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.


The Long-Term Shortage of Talent in the Post-Industrial Age: How Companies Can Respond

In the early industrial age, companies had a hierarchy built around manufacturing and machinery. But now workplaces are organized much differently. Their new priority? The talent. We’ve entered an era where the shortage of workers, obsolescence of skills, and new levels of employee agency will present employers with historic challenges. Most companies are not ready.The new Intelligence Age is a time when skills, employee creativity, information and AI will define our companies. In a recent From Day One webinar about “The Long-Term Shortage of Talent in the Post-Industrial Age: How Companies Can Respond,” speakers explored three strategies for success: rethinking the organization as dynamic rather than static, rethinking management with human-centered leadership, and rethinking HR as no longer an expense center, but rather a function like R&D that must build and invest in the company's people.All told, this means we need to redesign our companies around the person and shift to a new model for work. The time to act is now, experts say.The Changing Power Structure in the Labor MarketThe renowned Josh Bersin, founder & CEO of The Josh Bersin Company, says that with Baby Boomers retiring and declining fertility rates, there will be smaller generations coming forward to replace them. Employers will have a high demand for skilled workers but a much smaller talent pool, he says.“If you look at the supply and demand of workers and the labor force, it’s absolutely different from what we’ve seen in the past,” said Sania Khan, chief economist and head of market insights at Eightfold, an AI-driven talent intelligence platform.This could signal tough times ahead, especially in an age where companies are defined more and more by people and ideas than by machinery and products. “Scarcity of talent is one of the biggest challenges out there for companies,” said moderator Steve Koepp, From Day One’s chief content officer and co-Founder.Bersin notes that his company is getting consistent feedback from employers post-pandemic that they are having trouble sourcing new talent and with the retention of what is “a highly empowered workforce. We have employees saying, ‘I'm going to quietly quit. I'm going to work my wage. I'm going to do what I need to do. I don’t care what you say. You don’t like hybrid work? Tough luck, I’ll go find a job where I can work remotely.”Bersin predicts this is a long-term trend, and companies need to get smarter about finding and keeping their people. This is especially true in industries like healthcare, which is facing a major labor shortage despite a recent BLS report predicting 54% of new jobs will be in healthcare due in part to that same aging population that is decreasing the workforce.A Renewed Focus on Employees and ProductivityWith technology changing rapidly and more and more roles relying on it, companies will need to prioritize upskilling and reskilling opportunities to keep their workforce up-to-date and competitive. “Companies will need to focus on their employees,” Khan said, noting that companies that don’t prioritize training are already experiencing higher employee turnover.Another way to curb turnover is to take a hard look at workplace policies and make sure they are serving employees personally to make the organization more attractive, whether that is through flexible hours, hybrid options, and even AI assistance, Khan says.Bersin’s organization just finished a report on the prevalence of the four-day workweek or work time reduction. “This is becoming a big deal because employees want flexibility. We’re finding that this idea creates job productivity, and forces companies to redesign jobs,” Bersin said. “There are things that we’re going to do that seem unnatural now to deal with this labor shortage. In the future they will be commonplace. That’s just one example.”The recent webinar featured Josh Bersin of the Josh Bersin Company and Sania Khan of Eightfold (photo by From Day One)This changing definition of productivity, a focus on “revenue per employee” rather than hours worked, will also serve working parents well, Khan says, as they manage to get more work done in a shorter period.