While discussions about mental health in the workplace have always been critical, the unending parade of uncertainties and challenges in 2020 has heightened the issue’s size, scale, and intensity. On this week’s Circle|Call, our friends from Lyra Health and Culture Amp joined the group to dig deeper into the frameworks and statistics around mental health, map that data to the tech workforce, and explore different benefits and resources for employee support.
From Lyra Health, CEO David Ebersman and Clinical Director of Partnerships Joe Grasso gave some perspective on what employees are dealing with, how to recognize symptoms, what services and programs employers can provide to help, and how to measure the effectiveness of these resources. Further, Josh Berman, Director of Culture Enablement at Culture Amp, discussed the connection between mental health and company culture, as well as how to measure the cultural health of your organization. Additionally, the group engaged in a robust Q&A session that touched on overcoming stigma, specific best practices, and additional support and guidance resources. Here are the key takeaways from the conversation:
Identifying and Addressing Mental Health Concerns in the Workplace
Joe began the call with a discussion of 2020 stressors and how they manifest themselves at work. Indeed, between the COVID pandemic, racial injustice, financial instability, and social and political turmoil, 2020 has been full of life-disrupting events, all of which take a significant toll on mental health. According to the CDC and National Institute of Mental Health data, US adults alone have seen a threefold increase in depression symptoms in 2020. Over 40% are showing symptoms of either depression or anxiety. To demonstrate how these wellbeing concerns show up at work, Joe described the different symptoms and potential solutions on a spectrum based on the severity of impact.
Low Morale and Social Disconnection
Low morale and social disconnection represent the milder end of the spectrum, and these concerns may manifest themselves on the organizational or team level through a number of symptoms. Especially with most of the country still working from home, low morale amongst employees can lead to a breakdown in the quality and frequency of communication, which affects employees’ social ties within the organization. Such a deterioration in social ties to fellow team members can result in more finger-pointing and less empathy. These unhelpful behaviors then lead to more significant conflicts on teams.
To address low morale and social disconnection, as well as the specific ways these concerns show up in the workplace, Joe recommends focusing on rebuilding social cohesion. Specifically, clarifying expectations for communication frequency and communication methods and providing opportunities for informal social connections can help build social trust amongst employees, especially in a virtual context. Social activities and bonding exercises that reorient focus towards the shared mission or bigger purpose can help address morale concerns particularly well. These activities help connect the value of employees’ work to the company’s larger goals, and these larger company goals to societal impact.
Stress and Burnout
Individually, stress and burnout can manifest in various ways, most typically through chronic overwhelm or exhaustion. Indeed, while usually, such fatigue would be in the context of work, in 2020, it’s not just work that’s overwhelming people. It’s work plus managing everything happening in the world and their household all simultaneously. Further, these circumstances can lead to a rise in apathetic or cynical attitudes about work, where employees feel like their contributions don’t matter. These challenges can lead to a decline in work performance; alternatively, these challenges may lead to an inability to disconnect from work, which puts employees at risk of burnout in the long term.
Another way in which stress and burnout can manifest that’s equally important is the inability to disconnect from work. When you have employees, maybe your high performers who don’t have the ability to put work down, who are over-identifying with work, that puts them at risk for burnout in the longterm, and that’s something you want to pay attention to because burnout is one of the stronger predictors of turnover.
To counter stress and burnout, you need to lead with empathy. People leaders should demonstrate their humanity to their employees and model self-care and vulnerability around mental health. A leader demonstrating how they are dealing with the stressors of 2020 and how they prioritize self-care will signal to employees that the company values prioritizing wellness. Further, flexibility around schedules, deadlines, and leave options and an emphasis on mentorship and professional development will demonstrate to employees an investment in their future career.
Concerns about employees’ personal wellness represent the most severe end of the impact spectrum and perhaps manifest as symptoms of clinical conditions. A manager or people leader should have a base understanding of how their employees usually present themselves at work to identify any negative shifts in mood or behavior. Further, any reports of changes in cognition or ability to concentrate, as well as reports of impairments in health behaviors such as a lack of sleep or hygiene, represent instances where managers should pay attention and pursue intervention. Any expression of helplessness, hopelessness, or desperation also requires immediate intervention, as these emotions are significant risk factors for potential self-harm or suicide.
Promoting mental health resources becomes especially important when addressing wellness concerns. While selecting the right mental health benefits is undoubtedly critical, a company needs to encourage utilizing these benefits and creating a mental health-friendly work culture. One way to promote this culture shift is to train managers to identify when employees may be in distress and recommend the right resource for a given issue. These mental health resources that managers refer employees to need to be robust and useful for the full spectrum of need. Further, a grassroots effort to encourage these services can help break down stigma and inspire culture change.
