Since It's OK to Talk About Mental Health, What Should Employers Say—and Do?

BY Anna Maltby | May 15, 2022

The Covid-19 pandemic was not just an assault on physical health. It helped trigger a cascade of mental health challenges, as well. According to the World Health Organization, in the first year of the pandemic alone, rates of anxiety and depression increased by 25% worldwide.

Yet at the same time, perhaps because of the ubiquity of suffering, the stigma around mental illness is beginning to dissipate. Nearly 90% of Americans in a poll said they believe having a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, according to a survey from the American Psychological Association. So with more strain on mental health, and people feeling more open about broaching the subject, how can employers best support their team?

Experts discussed this question and more in a From Day One webinar titled, “Since It’s OK to Talk About Mental Health, What Should Employers Be Saying—and Doing?,”  for which I served as moderator. On the panel were Jackie Bassett, director of people strategy at UChicago Medicine; Shauna Harrington, senior director of outreach and executive talent at VSP Vision; Tamika Simpson, care advocate lead at Ovia Health; Rachel Tyler, HR business partner at Houston Methodist; and Pamela Berman, chief talent officer for North America at Publicis Health.

What Has Changed?

A cultural shift began to occur even before the pandemic, with many employees becoming much more open about discussing mental health, Berman said. “It wasn’t that long ago that employers and employees just never talked about mental health or mental wellness. In the last two and a half years, younger employees maybe just coming out of school were much freer about, say, whether or not they’re seeing a therapist–much more liberal at talking about it.” And with the added stressors of the pandemic, mental health quickly became a topic employers couldn’t afford to sweep under the rug.

For one thing, the experts explained that the epic surge in workers leaving their jobs for better work situations has contributed to widespread understaffing, requiring many employees to essentially take on multiple jobs. For another, added stressors at home–particularly the precarious nature of child care in a pandemic, Simpson noted–have made it difficult to be fully present at work, and have led many working parents and caregivers to worry about their performance and growth opportunities.

A panel of experts speak on mental health, top row from left: Pamela Berman of Publicis Health and Rachel Tyler of Methodist Health System. Middle row: Tamika Simpson of Ovia Health, moderator Anna Maltby, and Shauna Harrington of VSP Vision. Bottom: Jackie Bassett of UChicago Medicine (Image by From Day One)

In the health care industry, workers are under added stress because of the widely reported pandemic-related strains on the system, among other factors, Tyler and Bassett noted. And finally, while the option to work remotely has come as a welcome source of both Covid safety and flexibility for those who have it, sitting in front of a computer at home all day can be stressful for both the mind and the body, Harrington said.

Unfortunately, employers aren’t always innocent here: Expecting full productivity during difficult times, ignoring the realities of pandemic life, and not moving quickly enough to provide employees with the resources they need to reach their goals–all these lapses can contribute to stress and burnout, the experts said.

How Should Employers Respond?

Thankfully, many smart policies, benefits, and other resources can help companies support their teams’ mental health, respond appropriately when mental health concerns arise, and ease some of the most common stressors that affect employees. It’s not just the humane thing to do, the experts said–it’s a strong investment in the health of the organization. Bassett cited a recent University of Chicago study that found for every dollar an employer spends on mental health treatment, the company sees an average return on investment of $4.

The experts shared a wealth of ideas, including:

  • Upgraded employee-assistance programs (EAPs) with a concierge service to help employees seamlessly find a mental health professional
  • Presentations and webinars to help employees understand the mental health benefits available to them
  • Free counseling sessions made available to employees and their entire households
  • Text-based counseling programs
  • Bonuses to help hourly employees with unexpected costs during periods when they aren’t able to work
  • Eliminating co-pays for mental health services
  • Financial wellness services such as student loan forgiveness to help ease financial stress
  • Flexible time off policies
  • Weekly or daily check-ins as a team and one-on-one meetings with managers, making it clear that it’s okay to discuss stress, self-care, and any needs for additional support or flexibility
  • Hiring contract staff to support understaffed teams

In some cases, a combination of time-off and stress-relief policies come together as a comprehensive solution. At Ovia, the company offers unlimited paid time off for employees, as well as mental-health days, said Simpson. “Another thing that I really enjoy personally is no-meeting Wednesdays. It’s pretty simple. It’s a very easily enforced policy, but it allows for that heads-down time, really focusing, not having your day broken up by meeting after meeting. Just little things like that can really make a huge impact in the mental health of the employee,” she said.

