May 28, 2024

Vaida Vaitekūnaitė-Job: emotional well-being & a 360-degree career change

Vaida, you have a very interesting CV—could you briefly introduce yourself to our readers?

Of course, it's nice that you're interested, and I'm happy to share more about my professional journey. It's indeed not very linear or typical. :)

After completing my initial business administration studies, I jumped straight into creating a tech startup in Finland related to predictive HR data analysis. It was an extremely valuable experience, both in terms of business and life lessons, where I had to turn an idea into a tangible product, build a team, seek investments, and find the first clients. Our clients were in England and America, and part of our team was in India, which was very popular at the time to reduce employee costs. This was an invaluable experience that allowed me to not only understand the business world but also different cultures and myself in their reflection. After Finland, I spent 8 years in Spain, then in the Netherlands, followed by Switzerland, and now I'm returning to Spain, where my main activity is based.

Continuing with my professional history, we eventually sold our startup to the US company, and I was invited by another tech startup to expand its operations in Spain. I was their "Country Manager" for a few years until I decided it would be interesting to taste the corporate world and test my skills in a slightly different environment. I didn't want to stray too far from the fast-paced business culture and fall into a slow bureaucratic world, so I decided to choose the middle ground and started working at Amazon, where the two worlds—startup energy and resources to turn ideas into reality—seemed to merge. I worked there as the head of the Sustainability project team, and the pace and demands of Amazon allowed for rapid growth. However, I was disappointed because Amazon genuinely cares immensely about its customers but far less about its employees. I felt a disparity between what I was giving to my employer and what I was receiving in return. I realized that people care about the organization they work for as much as the organization cares about its employees. Seeing how many colleagues around me were experiencing burnout, I decided to take the initiative and created a "Mental Health Awareness" project as my side project. At that time, I was also finishing my psychology studies, which had been my passion for as long as I can remember, but due to all the "good advice," I didn't follow this passion when choosing my first studies. At that time, psychology was still surrounded by stigma and negative connotations.

Unexpectedly, at Amazon, I found an opportunity to use my psychology knowledge where I saw it was greatly needed and where it could bring real benefits to my colleagues around me. I received a lot of positive feedback from people who participated in my psychoeducation seminars, so although being a flag bearer wasn't easy, I realized that this is what I want and can give, which gives me the greatest satisfaction—working to improve people's emotional well-being. Quite quickly, I decided to make a breakthrough in my career, closed one door, and opened another with high expectations. I completed my Master's in Clinical Psychology and started working with both private clients and other companies that care about their employees and want to offer psychoeducation to their teams to improve their emotional well-being, and productivity, and prevent burnout before it appears. That's my story in a nutshell.

MELP represents the tech sector, and a significant part of our readers also work in the technology field. What three things would you identify as most important for maintaining a healthy work-life balance and emotional health while working in a fast-paced, constantly changing environment?

This question probably spins in many people's minds. How can I balance everything, juggle five balls at once, and be Zen, like Buddha, at the same time? :) First, we should look at the expectations we've set for ourselves. Are they realistic? Can I be the employee of the year, mother of the year, wife of the year, and daughter of the year all at once? What are my values, where is being "enough" sufficient, and where do I want to be extra-good? When I work with personal clients, we always first slow down their autopilot and see if it's taking us where we actually want to go. When I worked at Amazon, there was an emotionally difficult but also liberating moment when I looked up at the people above me and realized that I didn't want to be where they were. Maybe you've heard the saying, "Sometimes only after climbing the ladder to the top, we realize the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall." So stopping and looking at which wall our ladder is leaning against is incredibly important.

Also, deciding at what pace we want to climb, whether we want to take two steps at a time or if one step at a time is a better option right now, leaving energy for other things that are just as important. Knowing our values is also very important. They act as a compass, showing the direction, and then priorities become clearer. Every time we need to decide on which way to go, we pull out our compass and take a step without looking back or questioning if we made the right decision. So I would say these three: stopping the autopilot, assessing your values, and prioritizing based on them.

What trends do you observe in the field of employee well-being? We talk more about this topic than ever before, but do you notice specific positive changes? What are they?

The biggest positive change, undoubtedly, is that the stigma around psychological health has decreased and that we now openly talk not only in personal conversations over coffee but also at work about the importance of emotional well-being for work results and quality of life. It’s no longer unusual to integrate psychological health programs within a company. I'm glad that Lithuanian companies are also keeping up and we see more and more initiatives encouraging care for psychological well-being as much as for physical health. Deloitte has done a study that says $100 invested in employees' psychological health gives $400 in financial returns for company results. Employers are beginning to understand that employees' mental health is crucial to the company's overall success. It's nice to see that initiatives are also being differentiated and personalized. What motivates some employees may not motivate others; likewise, some employees may need just a little psychoeducation to remind them how to take care of themselves, while others may need private help. It's important to assess the company's psychological health "temperature" and only then apply remedies and preventive programs.

I also see that many companies no longer wait for a critical moment when they must take action because employees are burning out or company morale is sinking low. It is much easier, simpler, and cheaper to invest in prevention and equip employees with tools that prevent bigger problems from arising. In my seminars, I focus a lot on prevention. For example, if I talk about stress, I talk about the roots of stress, and why one person experiences stress in the same situation that another does not. This touches on our upbringing from our parents, our lifestyle habits, and our faulty thinking beliefs. For many, this gives more AHA moments than learning how to calm their nervous system with deep breathing when stress is already at its peak. I prefer to give knowledge so that we come to high-stress levels as little as possible. Also, when it comes to time management, what's more important—what to do or what not to do to be masters of our time? Often a better strategy is to stop doing certain things that drain our time, leaving us feeling that the day has passed, yet we haven't accomplished anything. The same goes for burnout; it is often believed that it's just a consequence of excessive workload, but that's only part of the truth. Other important factors also contribute, and when they appear, the risk of burnout increases exponentially.

You often talk about the importance of flexibility at work. Companies seek flexible, adaptable employees, but are they moving in this direction themselves? What stigma holds companies back from giving more freedom to their employees?

This is a very good observation. There is a disparity between what companies demand and what they are willing to give. It’s a two-way street and movement should occur in both directions. Unfortunately, some managers lack the knowledge and skills to manage remote teams. This includes communication skills, and the ability to motivate and support the team without direct contact. I also believe there are still quite a few traces of control culture, where it’s believed that an employee will work well only when someone is standing over their shoulder. More focus should be placed on clear work metrics and goals, leaving everyone the freedom to achieve results in their own way. This gives people a sense of responsibility and enables them to realize their potential. Helping to achieve maximum results can be done by providing tools and knowledge, not by control. In one of my seminars, I talked about personality differences in a team; everyone has their work preferences that work for one person but may seem unacceptable to another. Openness, tolerance, and acceptance of these differences are very important.

Regarding remote work, personally, from a psychological perspective, I am not a 100% supporter of remote work. Human contact is necessary to feel good. Virtual contact does not replace direct contact by far. One of the essential elements of job satisfaction is relationships at work, both with the supervisor and colleagues. If that relationship is cold, it not only harms emotional well-being but also work results because it won’t be as easy to ask for help, and support, constructively discuss, and express your opinion. Yes, there are ways to bring remote teams closer together when they cannot be in one room, but they are often quite artificial and rarely replace the benefits of direct contact.