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.


Making All Paths to Parenthood More Inclusive For Your Employees

At experiential outdoor sports company Woodward, the VP of talent and culture, Dan Kwong, is just getting started with family support benefits. Starting with the basics: nailing down an employer value proposition to guide the choices he will make, and underscoring current benefits, like paid parental leave. Perhaps most importantly, Kwong is taking his time to figure out what the workforce needs with two questions. First, “What are the key demographics of the talent pools that we currently attract, and that we want to attract? It’s not just the talent you currently have, but also the talent you want to grow in future years,” he said. Second, “What are the needs of each talent pool? We assume we know what people want and need. Sometimes we’re wrong.”Kwong was a part of a panel of talent and benefits professionals for a From Day One webinar titled “Making All Paths to Parenthood More Inclusive For Your Employees.” The group discussed strategies for identifying workforce needs and how to design a package that is as inclusive as possible.Kwong is careful to not make assumptions about what family structures look like or even who qualifies as family. Woodward employs a relatively young workforce, many are aged 18–24, often living far away from their biological families. Their needs outside of work aren’t necessarily typical or predictable. “This one’s pretty personal to me,” Kwong said. “Most of my family is abroad in Hong Kong; I’m a single guy in Utah. My family structure may be non-traditional or different, and my family may not be genetically or blood-related.”Woodward isn’t the only employer taking note of the diversity of needs. “Everybody’s family looks different,” said Corrinne Hobbs, the general manager and vice president of employer market at family health platform Ovia Health. “[Employers] are recognizing those differences by making sure there are solutions that support people where they are. For women’s health and family-building, it’s having a solution that’s inclusive of preconception maternity, parenting, menopause, and then general health in between. Wherever and whatever journey people end up on–and it could be two or more journeys at once.”Hobbs sees the appetite from companies for kinds of new family-building benefits, ones that encompass more employee experiences and needs. Inclusion of all workforce demographics is top of mind for employers, and for some, it’s become a differentiator.The panel included Dan Kwong of Woodward, Corrinne Hobbs of Ovia Health, journalist and moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, and Shawna Oliver of Manulife (photo by From Day One)A particular point of interest for employers, says Hobbs, is finding healthcare support for workers who live outside of major metropolitan areas, often in “care deserts,” where healthcare isn’t easily accessible. And much of the care that’s needed is for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and women, especially black women, and their family-building needs.Identifying the Diverse Needs in Your WorkforceTo design inclusively, HR teams have to know who’s working there, how they identify, and what they need. But that’s not necessarily easy. “People don’t always feel comfortable speaking up,” Hobbs said. “There’s also the element of loneliness, and that feeling limits a person’s ability to speak up.” To remedy this, tap the knowledge of your employee resource groups, says Hobbs.Kristy Lucksinger, head of global benefits and commercial real estate firm JLL, does this. She proactively asks the firm’s ERGs about their needs, and the resource groups approach her too.“We also do employee surveys to find out directly from our employees what they’re looking for and what they’re interested in,” Lucksinger said. “We’re in the process of considering, evaluating, and moving forward with a conjoint survey across the world to find out exactly where our employees’ wants and desires are.”Still, employers should allow for some margin of error when surveying workers, says Shawna Oliver, the head of global benefits and wellness at investment management firm Manulife. “As much as we put a big effort into gathering identity and demographic data about our employees, the truth is, we don’t always get 100%. Some people aren’t comfortable [sharing] vulnerable and personal information. We have to assume that there are pockets of people within every population that need every sort of benefit that’s out there.”Promoting Family-Building BenefitsBenefits teams can put together the most rock-solid communication plan and the slickest guides, but it doesn’t mean people will read them, or use those benefits.A few times a year, outside of annual enrollment at Manulife, Oliver and her team host informational sessions about benefits, beyond the basics of copays and deductibles. They could be about anything: family-forming benefits, mental health, retirement, or financial resources. Then they open up the floor for an Ask Me Anything. “It’s unfiltered,” she said. “We ask people to not share personal information, but we have a very candid conversation in those moments. It’s humbling, the amount of questions we get, from things as basic as ‘how do I find a provider?’ to ‘I used these benefits, and it didn’t work for me.’”Opening the door for employee feedback helps ensure every dollar invested in family-building benefits counts. “The total rewards pie is only so big,” said Lucksinger. “We really want to hear from our employees about where they feel the most value. So we reach out to our employees and say, ‘We understand there’s an interest here. What’s more important to you: This or that?’ It’s about offering a vast array of benefits, but investing the money where our employees see the value.”Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner, Ovia Health, for sponsoring this webinar. Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in the Economist, the BBC, The Washington Post, Quartz, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | June 24, 2024