“Hiring more people isn’t necessarily more productive,” Khan said. Companies will start to measure their success by how efficiently they are utilizing their human resources to generate revenue, a focus on output rather than the size of the team. “The companies that are really good at productivity are good at human resources. They’re good at training, facilitating workshops, redesigning jobs, flattening the corporate hierarchy, changing the role of leaders, and democratizing career development,” Bersin said. “These things that might have felt like ‘nice-to-haves’ ten years ago are becoming critical to becoming productive in this new economy.”Reimagining a Skills-based HierarchyIn the information age, employment has been less about job titles and more about the work, Bersin says, with employees taking on tasks and using their skills for objectives far beyond their stated job description in order to accomplish the mission of the day, week, or month. “These rigid job descriptions, titles, and hierarchies are getting in the way of reorganizing and redesigning the company to be more efficient,” Bersin said. He anticipates an existential change in which the titles of managers and corner office perks will be deprioritized in order to get the work done.In turn, companies will be looking less at what skills prospective employees currently have and instead look at adjacent skills that show an employee has the potential to be upskilled to be the right fit, Khan says. A focus on skills, says Bersin, can also pave the way for automation. Employees can be allowed to utilize the top of their skill set if their lower-level, less skilled tasks can be automated.“If you look at the needs of an organization, you can put employees in specific, goal-centric projects,” Khan said. “Instead of just having you siloed to one department, you can now move around to where you’re needed based on your skills.” This would also allow employees to be well-versed in the whole enterprise, rather than just one area, so both the individual and the organization benefit. And tools like Eightfold can use machine learning to help companies analyze what skill areas are lacking and fill those gaps with talent.How Leaders Can Adapt to the New Workforce“Leaders have to understand this labor shortage existentially and operate in a company where transformation and growth isn’t an episodic thing–it's never-ending,” Bersin said. “The new model of leadership is, ‘can you build a company that can move people around, that can develop people, that can hold people accountable, but also give them the opportunity to move when you need them into a new place?’ Those are different kinds of leadership skills.”And with the hierarchy flattening, workers need to be prepared to sometimes be leaders and other times be more subordinate depending on the current project. “We have to democratize the concept of leadership.” Those with flexibility and an appetite for innovation will be most attractive to potential employers, Khan adds.And in a talent-driven company, HR will become more and more essential, and will be called on to understand a wide variety of skills, roles, and changing corporate models to operate within skills-based planning, Bersin says. Gone are the days where HR will be associated with conflict resolution and complaints. Instead, HR is becoming a forward-thinking, technology, and data-driven career path.Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner, Eightfold, for sponsoring this webinar. You can read more from Josh Bersin on the post-industrial age here.Katie Chambers is a freelance writer and award-winning communications executive with a lifelong commitment to supporting artists and advocating for inclusion. Her work has been seen in HuffPost, Honeysuckle Magazine, and several printed essay collections, among others, and she has appeared on Cheddar News, iWomanTV, and CBS New York.

