Innovating to Improve Mental Health

Experts at Health & Benefits Leadership Conference offered outside-the-box approaches to help employers confront the growing mental-health crisis.


A landmark longitudinal study out of New Zealand revealed a startling statistic about mental health: Over a period of 45 years, 97% of study participants reported at least one instance of depression.

“It is actually the norm to have experienced depression on some level or another at some point,” health and employee-benefits consultant Carol Harnett told the audience at a general session during April’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas. The panel discussion, moderated by Harnett, who is also HRE’s benefits columnist, focused not on the universality of mental-health challenges—but, rather, universal approaches companies can take to remedy them.

Making the Most of Your EAP
Chief among the ways organizations often tackle mental health in the workplace is through the employee-assistance program. However, many aren’t taking full advantage of their EAP—which could be leading to poorer employee performance and hitting the company’s bottom line.

For instance, Harnett said, companies with a 10% or higher EAP utilization rate reported lower short-term and long-term-disability claims. She polled the audience, with no one reporting a utilization rate of 10% or higher and a few attendees volunteering that their rates were between 1-9%—but the vast majority responded that they didn’t know their utilization levels.

While HR and benefits leaders should dig deep into those numbers, it’s also imperative for them to raise awareness among employees about the components of the EAP and how to access services, said panelist Jaclyn Wainwright, CEO of AiR Healthcare Solutions.

“There’s great value in providing EAP services, and that value increases when people know what the EAP is, who provides it and how to access it—and when that’s all enforced from the top down,” she said. “It’s hard to really get people behind utilizing the EAP when senior leadership has no idea what it is or how to utilize it.”

Beyond getting leadership on board, benefits managers should ensure EAPs don’t function in a silo, said David Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the American Psychological Association. Integrate the EAP with other benefits that tap into mental health, such as insurance plans and disability programs. “There’s a warm handoff when that occurs,” he said.

Likewise, the program should have a diverse set of offerings—avoiding the traditional conceptions employees have that an EAP is solely for mental-health crises or those with substance-abuse issues.

“Take more of a comprehensive approach,” Ballard said, suggesting to focus instead on the full “occupational health and safety of the organization.”

What’s New at Microsoft?
That has been an aim of Microsoft, said panelist Julie Krause, benefits manager of US wellness at the tech giant.

Through the EAP—which has been managed by Wellspring Family Services for more than 30 years—employees can access individual, couple and family counseling. Currently, they are offered eight visits—a combination of both in-person and telephonic sessions—a number that will soon increase to 12 sessions per issue, per year, with a maximum of 24 sessions. Other EAP components include its Rethink program, which supports parents and families of children with special needs; stress-management assistance; new-parent education classes; and a parent-support webinar series—which features content for new parents before, during and after a parental leave, and also includes a manager track focused on helping employees through parental leave.

Krause said Microsoft has seen success when it offers EAP content on demand, such as its parent webinars, with significant increases in utilization; it is also moving forward with appbased services and is introducing a text-based counseling service through its health plan.

Last year, Microsoft launched a campaign in May, to correspond with Mental Health Month, themed “It’s OK to Not be OK” to help open the conversation about mental health in the workplace and connect employees with the EAP resources. While Krause said the effort successfully raised awareness about the EAP and helped make inroads toward breaking down mental-health stigma, she acknowledged the company should have done more planning work to prepare managers and HR.

In advance of the campaign’s return this year, she said, the organization has conducted a number of training sessions with managers and HR professionals about the EAP benefits, and how they can best respond to employees in need, Krause said.

The company is also encouraging leaders to share their own stories in order to enhance transparency around mental health. For instance, Microsoft Chief Marketing Officer Chris Capossela recently interviewed another leader, Senior Director of Commercial Communications Craig Cincotta, on a company radio program about Cincotta’s own mental-health condition, leave of absence for treatment and successful return to work.

“We’re trying to focus on making [talking about mental health] normal,” Krause said. “We have these resources, and now how can we make using them just a normal part of the conversation? That’s the hardest piece—to make it comfortable for people to seek help.”

Building a Proactive Program
Making mental-health offerings as visible as possible can chip away at some of that hesitancy, Ballard said. For instance, have a counselor on site on certain days of the week, available for regular visits—and allow employees to schedule them while they’re on the clock. That can reinforce the notion that mental-health services are available as a proactive resource—not just for when someone is in crisis.

Organizations should design their EAP with elements unique to their workforce, Wainwright added. For instance, companies with a large population of employees who have English as a second language should ensure counselors and others associated with the EAP are bilingual, and that program materials aren’t only offered in English.

And if the EAP provider won’t offer such options, Ballard said, find a new one.