How to Improve the Recruiting Process for Technical Talent

“There’s a record number of candidates applying for roles. I think it takes a good, solid recruiting strategy to ensure inclusivity practices are followed,” said Cody Ledbetter, senior technical recruiter at O’Reilly Auto Parts, during a From Day One panel discussion on how to build an exceptional recruitment process.According to Amanda Richardson, CEO at technical interview platform CoderPad, this increase in application volume is forcing recruiters to make changes. She observes companies abandoning loosely planned, informal interviews for more conscientious decision-making. “It’s nice to see companies being a little more organized, disciplined, and clear in their hiring processes,” she said.Richardson is encouraged by candidate assessments designed to evaluate the skills most relevant to the job–rather than arbitrary pop quizzes, for instance–and happy with the return of the live interview checking both hard and soft skills.It is the confluence of mutually beneficial tech tools and human understanding, said panelists, that is changing the way employers are able to recruit and vet incoming tech talent.Using the Latest in HR Tech to Improve the Hiring ProcessArtificial intelligence has talent acquisition professionals excited for its possibilities and likewise trepidation about its power. And whether they’re prepared or not, AI has arrived in HR technology. So, what are the implications for the hiring process?The panelists spoke to the topic "Hiring Tech Developers: Building a Nearly Perfect Recruitment Process" (photo by From Day One)“I do think that [AI] will make the recruitment process significantly more efficient, in terms of elimination of manual tasks,” said Phil Yob, senior director of talent acquisition at insurance tech company Applied Systems. “I don’t think that at this point it’s solving for the personal interaction you get from working with TA or HR in the interview process. Despite all the good work they can do from automated messaging, face-to-face interaction and the human touch element are big pieces.”Further, panelists urged recruiting teams to be vigilant about the quality of the AI tools they’re using. Ultimately, the TA teams and hiring managers who use them will be responsible for whatever decisions are made. “It’s our job to understand what it’s doing and what it’s weeding out,” said Julia Stone, head of recruiting for eCommerce infrastructure services at Amazon.Assessing Great CandidatesFaced with mountains of applications, recruiters are figuring out the most efficient, effective, and scalable ways of evaluating the qualifications of those candidates. Ledbetter’s rule of thumb is that “the recruitment process should be commensurate with the level of technicality for the role.” Don’t exhaust candidates with overly complex or back-to-back assessments. By avoiding burdensome technical assessments–and limiting questions only to those most relevant to the role–employers can build trusting relationships with top developers.Given the tech industry’s reputation for being less than diverse, Richardson said she’s encouraged by new skills-based hiring practices. “I can assure you that [tech] is still lacking in diversity, but I credit people teams with doing everything they can to really fight against it. I do think the opportunities are around finding a way to assess candidates that’s different from just looking for logos or keywords.”Regarding the legitimacy and consistency of recommendations made by interviewers themselves, the panelists encouraged rigorous preparation. “It’s very important to establish what each person is assessing for,” Amazon’s Stone explained. “By putting more rigor in that structure before you’re going in, you can avoid some of that groupthink.”There may be room for more equity in the hiring process when it comes to hiring candidates from within or without the organization. Yob noted that Applied Systems makes a point of operating consistently, whether the candidate is internal or external. “We’ll give a little credence to their having been a part of the culture, but I think the best thing we can do is to motivate internally by treating them the same and continue to move them through that process to make sure we’re getting the best possible person.”Skills matter, but so does the mode of working. Employers that have called their workers back to the office are returning to the in-person interviews, the panelists said, but that won’t be necessary for everyone. The best way to evaluate a candidate is the context in which they’ll be working. “Some companies give a Slack interview–or on Teams, whatever your product is,” said Richardson. “If you can’t communicate effectively on that channel, you probably aren’t going to be successful in a remote world.” The interview format matters, she said. “Are they going to be proficient not only in the skills but in the environment, too?”Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner, CoderPad, for sponsoring this webinar.Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in the Economist, the BBC, The Washington Post, Quartz, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | June 13, 2024