Finally, the experts agreed that equipping managers with information and training on how to appropriately discuss mental health and self-care with their employees—and what benefits are available to them—is critical. It’s a balance: “We have to partner with our leaders and managers to help them recognize signs of burnout and check in with their team,” Tyler said, “but we’re not expecting them to pull a theoretical couch into their office” and attempt to take on the role of a mental health professional. The key, the experts said, is to keep things professional while still tapping into empathy, normalizing self-care, and encouraging folks to take advantage of the benefits and policies available.

Anna Maltby is an editor, content strategist, and exercise specialist. She has served as executive editor of Elemental, the health and well-being publication on Medium, as well as deputy editor of Real Simple and Refinery29.


Total Rewards: How the Definition Is Changing

It was a bounty that wasn’t destined to last. During the Great Resignation and its war for talent, employers offered workers abundant new benefits and other rewards. But now, with employee-retention numbers at high levels and corporate austerity taking hold, finance departments are looking to tighten reward budgets. That has caused some tension with HR leaders charged with attracting and retaining talent.  “We’re in this constant battle with finance,” said Ken Wechsler, VP of total rewards at Akamai Technologies. “We’re fighting for it, and I would guess my colleagues on this call will also fight it. We might not get as much moving forward, but we will fight.” Weschler and three other leaders in the benefits and compensation sector of HR spoke last month in a From Day One webinar about the constantly evolving dynamic of total rewards packages.  Todd Cowgill, VP of global rewards at the data-center company Equinix, says it’s essential to “speak their language” when negotiating with finance and business departments about rewards programs. “If you cannot tell what the return on investment of your program is, you will lose that program,” he said. “You have to understand what the company as a business gets because of the program, what it costs and what it gets back.” David Kirby, senior VP of total rewards and operations at the customer-experience company Epsilon, says once programs are lost due to cost-cutting, it becomes very challenging to revive them in a reasonable amount of time. “I’m very concerned about our secondary benefits,” he said. “We have a company where there’s a snack allowance. That’s the last thing I want to see removed or cut.” Working From Home a Must, But Trips to the Office Help Finding a cutting-edge company in 2023 that isn’t offering some form of work-from-home option is a challenging task, but many HR leaders believe a few trips to the office –even irregular ones–can be highly beneficial. “We give employees the choice of where they want to work, and 90% of them have said they want to work from home,” Wechsler said. “Everything is in play now–things I had never even thought of when it comes to total rewards.” Arvind Kumar, director of total rewards and HR operations in the Asia Pacific for the ad giant McCann Worldgroup, said his workplace policies are as varied as the countries of operation he oversees.The panel on total rewards, top row from left: Arvind Kumar of McCann Worldgroup and David Kirby of Epsilon. Bottom row: Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Ken Wechsler of Akamai, and Todd cowgill of Equinix. (Image by From Day One; featured illustration by Lemono/iStock by Getty Images)“Asia has a completely different culture,” he said. “I think since Covid we aren’t planning on changing it back to how it used to be. We accepted that hybrid work is here to stay and that’s where we changed our way of working.” Kumar says some countries