Currently, when people do access EAPs, Wainwright noted, they often come crashing into the system—when they’ve hit rock bottom in a struggle with addiction or are experiencing suicidal ideation.

One way to try to reach them earlier, Wainwright said, is through data. AiR Healthcare Solutions partnered with data scientists at Microsoft to analyze a client’s benefits and health data—and ultimately predict who had underlying mental-health conditions not being addressed. One woman, for instance, was frequently driving 45 minutes to take her son to a physician treating him for asthma.

“We made the call and said, ‘We noticed you’re driving a really long way and that must be really hard as a working mother,’” Wainwright said, noting the woman broke down and expressed gratitude for the acknowledgment, opening up about the pressures of caring for her child and balancing her work schedule. AiR connected her with a doctor just minutes from her home, and Wainwright said the woman went on to thrive.

“We realized that approach had some real opportunity to change the way we cared for others,” she said. “A little compassion and empathy can go a long way.”

3 Ways to Improve Psychological Safety
Employees who feel a sense of psychological safety at work are more likely to be engaged, productive and generating the innovative ideas needed to move an organization forward—but promoting that type of environment requires significant commitment on the part of the employer, a process that can be supported by HR leaders.

At a session at HBLC, Rachel Druckenmiller, director of wellbeing at national benefits-consulting firm Alera Group, emphasized the importance of psychological safety at work.

“Fear stunts our analytical thinking, our ability to be creative; essentially, we’re ‘dumber’ when we’re operating out of a state of fear,” she told the audience, noting a fear-inducing environment activates the amygdala—the fear response in our brain—and we can only focus on surviving, not thriving.

From a business perspective, Druckenmiller said, an environment in which employees are too anxious to speak up or worried about humiliation stymies growth and innovation.

“People put on a mask and only show the parts of themselves they think someone else will approve of,” she said. In psychologically safe environments, however, “they can let their guard down. They’re not in self-protection mode, worrying about who they can trust—so they can problem solve and be creative. All positive things happen when we’re not focused on trying to protect ourselves.”

Druckenmiller cited three ways employers can get serious about improving the psychological safety of their workforces:

Managers, as well as HR leaders, should understand the strengths and weaknesses of their employees—as well as their own. As an example, Druckenmiller cited a client she once worked with: a self-described “bulldog,” who was gunning for the status of being her company’s first female vice president. While she was speeding toward that goal, on an interpersonal level, “she was leaving everyone in the dust and had no idea of how she was being perceived,” said Druckenmiller, who, as part of her coaching services, conducted extensive interviews of the people her client managed.

Consistent themes emerged from those conversations: The client only looked out for herself, she wasn’t a good listener and she didn’t seem to value employee input, for instance. While the client initially rebuffed those claims, Drunkemiller said, she eventually softened to those perceptions and they worked together to identify potential blind spots she may continue to struggle with. The woman now keeps a list of reminders handy to help guide her interactions, Druckenmiller said.

On a broader level, organizations can undertake strengths assessments to help their employees and managers better understand one another and develop strengths-based leadership training.

Psychologically safe environments value curiosity over judgement, Druckenmiller said.

For instance, if a manager notices one employee responds to high-pressure environments with hostility, he or she should consider the context—such as the person’s upbringing.

“Nobody came out of childhood unscathed, so maybe we can all have more compassion,” she said. “Difficult people are people who don’t feel safe, and sometimes all they need is just for someone to acknowledge that they’re doing something right.”

Managers and HR leaders should ask questions, listen attentively—using “door openers” like “Tell me more” and “Let me see if I got that right”—and respond with empathy.

Loneliness contributes to early death more than alcohol abuse, obesity and air pollution, Druckenmiller said—and the workplace is rife with it.

Managers and HR professionals can play a key role in combatting loneliness. Mandate device-free meetings, Druckenmiller suggested, as studies have shown that the mere presence of cell phones in a room stifles interpersonal connectedness and trust. “Unless you’re closing the hole in the ozone layer or curing cancer, you can wait an hour,” she said. “Take your Apple watch off.”

Survey team members about their interests and organize out-of-office excursions that people would actually want to go to, she added. “Connection and time together build trust, and trust is the foundation of psychological safety,” Druckenmiller said.

Management style can also enhance connections. If a manager focuses on employees’ strengths, there’s only a 1% chance they’ll actively disengage from work; if the manager focuses on their weakness, there’s a 22% chance they’ll actively disengage—a number that jumps to 40% when the manager ignores the employees altogether.

“The extent to which someone feels valued, appreciated and seen,” she said, “affects how they engage with people, and it affects their health.”