Katie Chambers | December 19, 2023

How Innovative Employers Are Making Their Benefits More Inclusive

Company benefits have never been one-size-fits-all, but today the employee landscape is changing even more rapidly than ever. The more varied the workforce, the more varied their benefits needs are going to be.That’s certainly true for Liz Pittinger, head of customer success at Stork Club. In the last three years alone, family planning and fertility benefit needs have drastically changed.Pittinger spoke to this at a From Day One’s webinar along with three other panelists. Lydia Dishman, senior editor of growth and engagement, at Fast Company, moderated.Millennials are further in their careers now and want company benefits to better reflect the changing workforce as well as align with diversity, equity, and inclusion, Pittinger says. That has opened the way for Stork Club to create a more inclusive path for people to start families.“People are waiting later and later to start their families, so you have single women in their 30s and 40s, who are concerned about fertility preservation,” Pittinger said. “Then there are same sex couples who have typically been excluded from a health plan and fertility solution.”Companies now can’t afford not to offer these inclusive benefits. Especially if they want to attract and retain the talent they need.“I think it's really important to ground ourselves on why DEI is important,” she added. The answer: because it’s important to employees who are searching for and staying at jobs for different reasons than previous generations. According to a study by Fortune and the Institute for Corporate Productivity of 1,200 HR professionals around the world, overperforming organizations are those that focus on DEI. “In other words, company culture, even over compensation,” said Pittinger.That is to say, however, not every company needs to offer every type of benefit. Organizations must cater to their workforce, their unique makeup, and their unique needs. “It’s about understanding the company goals and demographics,” she said. “Some industries just traditionally run heavier on single women in their 30s and 40s. You may have a large LGBTQ community.” It goes back to understanding their needs. How? Be in close contact with them, offer surveys, get feedback from the hiring team and managers.Then, once HR managers understand the gaps, they need to make changes, circle back and make sure their people know what’s being offered.Growing Need for Mental Health BenefitsWhen reporters at the Los Angeles Times had to stay out of the office due to Covid, they felt the disconnect. They were doing their jobs, telling the hard stories, but didn’t have that natural way of talking things out with colleagues.Nancy Antoniou, SVP of strategy and CHRO at the Los Angeles Times, recalled how difficult that time was. Rather than expressing and sharing, the reporters were internalizing what they were seeing.“We had a situation where an employee called our EAP (Employee Assistance Program) vendor, and the story that they were sharing about what they were experiencing during one of the protests was so impactful to the EAP counselor, that the counselor themselves started breaking down,” Antoniou said. “It was a role shift for the employee, where they felt like they had to now counsel the counselor.”With that information, they now had the responsibility to do something about it. So they implemented a peer-to-peer support group, and hired clinicians to train employees. It’s really made a difference in how they share and work through the emotional side of the job, Antoniou says. “Having the ability to talk to your peer who has potentially experienced something similar is where that inclusiveness and belonging came in,” she added.The bottom line is you have to listen to your people, and then you must follow through and give them what they need. “There's no greater disservice than taking a survey and asking employees to share their opinions and thoughts about our culture or offerings, and then doing nothing with it,” said Antoniou.Putting On Your Listening EarsOf course, there are benefits that everyone needs. Kristy Lucksinger, head of global benefits at JLL, said that during the pandemic many people were reactively addressing health issues. More recently at JLL, they’re trying to close that gap and help people focus more on preventative care. One tool to accomplish this has been virtual health care.“We truly believe that virtual care is absolutely critical in this environment, ensuring our employees really know and understand how virtual care works; and when it's appropriate to use virtual care versus when it’s not,” she said.In a conversation moderated by Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, the panelists discussed the topic “How Innovative Employers Are Making Their Benefits More Inclusive.”Relaying benefits information to employees is key. One way they do that at JLL is training managers to recognize symptoms or indications among employees so they can help them take the next step.An employee came to Lucksinger with personal issues at home, specifically an adult child with mental health concerns. “They were dealing with their gay son who needed some mental health services provided to them because they were experiencing a couple of their friends who had just committed suicide.”Any parent with stressed children is also stressed themselves, she added. Acknowledging that hardship, and the impact on the employee’s life, were important first steps. Next was to ensure the employee and their child got the help they needed with a professional with experience in the LGBTQ+ space.“Just having had that conversation with this employee, you could just see the relief in that employee,” explained Lucksinger. “We are trying to go that extra mile to ensure that our employee experiences go above and beyond.”Take the Proactive ApproachThe key takeaway from the panel was thinking outside the box. Straying away from the traditional approaches to company benefits and incorporating the values of DEI into offering the benefits people really need. And it all goes back to listening. Sometimes employees will come to you, but you also need to proactively seek them.In the case of Lisa Singh, managing director of global benefits at Silicon Valley Bank, they met with their military and veteran employees to get their specific feedback. The employees gave their thoughts on experience and processes, which Singh said they took into consideration and made adjustments to their policies. Education goes a long way, too, Singh added. At the bank, they hold mental health safety trainings and offer other ways to educate so employees are better equipped to help themselves and others. They hold regular webinars about different aspects of health, which is an opportunity for the company to let employees know about their benefits. One piece of key advice to make sure this kind of change happens? Take matters into your own hands to best serve your employees.“Your healthcare vendor may say, ‘yes, you’re competitive. You have fertility coverage, don't worry about it.’ But we really need to look under the hood at that,” she said. “If we don't ask the questions, if we don’t work with our consultants, even push our consultants, then we’re going to have these gaps that we don't know of, and we’re not going to be meeting the needs of our diverse population.”Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter. 