McCann operates in are more predisposed to working in an office environment, while workers from other Asian countries may enjoy working from home. Though quickly becoming a minority of workers, some will avoid working for a company if its work-from-home policies are too permissive. “They’ll self-select,” Weschler said. “We make the effort to do things in the office a lot–but now a lot means quarterly. We know that most will not want to come, and some folks will want to attend an event because they get to go to the office. Our recruiters ask if you’re looking to be in the office a lot because our package doesn’t include that.” All four total-ewards executives agreed that having opportunities to make intermittent trips to the office is beneficial and allows employees to expand their network by meeting new faces. Kumar says communication with prospective employees is vital for both sides to manage expectations. Fringe Benefits Are a Big Slice of the Pie HR leaders typically seek to gauge what their employees want from their organization. McGill says one of the most tried-and-true methods remains the pulse survey–a short set of questions sent to employees regularly. “That’s the short and efficient way to get into things,” he said. “But then you have to find specific ways to target whatever the issue is.” Ideas from those surveys often get implemented as policies that benefit the worker. “We have five wellness days per year. We completely shut our doors and there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t send emails on those days or on weekends,” Weschler said. “On Fridays, we don’t have any meetings–that has come from leadership.” The speakers reported that requests for childcare assistance have become less common, perhaps due to the increase in remote work that allows childcare to coincide with working. “I think people have gotten better on Zoom with the kid coming in and saying hello,” McGill said. “That blend between home and work has happened in a much more open way and, I think, healthy way than what we’ve seen in the past.” Even so, childcare policy experts warn of a looming “child-care cliff” starting at the end of this month, when many of the child-care programs supported by the American Rescue Plan Act’s stabilization funds expire. Kirby said Epsilon does not track time off for exempt employees and the organization operates on a culture of trust. “We expect folks to work and get their job done,” he said. “Sometimes that means 2 p.m. and other times that means until 9 p.m. We want people to have that flexibility.” Good News on the Health Insurance Front Despite many companies facing double-digit increases in health-insurance costs in 2023, those on the webinar reported that their companies have been absorbing the cost hikes amid the post-Covid inflationary market. “Our trend is nothing near what the market is,” Weschler said. “I’m not sure why, but we are absorbing most of it and trying to keep that minimal increase and maintain the balance of how employees and employers split health care.” Kirby says that Epsilon has also “eaten” the increase in costs at the corporate level. McGill said he attributes some of his company’s ability to absorb the increases in health care costs to an effective wellness program offered to employees. “It varies from country to country, but how do you engage with employees on health care?” he asked. “In some countries, it’s a state-run enterprise and not something we can get into.” Weschler said Akamai provides $500 in wellness reimbursement for employees to allow for fitness equipment purchases or other wellness-related items. “The working life is integrated, so we try to focus on encouraging our employees to participate in healthy activities,” he said.Tim Zyla is the managing editor of a community newspaper in Pennsylvania and has a strong interest in business and finance.  

