The past year has been a rollercoaster ride for well-being experts Jennifer and Jim Moss, who have balanced the ups and downs with a renewed commitment to pursue what they love and do best.
“It is pure chaos all around us, and we're sort of trying to hold it together,” Jennifer Moss says with a self-deprecating laugh.
The chaos leans far more toward the good than bad, but the Moss family has certainly had a whirlwind year: shutting down a business while still trying to advance its mission, a new job, writing a new book, a well-received article in the Harvard Business Review, a soaring writing and speaking career, three active children, a pandemic, home schooling, show business, a short-lived move to Halifax, several bouts of illness, and a dog and a cat.
In other words, the “full catastrophe” as Zorba the Greek so charmingly described the joys and challenges of life.
To fully appreciate the past 12 months in the Moss household, we need to first go back a few years.
In January 2012, Jim Moss was a recently retired multisport athlete – professional lacrosse and hockey – who had gone back to university to complete a degree in psychology.
He was in a funk over his latest bout with an autoimmune disease that, from time to time, makes it difficult for him to walk and use his hands. But when he heard his young children frolicking in the bathtub down the hall, the laughter made him so grateful that he wrote it down and posted it to his blog.
That entry sparked an online gratitude journal that became a viral sensation known as The Smile Epidemic. People all around the world began posting photos of themselves holding up a piece of paper with a hand-drawn smile and a brief message about what they were grateful for.
Jim and Jennifer decided to build on the phenomenon with the idea of creating a tech-enabled company that would foster well-being and happiness in the workplace. They enrolled in a Communitech accelerator program, refining their ideas and eventually launching Plasticity Labs. With a mission to give people “the tools to live a happier life starting in the workplace,” Plasticity developed analytics technology to measure a range of metrics such as employee engagement, satisfaction, sense of community and workplace stress.
Despite public accolades, awards and a successful track record, Jim says that after eight years Plasticity Labs was still operating “paycheque to paycheque.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last March, he and Jennifer decided the time had come to shut the company down and move on.
“Part of me felt like I was letting people down,” says Jim, “but I couldn’t have changed what was going to happen or needed to happen.”
The couple share a strong belief in the value of self-reflection and self-awareness. They are also convinced that people should do what they love and what they’re good at.
“I'm not really a fatalist but sometimes you do have to understand that there's a point and an end to something,” Jennifer says of the decision to close Plasticity. “And when we did that, it was amazing because it opened up our opportunity to think, OK, what is it that we are really good at? What do we really want to do? How can we be our most successful but still stay connected to our values?”
For Jim, the answer was to accept an offer to create and lead a new workplace well-being program for the YMCA of Three Rivers Waterloo Region. The position allows him to apply his expertise within the YMCA and through outreach to the many companies and community organizations with which the Y has relationships.
“What we're trying to do is say, How do we work with workplaces to unlock some of the value of what the Y has to offer?” he says.
Jennifer is thrilled that Jim has an opportunity to focus on what he loves and does best.
“His work with the Y is so amazing because when he is able to share these skills to improve workplace culture in these organizations, it also feeds back into our community and into the Y,” she says. “It's this win-win for Jim and his team, which is incredible.”
Like her husband, Jennifer enjoyed the experience of starting and running Plasticity Labs. But the demands of growing the company and keeping it viable led her further and further away from what she really wanted to do.
Prior to the pandemic, Jennifer had stepped away from her day-to-day role in the company to focus on a burgeoning career as a wellness writer, author and speaker.
On the writing side, she contributes a regular column to CBC Radio and is frequently published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and other journals and media outlets. In 2016, she published her first book – Unlocking Happiness at Work, an award-winning look at the role of happiness in employee engagement and productivity.
Jennifer spent a good chunk of the past year writing her second book, The Burnout Epidemic, which will be published in September by HBR. Along with the book, HBR tapped her to write its annual “big idea” essay this year. The piece, called “Beyond Burned Out,” makes the data-backed case that workplace burnout is an “organizational problem that requires an organizational solution.”