Mental Healthcare Options and Measuring Success
While traditionally mental healthcare lagged behind physical healthcare in terms of a basis in science and public trust in resources, clinical trials in the past few decades have helped mental health emerge today as a definite public interest. Further, recent legislation has made mental healthcare equal in priority to physical healthcare, and thus most health plans today offer mental health services. However, these built-in services usually focus on minimizing costs, which may negatively affect accessibility and quality. EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) traditionally supplemented health plans that didn’t cover mental health resources and still exist in many companies today, but usually have low engagement and a narrow scope of care. Fortunately, as science has evolved, there are now innovative mental health solutions available that use technology to offer high-quality therapy, coaching, and self-care resources. Indeed, when choosing a mental health service plan, it’s important to find the option that presents the most comprehensive benefits for your company’s needs.
After considering different mental health resources and implementing a plan, it is important to measure the plan’s success to ensure that the resources are having a positive impact on employees. After a company rolls out its mental health plan, tracking employee engagement with the resources is one of the easiest ways to measure the program’s success. Further, accessibility of care is another key metric that can indicate the success of an initiative. Quality of care is something that a company should insist on with any healthcare resources, and tracking whether or not people who reach out for care are seeing results is another great way to track the success of a plan. Finally, given the diversity of needs within the workplace, a mental healthcare service must be comprehensive enough to cover at least most of what people will need. “It really isn’t a one size fits all kind of thing.” –David Ebersman, Lyra Health
Wellbeing + Culture
Employee well-being is incredibly important for company culture, and it consists of many different components. The company’s culture norms, manager support of employees, company commitment to well-being, well-being program effectiveness, and the employee’s state contribute to successful workplace culture. Measuring these different factors of well-being within a company can help leaders be proactive in crafting a well-being strategy that makes sense and can ensure that company resources are impactful for what employees need.
Josh described the approach at Culture Amp, where they measure wellbeing through employee feedback through surveys. Culture Amp measures how its employees feel about work and how they’re doing, in general, to track the impact and progress of wellness programs and identify more targeted areas that may need focus. Josh recommended using the data collected from these wellness-based employee surveys to create a baseline for employee wellness and then develop and implement action plans to address ‘red flag’ areas requiring more focus. After implementing these action plans for wellness, Josh recommended doing ‘pulse’ surveys to measure each plan’s effectiveness and adapting the action plan based on the results.
By accumulating data on employee wellness, a company can further extrapolate demographic data to tailor wellness programs to where the support will be most effective. A diverse workplace will have a diverse set of wellness needs. So it is especially important to develop programs that can address the specific wellness needs of different demographic groups such as caregivers, members of the BIPOC community, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and those who identify as having a specific mental or physical health challenge.
“You could have the best mental health benefits in the world, but if no one’s willing to utilize them because of barriers like stigma, they’re not effective.” –Joe Grasso, Lyra Health
When addressing the stigma around mental health in the workplace, a top-down approach can be effective because so much workplace culture is shaped from the top. For example, developing mental health programming that is always introduced by someone from the executive team or other high-level leadership with personal or familial experience can shift the perception of who is affected by mental health and the effectiveness of treatment. Indeed, these testimonials are not just stories to raise awareness about mental illness but also stories about treatment success.
However, combating stigma is not exclusively a top-down responsibility. Equipping managers with the training to identify distress and recommend the correct resource for help is especially crucial in 2020. These managers are dealing with much more than just work-related issues when talking with their teams. Between EAP offerings and other branded programs, there are several ways in which a company can provide managers, along with HR and employee relations teams, with training specifically designed to help non-clinicians notice signs of concern and emotional distress and intervene appropriately. At the individual level, having peers who champion the importance of mental health and well-being can help destigmatize reaching out for help. Finally, building references to mental health’s importance into existing company structures and routines helps shift the attitude around mental health and prioritize wellness subtly.
Ultimately, the increased relevance and discussion of mental health in the workplace may be a silver lining of the chaos of 2020. While certain CEOs in the past may not have understood or seen the need for robust mental health programs, these same CEOs are likely struggling in their new environment. They thus will be more inclined to develop and implement comprehensive resources. Further, 2020 also provides a prime opportunity to evaluate the programs, tools, and benefits that a company pays to support its employees and adapt spending to achieve a better outcome in terms of culture and workforce.