Tim Zyla | September 06, 2023

Equitable Rewards: Do You Have Pride in Your Benefits?

Pride month is about celebrating and supporting diversity. One way to do that is to ensure your benefits plans are inclusive of different employees’ needs.A good benefits package consistently ranks among the top three most important factors for job satisfaction, according to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. But for many people, the usual components of a benefits plan—401(k) match, paid time off, and/or professional development stipends—aren’t keeping up with what employees really want and need.As a result, some companies are innovating their compensation offerings and winning over top talent along the way. Moreover, your existing employees may be shopping around for packages that better suit their needs, said Corrinne Hobbs, vice president of business development at Ovia Health, a family health benefits platform.“Recently, Ovia did a survey of its members, and we learned that 91% of our members would consider a lateral move to a place with better family benefits and a family friendly culture,” Hobbs said. “That's really significant.” For BIPOC and LGBTQ+ employees, inclusive benefits packages can encourage well-being, better team retention, and a more diverse overall workforce.Leading DE&I professionals weighed in at From Day One’s recent webinar titled, “Equitable Rewards: Do You Have Pride In Your Benefits?” How to Tap Into What Employees WantEmployee Resource Groups (ERGs) are a great way for employees to connect with one another. But they can also be an accurate and authentic way to determine relevant next steps for your benefits development efforts, said Hannah Wilkowski, director of global benefits at BuzzFeed.“ERGs are such a source of information. There's no better way to get to know your employees than to reach out to your ERGs and say, ‘How are we doing? Let's get a temperature check,’” Wilkowski said. She notes that leveraging existing connections within the organization can help you shape a relevant strategy. “It’s actually helped shift our trajectory for the next few years, just based on those conversations,” she added.The full panel of speakers from top left, Hannah Wilkowski of Buzzfeed, moderator Nick Wolny of CNET, Corrinne Hobbs of Ovia Health, Jodi Davidson of Sodexo, Chad Nico Hiu of YMCA of San Francisco, and Pablo Slough of Google (photo by From Day One)The needs and wants of most workforces have shifted in the wake of hybrid and fully remote setups. As such, stakeholders may need to revisit current policies and weigh what works best to meet employees’ needs, said Chad Nico Hiu, senior vice president of strategy, equity and impact at the YMCA of San Francisco, who also serves on the board of the Tyler Clementi Foundation.“When we say hybrid, we mean like seven different things. And the nonprofit sector, part of what we are struggling with is [that] only some of us at leadership levels, myself included, even have even the option of being hybrid,” Hiu said. “Those who are at the top of the hierarchy are making decisions for those who are not, oftentimes without understanding or empathy. If we're asking questions of our employees, are we really ready to listen?”The power dynamic brings up an important point: If employees don’t feel psychologically safe to begin with, they’ll be less likely to voice their needs and concerns, crippling an important feedback loop. Research from Google entitled Project Aristotle found that psychological safety is the most important factor for effective teamwork. C-suite decision makers and team leaders should proactively cultivate this across the organization, said Jodi Davidson, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion for Sodexo.“Psychological safety ensures teams are effective. It’s about expanding the definition [of psychological safety], not only being able to bring your whole self to work, but also the ability to take risks without fear that in some way you're going to be punished for doing so,” Davidson said.Meet Employees Where They Are, Both Physically and PersonallyAnother reason to advocate for remote work is that it can often result in more diverse workforces, noted Pablo Slough, head of diversity, equity and inclusion for executive recruiting at Google.“It’s also just about where offices are located, right? What happens a lot in the tech space is that everyone is in the Bay Area, so you want to hire in the Bay Area,” said Slough. “If you're always looking in the Bay Area, you end up with lower representation of certain groups. Being open to hiring and [having] offices in cities like Atlanta, DC, or Chicago, these are all places where representation is greater. It’s an important piece that's kind of adapted more recently.”To instill confidence in your rewards plan, experts agree that prioritizing flexibility and innovation in your benefits is a smart move. Ensure your compensation package is inclusive to different employees’ financial and family planning needs and you’ll find yourself attracting and retaining quality talent for years to come.Nick Wolny is an editor, journalist, and consultant. Currently a senior editor at CNET, he has previously written for Fast Company, Fortune, Business Insider, and OUT Magazine, and is a frequent television commentator on technology and work life. He is based in Los Angeles.

Nick Wolny | June 20, 2023

The Other Caregiving Crisis: How Employers Can Help Workers With Their Hidden Responsibilities

