Photo courtesy of Tim Mossholder
Mental health among employees is top of mind as the coronavirus pandemic continues. InHerSight asked Amy Robertson, a CEO who provides HR consulting services, to explain how companies can best tailor their mental health offerings to accommodate diverse needs on their teams. These are her answers, in her own words. Are you a recruiter with job advice to share? Email our managing editor Beth Castle at email@example.com for consideration.
What’s your elevator pitch?
I’m the CEO and founder of Soul Advantage, LLC, which provides fractional (or on-demand) human resources executive services, including temporary HR senior leadership and execution of strategic enterprise projects with a talent and culture focus.
Our primary focus is on enabling effective change management by optimizing people, culture, and operations. Soul Advantage targets companies that are going through significant growth or change. These needs can arise through mergers/acquisitions, divestitures, rapid growth, or executive team transitions.
Let’s start with the most basic question: What’s the ‘business case’ for providing employees with mental health support?
This one is super easy. People are the foundation of every company and in many cases the largest budget item.
Providing health support leads to higher performance and productivity. Staying ahead of condition symptoms mean the employee is less likely to be distracted at work, absent, or on disability. These are real dollar savings.
From a human perspective, taking care of your employees’ health leads to loyalty and engagement. People want to feel their employer and manager cares for them just as much as the top and bottom line. Employers can help avoid costs related to recruiting, onboarding, and turnover by being authentically concerned for the health and welfare of all people.
Notice I didn’t delineate between mental and physical health, because mental illness IS a biological illness of the brain. The sooner we can blend these, the better. Extending grace, support, and empathy to a person diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder should be the same as someone living with, for example, multiple sclerosis or diabetes.
Where do you see the most opportunities for improvement in company-provided mental health support? What are some things employers are overlooking?
The biggest opportunity I see is integrating crisis identification and support into manager training and performance management processes. In my observation, many people managers struggle to identify the root cause of performance fluctuations on their teams. Managers are challenged by coaching employees through stressful times and understanding how those events translate into sometimes poor work performance. Many managers don’t know how to provide a safe space to discuss mental health with their employees. And, employees are scared to be vulnerable and open up to management due to mental health stigma and potential discrimination or exclusion.
Companies are overlooking an effective grassroots way to motivate change: employee resource groups (ERG). Companies can sponsor an ERG dedicated to those living with neurological conditions. Just as you would sponsor a women’s leadership group or an early career cohort, creating a community dedicated to education and support of people with brain conditions will show your employees that you are an ally and you care. Think of the possibilities for learning and awareness that would arise from these ERG discussions. Progressive companies are doing this right now and their ERG members are coming up with company-wide projects that improve the work and personal lives of those living with mental illness and brain conditions.
What support would you consider to be baseline—the generic plan of action to provide mental health support to employees?
Here are a few baseline steps and questions:
Evaluate your company. Look at the utilization of your mental health benefits, pharmacy benefits, and disability programs. What trends do you see in the data? Partner with your benefits consultant. How do you compare to other companies? What areas have the highest utilization?
Create an enterprise-wide statement to employees on the corporate view of health, both mental and physical. What do you believe? What is your commitment to a healthy workplace? What do you value? Why? How do you action this statement into your daily working environment?
Review programs in support of mental health. Are they friendly to those with mental health conditions? Do you offer an employee assistance program? How do your paid time off programs and processes enable recharge? How flexible is your work environment—do you offer flexibility with work hours or location? How do you communicate and encourage these programs to your employees? Do the processes ensure employee success or are they full of administrative burdens?
Provide mandatory education and training to people managers on emotional well-being and mental health conditions and their symptoms. How can you proactively identify and discuss stress and crisis with your employees? This is just as important as providing education on business objectives and operations.
What factors should companies and managers consider when amending those baseline offerings? How should they tailor their support to their environment and team?
Before doing anything, gather data about the current state. I mentioned in the previous response the need to understand utilization of programs. But, also consider surveying your employees on their understanding of mental health, the company programs offered in support, and what they’d like to see from their employer in the future. Great insights and impact typically come from employee feedback and partnership.
You’ll want to also understand the basic demographics of your employees, for example: age, tenure, location, diversity statistics.
Also consider your company’s strategic plan. What are your business cycles and important initiatives? What will you need to support times of unusual change or growth? Segment your employees by business unit or department and understand their busy periods.
Once you understand these things, now think about how you might change programs or processes to address the demographics:
- Would you offer the same training session to remote team members that you would in-person staff?
- Would you approach introverts differently than extroverts?
- Do you use playful language or serious statements, or can you use both depending on the situation?
- Is e-learning appropriate for some concepts or would a more intimate and small focus group offer better learning opportunity?
What factors might they need to take into account during times of crisis?
I like to refer to Becky Sansbury’s book, After the Shock, which provides a model for supporting yourself and others through crisis. At my past employers, I’ve sponsored book clubs to initiate the discussion on crisis and stress using this helpful resource.
In her book, Sansbury describes the “Four C’s of Stability.” The four c’s describe how Comfort, Control, Community and Connection provides us with strength and support while we are in crisis. I use her model regularly and recommend every person get a copy and apply it. The concepts are easy to apply within the workplace.
How can companies figure out what additional mental health support their teams need?
The simplest way to do this is to just ask them directly. Managers should ask the question, What can I or the company do to best support you? or What can I do to help you be more successful?
This need not be specific to mental health and will encourage a dedicated discussion on individualized needs based on any obstacles the employee is currently experiencing. If there are mental health needs, this is where having a safe and open manager/employee relationship will encourage a healthy discussion. Ask this question at every 1:1, and you’ll be amazed at how your rapport with the employee will strengthen.
What are some easy ways companies and managers can provide more support right now?
Pull together an inventory of mental health programs the company offers, in addition to a list of local resources within their community and market them to the employees for awareness.
Also, ask your EAP or local NAMI chapter to present education sessions on mental health and emotional wellbeing.
And finally, if you are the CEO or senior leader of a company, take time in your next all-hands meeting to reinforce mental health and why it’s important to openly discuss this topic.