Developing Crucial Competencies Among Managers to Enhance Inclusion

To improve workplaces, leaders need to reevaluate how they are growing their managers and provide the proper support. In a From Day One webinar, Lydia Dishman, senior editor of growth and engagement at Fast Company, spoke with leaders about the strategies they’re taking to address skills gaps in their companies, especially those related to boosting workplace inclusion.Self-aware leaders display a higher level of confidence and empathy, resulting in stronger teams and effective leadership. Yet despite most leaders believing that they exhibit self-awareness, research shows only 10-15% of leaders are self-aware.The disparity comes from the challenge of displaying vulnerability, Khalil Smith, vice president of inclusion, diversity, and engagement at Akamai Technologies, says.“​​We need to be given at least an opportunity to have some of that autonomy to say, “I think that I can be better here or here,” Smith said. “It’s not a bad thing to say, ‘I do struggle with giving difficult feedback and that's not something that’s going to hold me back.’ This is different from being externally assessed because it builds the self-awareness that we need,” Smith said.By showing empathy for others, leaders can cultivate a safe work environment for others to grow, which can be a win-win situation for companies and employees. Singleton Beato, global executive vice president and chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at media group, McCann Worldgroup, says empathetic leaders can reap the benefits of a stronger team.Amanda Grow of ETU, Singleton Beato of McCann Worldgroup, Diana Navas-Rosette of Microsoft, and Khalil Smith of Akamai Technologies spoke in a panel moderated by Lydia Dishman of Fast Company (photo by From Day One)“Being self-aware allows one to understand how to present constructive and corrective feedback in a way that isn’t demeaning to someone,” Beato said. “Doing so safely helps employees to feel that they have the support of the manager and helps them to be aware of not only whatever the correction needs to be but also to feel empowered to make that correction.”Leaning on Newer Learning MethodsWhen compared to traditional learning methods, researchers found immersive learning like VR training to yield better results and also positively impact employees’ performance. Amanda Grow, director of customer success at learning company, ETU, says learning simulations can also provide opportunities for employees to learn skills that may be difficult to learn in traditional settings.“One of the key elements in learning simulations is teaching people how to work through situations that they don't feel comfortable in,” Grow said. “Simulations have the ability to bring some of that emotion to life and make you feel uncomfortable or make you feel anxious.”During these simulations, employees dealing with challenging emotions have an opportunity to self-reflect on their emotions in a safe space, Grow says. “We want to teach people how to reflect and understand their internal processes,” Grow said. “That's going to be valuable if we want employees to improve their self-awareness.”Research found employees who have personal development opportunities are more engaged and have higher retention rates, showing how learning can play a large role in how employees perceive their work and growth.Whether it’s through traditional learning modules or providing a safe environment for employees to learn, leaders play an instrumental role in bridging the gaps. Diana Navas-Rosette, general manager of global diversity and inclusion solutions, communities, and activation at Microsoft, says that Microsoft is leaning on newer technology to offer personalized learning opportunities.“Simulations stand out as probably one of the most innovative solutions that we have in our portfolio right now. They are immersive and allow learners to practice the skills realistically and safely,” Navas-Rosette said. “A learner navigates through a simulation and then gets a report at the end that tells them what they did well and where they have areas of opportunities for them to grow. Employees can always come back and practice if they want to, allowing it to be a continuous relationship with a solution for them to build that skill set.”Wanly Chen is a writer and poet based in New York City.

Wanly Chen | May 21, 2024