While the pandemic revealed a crisis in childcare, it also exposed a parallel crisis in family caregiving for adults. One in five workers has responsibility for the care of one or more adults who are aging, ill, or have special needs, according to research by AARP. Yet many carry the burden in silence–more than half of these caregivers don’t tell their supervisors about it.Fortunately, that situation is changing. In a recent survey of 200 leaders in HR conducted by From Day One with support from AARP, 56% of the respondents said that workers are increasingly open with colleagues and managers about their caregiving responsibilities, while 60% said that their companies associate support for family caregivers with improving morale and strengthening a culture of belonging.“Before the pandemic, convincing employers to prioritize their support of working caregivers was an uphill battle,” said Tricia Sandiego, a senior advisor at AARP, in a From Day One webinar on the issue. But from the survey results, “we learned that there is an increase in awareness of this issue. Workers are talking about caregiving, and company leaders do realize and acknowledge that it’s important.” That said, there is still room for improvement: fewer than 15% of respondents said supporting family caregivers was a major priority at their companies.For Sandiego, this issue is personal. She is part of the so-called sandwich generation–she calls it the “panini generation”– which is caught caregiving for both a younger and an older generation.And she is far from alone. Sandiego noted that family caregivers are not just older workers. Rather, 50% of the 48 million caregivers in the U.S. are under the age of 50. About 25% of them are in the millennial generation, and already 6% of them are in Generation Z.Age is just one aspect of the diversity of caregivers. Despite the stereotype about caregivers being female, four in 10 caregivers are men. Lower-income workers tend to have heavier caregiving responsibilities, while shift workers and gig workers have less corporate support than full-time workers. Sandiego underscored that this diversity leads to a wide range of divides among the caregiver population and the need for different types of support.What Changes Can Companies Make?The good news is that there are many ways for companies to support their caregivers. These solutions are often affordable as well. Cheryl Kern, VP of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for the office-furniture maker MillerKnoll, underscored the importance of creating an open and transparent culture. “We want employees to feel confident that they can step forward and make it known to their leadership and management that they need support and resources.”Kern noted some of the resources MillerKnoll provides, such as advice on eldercare. Her team also helps remind caregivers of some of the policies the company already has in place around childcare and nanny support–both of which caregivers could find helpful. “We aim to help caregivers feel better equipped, better prepared, and more confident in order to do their caregiving role,” said Kern. MillerKnoll additionally leverages business resource groups to support their working caregivers.The full panel of leaders: top row fromleft, Cheryl Kern of MillerKnoll and Krista Brookman of Northwestern Mutual. Bottom row: Tricia Sandiego of AARP, Nyasia Sarfo of Microsoft, and moderator Ericka Sóuter (Image by From Day One)Nyasia Sarfo, a global culture and people experiences lead at Microsoft, echoed these sentiments, highlighting her company’s goal of creating a culture of inclusion and belonging. “We believe that your well-being isn’t extra, it’s essential.” The company aims to make this mission come to life by putting people first and reminding employees to prioritize their well-being by, for example, taking time off when they need it. Sarfo added that Microsoft supports employees by reminding them to use their vacation days and prioritize spending time with their family. “These practices did not just begin—they are really in the fabric of our culture as a whole,” Sarfo said.What makes supporting caregivers tricky, noted Krista Brookman, a senior director of DEI at Northwestern Mutual, is that becoming a caregiver is often unplanned. “It puts your life on another trajectory,” she asserted. That is why she believes it is critical to develop a workplace culture where employers help employees through stressful times with robust policies and practices.“Being a caregiver is unplanned and puts your life on another trajectory,” Brookman said. That is why Northwestern Mutual has developed policies and practices to support caregivers. “We made sure our caregiving responsibilities were broadly defined,” she said. That way, different types of caregivers with different roles are all equally supported. “Having that broader definition helps ensure that these policies fit within our diversity and inclusion efforts.”What Risks Do Companies Run by Ignoring These Needs?Sandiego believes that companies that avoid prioritizing the needs of employee caregivers might have issues finding and retaining top talent. “Companies that can acknowledge the needs of–and help support–working family caregivers will be ahead of the curve when it comes to their talent management strategy and being able to hold on to really good talent in your organization,” she said.Kern agreed with Sandiego, further emphasizing that ignoring the needs of caregivers could threaten the company’s inclusivity goals. In Kern’s opinion, the best way to go about ensuring that caregiver needs are met is by focusing on building the business case for supporting them. “The ROI for supporting caregivers is very clear, but there is much more work that remains,” said Kern.Top of this to-do list is ensuring buy-in at top management levels. Sarfo said she’s able to secure senior support by leveraging the power of storytelling. “We have a speaker series where employees can share the stories of what they are going through,” she said. “It’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”Kern notes that much of this power lies in the hands of employees themselves. “Influencing change is now bottom-up. Associates can voice the power they have as employees. That’s a wonderful way of getting leadership on board. And most leaders do want to listen,” she said.Editor’s note: AARP, who sponsored this webinar, is offering an Employee Caregiver Program Series. This series is an easy way to make your workplace more caregiver-inclusive via live, virtual programs that help employees balance their work and caregiving responsibilities. AARP has agreed to offer the caregiving program to members of the From Day One community free of charge. This is a unique opportunity. Learn more and apply by visiting Kaminer is a Miami-based journalist, researcher, and content strategist. As a freelance tech writer and researcher, he has profiled more than 400 of the world’s top entrepreneurs and investors. His work has been featured in publications including Forbes, the Times (UK), the Economist, and LatAm Investor.(Featured photo by Fred Froese/iStock by Getty Images)

Riley Kaminer | June 14, 2023