Pelè (20:51):
Yeah. Yeah.

Katie Urtnowski (20:53):
It’s not to say, listen, not every idea can be acknowledged and not every idea is going to work out. But I think just trusting in your employee to say, “Hey, I’m going to do this,” because it’s extremely important.

Katie Urtnowski (21:05):
In HR, I actually have a very green team. They’re relatively new. It’s a brand new team that we kind of developed over the last year. So, there’s a lot of me having to interact with them. But I trust them that when we assign a project or something like that, that everybody knows what their part is, and if they have a problem that they can come to me. Rather than me just dictating to them, this is how you get it done. I think that’s the difference.

Dr. Pelè (21:32):
Wow. So important that people have a sense of ownership. I think from that ownership, what you’re saying is, therein comes the pride.

Dr. Pelè (21:42):
I certainly agree with that. I know that when I’m involved in a project that I’ve been allowed to actually influence, it just makes the world of… it’s like, yes, I’m part of this. A piece of this is mine, in a sense. Right?

Katie Urtnowski (21:57):

Dr. Pelè (21:58):
That is so important. Katie, what are you excited about? Any new projects, any things that are coming up, that you’d like to share with the world? What’s next for you and your organization?

Katie Urtnowski (22:11):
We actually are going to be doing a lot of exciting things in HR, in my organization. I don’t know if others would feel it’s exciting, but next month we’re going to release all our new employee policies.

Katie Urtnowski (22:24):
We’ve really kind of revamped a lot of things, to bring things up to speed and update, and we’ll do a little bit of a reorientation.

Katie Urtnowski (22:33):
I’m really excited about that because that’s a way of kind of reconnecting with employees, even people who have been here long term.

Katie Urtnowski (22:43):
I say that because having that moment and having that kind of, we’re going to turn it into a week kind event type of thing, just gives a reason for us to reach out and interact.

Katie Urtnowski (22:56):
I think that a lot of times, in HR, when you’re interacting with employees, it’s only on a negative basis. If HR gets called in, there’s all like, ooh, oh no.

Dr. Pelè (23:09):
Where’s my psychological safety? Where is it?

Katie Urtnowski (23:13):
Exactly. I start walking in the door, everybody’s eyes get big.

Katie Urtnowski (23:17):
I’m just excited that we are really trying to position ourselves as partners. Our job is to, obviously be a business partner to the organization, but also to partner with employees, so that they get what they need and are successful here or elsewhere, depending on what the circumstances are.

Dr. Pelè (23:37):
That’s really exciting to, first of all, feel the passion that you bring to the HR role. I know that there are a lot of people who talk about the role of HR and how is that changing or how should it change and things like that. So, it’s awesome to see you taking full ownership of that.

Dr. Pelè (23:57):
Well, Katie, I just want to say, thank you so much for joining us on this podcast. How can people get a hold of you? What’s your favorite spot to be found online?

Katie Urtnowski (24:09):
I’m not that great online. I do have a LinkedIn.

Dr. Pelè (24:13):
Oh, there you go.

Katie Urtnowski (24:14):
You can find me on LinkedIn. I have an Instagram, but I don’t actually… My daughter has to teach me how to use it.

Dr. Pelè (24:24):
That’s okay. That’s okay. We will provide the LinkedIn here, for everyone.

Katie Urtnowski (24:30):
Thank you. Maybe that’s my goal for next year, is learn how to [crosstalk 00:24:36] a little bit more.

Dr. Pelè (24:36):
Yeah. There you go. All right. Well, Katie, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure learning from you. Have a wonderful day.

Katie Urtnowski (24:43):
Well, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.


Katie Urtnowski

Katie Urtnowski is the Vice President of People and Culture at the CNY Group. She is a passionate advocate about the important link between mental health and employee engagement.

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