“We’ve put the burden of solving the problem squarely on the shoulders of individual employees,” she writes. “‘Let’s just recommend more yoga, wellness tech, meditation apps, and subsidized gym memberships — that’ll fix it,’ we say. But those are tools for improving well-being. When it comes to preventing burnout specifically, they won’t be effective. We desperately need upstream interventions, not downstream tactics.”
In addition to writing, Jennifer has kept up a marathon pace on the speakers circuit. While the pandemic ended in-person events, she remains a sought-after guest for virtual talks, podcasts and media interviews.
“I quickly pivoted and went to virtual,” she says. “Now I'm doing sometimes three or four talks a week.”
Although she has been writing about workplace burnout for years, the stress of lockdowns and remote work has attracted speaking gigs from corporate and non-profit sponsors around the world. Jennifer has spoken to audiences as large as 7,000 people at the request of a range of organizations, including UNICEF, Fidelity Investments, Molson Coors and Hewlett-Packard, among others.
“Lots of really large organizations that have read the HBR work and are really suffering from burnout,” she says.
Jim says that, in hindsight, the startup life – with its limited resources and jack-of-all-trade demands – wasn’t the optimum environment to foster Jennifer’s many talents.
“Jen is a super high-powered PR person, communicator and writer, and a startup could barely scratch the surface of what she had to offer,” he says. “But now that she's partnered with Harvard Business Review, which couldn't be more different than a startup (in terms of) the team, the audience, the scale and the scope to unlock somebody's potential, it’s just like a superpower that was getting wasted before…. She's really crushing it now because she’s found the scale that she needed to work at where the frequency resonates just right.”
Both Jim and Jennifer are well aware of the irony in their situation: two workplace-wellness advocates whose own busy lives flirt with burnout.
However, Jim says that he actually began feeling healthier after he made the decision to move on from Plasticity Labs.
Jennifer is also feeling good these days, despite the “chaos” of the past 12 months.
“It’s been very challenging,” she says. “I really love being a mom and so I try to make sure that all of these priorities are in check. But I felt like this year there’s a lot of triaging, like, Who's bleeding the worst right now? And it could be work, it could be one of the kids, but it's a lot of triaging around priorities. So I have to use a lot of those self-care tools because I'm my own boss.”
In addition to their busy work lives, Jennifer and Jim are dedicated parents to three active children aged seven, 11 and 13. The pandemic has led to several extended periods of school-from-home, a real disruption for kids and a challenge for parents. If that weren't enough, one of the Moss children came down with mononucleosis this past year and Jim still wrestles with the effects of the autoimmune disease that first surfaced more than a decade ago.
Jennifer thinks the lockdowns and social restrictions are toughest on young people. Her 13-year-old son Wyatt is an up-and-coming dancer and actor who performed in Billy Elliot at Stratford in 2019 and was chosen to take on the lead role for a run of the same musical at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax last spring. The Moss family moved to Nova Scotia for a temporary stay but, four days into rehearsals, the theatre cancelled the season due to COVID-19.
“Wyatt’s going a little stir crazy not having dance,” says Jennifer. “He used to do 20 hours a week… it is really hard for him to not have that outlet.”
So, how is the family coping?
“We work really hard on giving each other grace,” says Jennifer. “We spend a lot of time around the family just talking about empathy and compassion for each other and giving each other a break, a lot of slack, and it's helped.”
One of the silver linings to the events of the past year is the opportunity for reflection and new beginnings.
“We’re definitely a family that believes you have to keep focused on what you love,” says Jennifer. “That’s sort of what our premise is as a family, and it’s probably why Jim and I have continued to grow because we see these setbacks as being opportunities for growth, and people experience post-traumatic growth usually in situations that are really stressful and challenging. I think that's been a big part of our success.”