Carrie Snider | December 04, 2023

Tech-Powered Ways to Recognize Your Team

When Magdalena Bugallo, director of total rewards experience at VCA, opened an ecard on Boss Appreciation Day this year, she was moved to tears.“There were words of appreciation from my team, and for me that was amazing because I built this team from scratch. We had been getting to know each other for the past year. And it filled my heart and made me cry,” Bugallo told journalist Lydia Dishman, moderator of the recent From Day One webinar titled “How Tech Can Boost Engagement and Recognition.”In this new hybrid and remote work era, using tech to recognize others can be as simple as that. This is good news because employees who think their company will recognize them are 2.7 times more likely to have high engagement at work, according to Zippia.But business leaders also need to know which technologies and practices are motivational and informative versus fatiguing or counterproductive.Recognizing Team Members in the MomentOrganizations are already using communication tools to effectively recognize employees immediately, instead of waiting for their performance review or a big corporate event.Supriya Bahri, vice president of global total rewards at Roblox, says whenever one of her direct reports has a work anniversary, she writes one or two short paragraphs on the team’s Slack channel to acknowledge the event. Those individuals have begun to do the same for their direct reports.“If it’s the first anniversary, it’s a three or four-line story about how we met and how we’re so excited looking at how far we’ve come,” Bahri said. “And if it's the year three anniversary, it’s reflecting back on the year and thanking them for it.”Microsoft Teams has a function that VCA uses to celebrate employees in a team chat or via a private message, says Bugallo.“It has visuals like a unicorn that means, ‘You’re amazing,’” she said. It also allows managers to recognize employees when they display values such as leadership or courage, Bugallo added.Recognition For AllEveryone is different regarding how they like to be recognized, and respecting that difference is critical, says Katrina Hall, director of human resources at VSP Vision.For example, Hall had a team member she wanted to recognize for the extraordinary way she faced adversity. Hall planned to praise her on a company-wide platform, but the employee told her she disliked recognition on the platform and found it disingenuous. She told Hall, “the people who really appreciate me will tell me directly. I don’t want the fanfare.’”On the other hand, “I have other people on my team that need that larger recognition,” Hall said. “You have to lean into your team and ask, ‘How do you want to be recognized? What’s important to you?’ In knowing that, then you hit the mark every time.”Everyone’s Voice MattersOne essential way to recognize employees is to make them feel like their opinions matter, which can be challenging to accomplish in a hybrid workforce, says Bahri.During Covid, everyone worked remotely, so “we were all a box on the screen. It was leveled,” she said.Now some employees are physically present in a room while others are still boxes on the screen. Bahri says some in the latter group weren’t actively participating in meetings, so she told the team leaders to “watch out for the quieter people, and as we are asking for input from the room, if we haven’t heard from employee A and employee B, let’s ask them, ‘Hey, we haven’t heard from you. How do you feel about it?’”Lydia Dishman, senior editor for growth & engagement at Fast Company moderated the webinar (photo by From Day One)Barhi also recommended companies take advantage of Zoom’s breakout room feature to allow remote workers to meet in smaller teams “because some people are more comfortable discussing an idea among three people versus 15.”Employee engagement and recognition can be challenging for large corporations with team members across the globe.“We’d like to have a little bit of fun. Who doesn’t?” said Seema Bhansali, vice president of employee experience and inclusion at Henry Schein.That’s why the Henry Schein Games began. Employees were randomly split into two teams: Team Henry and Team Esther, Esther referring to Esther Schein, co-founder of the company. Each team was given the opportunity to engage through competition and surveys on topics such as how they volunteer. The company set up a specific website for the games where employees can check the leaderboard, post pictures, and engage with each other. A few Henry Schein sites even held field days for in-person competition.“It was amazing to see the transformation from some of the most serious people in our organization, just getting into the fun and chatting on teams with one another,” Bhansali said.The company also has various clubs where employees worldwide can bond through shared hobbies such as gardening or gaming.“It’s an appreciation for the team to say, ‘Hey, jobs well done,’” Bhansali said. “You also need to unwind. It’s a focus on wellness and connection in a time when we are a little bit disconnected because of the way that we work.”Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner, Achievers, who supported this webinar.Mary Pieper is a freelance reporter based in Mason City, Iowa.

Mary Pieper | December 04, 2023