Small, Consistent Interventions for Employee Mental Health
“Our employee population is changing,” said Marielaine Yepes, the VP of human resources at NBCUniversal. “Post-pandemic, job candidates are asking about mental health benefits. Whereas in 2019, it was ‘Do I get health care? Do I get vision, dental, and a 401k?’ Now their questions are, ‘What about my flexibility? What about parental leave? What about mental breaks?’” No longer the taboo it used to be, mental health, for many, is becoming part of their standard measure of health care. “I used to pride myself on being sick but still coming to work, but it’s kind of embarrassing to say that in a post-Covid world,” said Andrea Cooper, chief people officer at virtual mental healthcare company Talkspace. During From Day One’s January virtual conference on making a fresh commitment to a culture of well-being, Yepes and Cooper shared their thoughts on the shifting view of mental health in the workplace as part of an expert panel titled, “Enhancing Employee Mental Health and Wellness Benefits.” I moderated the discussion in which panelists shared their outlooks for workplace mental health in the coming year, and their best advice on caring for a changing workforce.“There was this notion that being a workaholic was a good thing,” Cooper pointed out. “Now it’s about acknowledging that we should take care of ourselves–not just our physical selves, but also our mental and emotional selves.”Building Engagement WithinDespite the new-found freedom many people have with talking about mental health, it doesn’t mean that mental health issues or that seeking care are entirely without stigma, or that everyone is comfortable talking publicly about their wellbeing, especially at work.Business process management firm eClerx experienced this reluctance first-hand. The company’s early mental health and wellness programs were greatly lacking in engagement, yet employee surveys showed that its workforce wanted wellness initiatives. In response, rather than administering initiatives only from HR, the company recruited its own employees to be wellness ambassadors, people who want to play an active role in the well-being of their colleagues. “We hope [the wellness ambassadors] reach out to engage and talk about the programs that we have, because sometimes resources can just be resources in your intranet or in your HR platform. So how do we get the word out? By engaging with our employees,” said Alvarine Syiem, the company’s head of total rewards and HR operations.The panelists spoke to the topic “Enhancing Employee Mental Health and Wellness Benefits” at From Day One's January virtual conference (photo by From Day One)Aware that some employees might be unwilling to approach their manager or HR about their needs, Syiem hopes that training up ambassadors among management and the rank-and-file can open more avenues for people to seek the help and resources they need.“You might not have huge programs, you might not have a ton of resources, you might not even have a lot of engagement—but what is important is to get that conversation going,” said Syiem.Interventions for Workers Exposed to ViolenceAt NBCUniversal, Yepes is in the unique position of caring for journalists whose jobs take them to war zones, violent environments, and tragedies. Supporting workers who have been in highly stressful or traumatic work environments requires structured and predetermined touch-points, said Yepes. When they return, the company has mental health checkpoints already installed so no one goes unnoticed. Workers receive outreach at seven days, two weeks, and one month post-return, plus a suite of resources at their disposal. Among them, access to on-site mental healthcare—a talk therapist in the company offices available for sessions during the workday.Yepes said her best advice is to establish processes that are as flexible as the employee needs them to be. “It’s always good to have discipline, but understand that people are unique, so having a portfolio and being flexible on how you offer your resources is best.”Mental Health Support for Working ParentsEveryone is susceptible to mental health problems following the birth or addition of a child to the family, said Corrinne Hobbs, the general manager and VP of employer market at reproductive healthcare provider Ovia Health. Both men and women can experience depression and anxiety, sometimes called perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), up to a year after the birth of a child. This can make up a significant part of the workforce: In 2022 in the US, in more than 91% of families with children under age 18, at least one parent was employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.“Many [parents] may not know that they have it,” Hobbs said. People who experience PMAD are “already dealing with the difficulties of being parents, but they also struggle with attention to detail, being present in the moment, and remembering all the steps required in their daily work. Enabling mental health supports that address this are really important.”To care for the parents in your workplace, Hobbs recommended employers take three steps. First, increase the number of screenings available to encourage prevention and early intervention for mental health issues. Second, train managers to get comfortable talking about postpartum needs. And third, invest in digital tools that give workers access to 24/7 care. “Provide an end-to-end women’s health solution,” she said.Small Interventions Along the WayGood mental health encourages productivity. “Leaving conditions untreated can really result in costly emergency room visits, urgent care visits, time away from work,” said Cooper of Talkspace. “We as employers want our employees to be healthy, but also do a good job at work, and all those things work together.”The panelists agreed that incremental, personal interventions early on make a difference in the health of a workforce. “I encourage leaders, managers, employees, to think of the small, everyday thing that you can impact,” said eClerx’s Syiem. If she senses that a member of her team is having a rough day, Syiem encourages them to step away from work for a few hours. If she notices an employee hasn’t taken a vacation day recently, she tells them to. “Even if you don't have plans for a vacation with family, take a day off and just go get your nails done, spend time at the library, or just go catch up with a friend.”Keeping close tabs on the temperature of the team can help prevent burnout and mental health problems. “My aim is prevention,” Syiem said. “Imagine if not just one manager did that, but the entire team. Imagine the impact of it all as an organization.”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 BBC, The Washington Post, Quartz, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife.