Table of Experts: Mental Health
The Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal held a panel discussion on mental health in the workplace
Contributing writer Holly Dolezalek
The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal held a panel discussion about mental health in the workplace. Panelists included Dr. George Vergolias, medical director at R3 Continuum; Courtney Patt, senior health management consultant at Marsh & McLennan Agency; Shareen Luze, head of human resources at RBC Wealth Management – U.S.; Jaclyn Wainwright, CEO of AiRCare Health; and Melissa Albers, a partner with The Self Awareness Journey. Dr. Karen Doll, psychologist and owner of Doll Consulting Services, served as moderator.
Dr. Karen Doll: The importance of mental health and well-being is at an all-time high. There’s no shortage of statistics highlighting the prevalence of burnout, chronic stress and mental health challenges for individuals in the workplace. Recent studies report that a range of 77% to 96% of employees are currently experiencing burnout. The Harvard Business Review conservatively reports that 60% of employees have experienced mental health challenges in the past year. Given the prevalence and impact, it can no longer be ignored or minimized. The importance of well-being and mental health needs to be at the forefront. There is increased need for awareness, education, and advocacy, and organizations are well-positioned to provide such channels for facilitation.
Please speak about a time where you have experienced exhaustion or burnout. How did you continue to support your team, and how did you share your vulnerability and feelings of stress with the team?
Shareen Luze: I used to like to put on a facade and make everything seem perfect. But I learned the hard way that that causes other people to feel like they have to be perfect. So a few years ago, I tried to start being more vulnerable and more honest about what was going on. I just said, “This is just really hard, and I’m not managing it well. I’m not sleeping very much, because I’m working too much. I’m not being the mom I want to be. I’m not being the wife and friend I want to be, because all I’m doing is working.” It was really important for me to acknowledge and own that I’m multidimensional and failing in some places. Our employees are that way, too. If we want to tell them it’s OK, it has to start from the top. If I don’t own it, the junior person on my team isn’t going to be as comfortable [doing it]; if our CEO doesn’t own it, it’s going to be really difficult for the more junior employees to do it.
George Vergolias: That kind of echoes my experience. I’ve been working for R3c for nine years and working from home. I had the remote-work thing down until Covid-19 hit, and things got exponentially more difficult. I became a camp counselor, a school teacher, a first aid administrator, because my wife was working outside the home. And I got really burned out, to the point that my kids started asking when am I going to start traveling again, because I was so miserable to be around. I’m a forensic psychologist, well-trained to recognize emotional distress in others, but I couldn’t recognize it in myself.
I got to the same place you did, Shareen, where I acknowledged it for my team. I let them know that I don’t have the answers, but I am willing to work with them to find those answers together. And the one commitment I asked of them, and this is how we phrased it: Nobody dies of internal bleeding on this team. If you’re going to metaphorically die, you’re going to let it all out. You’re going to cry. You’re going to yell — maybe throw out some expletives — but nobody suffers in silence. And they adapted to that really quickly and really well.
Doll: George, what are you seeing as the most impactful mental health issues and challenges that people are facing in the workplace?
Vergolias: The studies are showing that depression is up at least threefold, anxiety is up fourfold from pre-pandemic levels. A wonderful study done in January by Deloitte, a study of CEOs, found that 55% of their employees were reporting increased mental health issues; one-third reporting increased substance abuse issues; and 10% were reporting a loss of 10 hours or more per week in productivity. And the natural social supports that we took for granted — bumping into someone at the local brewery or the grocery store or at kids’ Little League games, or in the workplace, chatting with colleagues on the way to lunch or catching up at the watercooler — evaporated almost overnight a year ago. Many of us took that for granted. Those were little emotional strokes that carried us through, much like the way one would comfort a pet and give it love. Those emotional strokes are critical to carry us through difficult times, yet they were subtle and not fully acknowledged or appreciated until the pandemic caused us to miss them. We encourage the business leaders we consult with to acknowledge that those small social moments and supports are largely missing now and recognize how that impacts a team’s mental health on top of all the other stressors right now.
Doll: What are the rest of you seeing as impactful mental health issues in your organizations?
Melissa Albers: George, I love what you were just talking about, the idea of emotional strokes. I actually call them making deposits in the favor bank. We see someone and want to help. We support others, which is like making deposits in our account. Then, when we need something back, we can take something out, or make a withdrawal. So many of us, I think, have lost our favor bank account information. In other words, we’ve lost the ability to make ourselves feel good, so we seek external validation or outside resources to falsely create internal balance. The reality is, there really is no balance when we want others to fix us.
Jaclyn Wainwright: We’ve had a lot of people saying, “I think I have mental Covid!” Translation: “I’m panicking all the time because I think this new pain in my toe or my fill-in-the-blank-with-your-latest-weird-symptom is Covid-19.” On top of living in fear of contracting the virus, we have all added roles to our resumes like, chief caregiver, teacher, playmate, chef and activities director. It has forced many of us to prioritize what’s important to us and placed a new emphasis on self-care. We aren’t capable of helping others if we’re not taking care of ourselves. Intellectually, we know this, but now we are forced to actually recognize it and address it. We have asked our employees and teams to hold each other accountable to building self-care into their daily routines. We are seeing the impact of “caregiver fatigue” and burnout play out on accelerated timelines, and it presents organizations with an opportunity to shift expectations and redefine what it means to care for our workforce.
Doll: Courtney, what role do you think the employer has in supporting employees’ mental health?
Courtney Patt: Our clients and employers are experiencing extremely high health care costs related to behavioral health. We are starting to look at things like social determinants of health to understand if we are providing the right programs and resources to help support our employees. Sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to find out exactly what our employees need by executing surveys or looking at other demographic data. Employees want their managers and supervisors trained in areas to identify emotional stress, burnout, depression and anxiety. And they want employers to provide mental health benefits and resources that will support them. In addition, employers are also implementing well-being programs that focus on the whole person. Organizations need to recognize the complexity and multilayers of each employee to provide the right resources to support them. Providing programs that focus on the whole person gives support the employee needs to help them be their best self and do their best work.
Luze: You have to create a climate in which employees are going to be willing to avail themselves of it and they feel safe to ask for that help or to reach out to those resources. You can have the greatest benefits in the world, but if you don’t have a climate that supports it, they’re useless.
Wainwright: Care avoidance is a symptom of most mental health conditions. People who experience symptoms of psychological distress are less likely to ask for help and tend to avoid any form of help in general. If you want to address the fact that individuals are suffering at a rate three times what they were prior to the pandemic, then we need to do something more than simply make services available. We need to implement proactive outreach services for mental health. Make these services available to our employee bases and make sure that employees and their family members know that those services are free, confidential and available to them 24/7. We can talk all day long about how much we care about our employees’ mental and emotional well-being, but knowing that this population is care avoidant puts the burden on us to bring the services to them. If we do not make it as easy as possible for individuals to get the emotional support and mental health care they need, then they will never believe we actually care about their well-being. “Care” is an action verb we need to act. The costs to treat mental health issues are so much less than to treat the physical conditions that mental health issues exacerbate. This is not a cost issue, it’s an investment opportunity.
Doll: Mental health challenges are prevalent, yet still carry a stigma in the workplace. Melissa, what is the impact of this stigma?
Albers: I think the other thing that we have to think about is, prior to 2020, we’d been so conditioned as a society to stuff our feelings, thoughts and words when we didn’t feel good. We have pushed our feelings away and we are often not even aware that we are feeling rotten. I think that builds over time, and a lack of awareness is not due to weakness or ill intent, it’s simply due to us having a higher threshold of pain. One of the key things we can do is to acknowledge when we are hurting: “I don’t know all of the answers, but I do know that when I take the time to understand when I don’t feel great, and if I don’t care for myself I’m not as productive, happy or helpful in partnership with my peers or my family.” Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could talk about mental health and self-awareness in a proactive instead of a reactive state? It would be great if we could all be open to proactively working on our mental health, just like we do our physical health!
Vergolias: Back to vulnerability, the idea that it’s OK not to feel OK. When we as leaders can’t demonstrate or express that, it sends a message that our employees cannot or should not express it either. Even more insidious than that, we fail to give them the message that part of being vulnerable, part of breaking down, is the resulting building-up — that is from where our strength grows. A metaphor I use a lot is: How does a lobster grow? A lobster grows by expanding and literally breaking out of its shell, and the lobster does that repeatedly throughout its lifespan. It’s about strength in and through the vulnerability.
Albers: Leadership is influence, and there are many employees who informally hold a tremendous amount of influence in their peer groups. These people can really make an impact on the rest of the organization, simply by being who they really are authentically and allowing other people to see what that feels like.
Patt: Our clients are starting to incorporate mental health solutions into their overall strategic plan and total reward strategy. We encourage our employers to implement stigma-free campaigns that are available at no cost and create a positive culture around mental health (makeitok.org or workplacementalhealth.org/employer-resources/icu). We also see the mental health utilization in our population health management claim data and reporting. The goal is to identify trends proactively and build a strategy to address them. Once we identify the gaps and know where to focus our efforts, we can implement different resources to support the employer, their employees and their families. Employees bring their whole self to work, so it is important to create solutions for the entire family unit. Providing education and solutions for the entire family also helps break the stigma.
Wainwright: I think Covid-19 made us all very aware of the struggles that individuals, leaders, companies and communities face daily, and that it’s OK to not be OK. It’s human to have things that keep you up at night and its courageous to ask for help.
Doll: Hopefully, people are feeling more permission to not be OK and to ask for help. There is opportunity for organizations to reinforce this message.
Albers: I agree! We have an opportunity to make the biggest impact ever with employees on mental health right now. It is a beautiful thing.
Doll: Organizations are seeing an increased demand for support. Let’s talk about employee mental health benefits and how the culture of work-from-home has changed the landscape of these programs. What are employees asking for, and how are you supporting that increased need?
Wainwright: More people than ever before are looking to their employer, health plan or community to help them. It definitely has created an increased demand for mental health services, and it’s challenging providers and employers to meet that demand. Even before the pandemic we had an access problem. Now the wait time for counseling or therapy sessions is sometimes six weeks. If we’re going to make mental health a priority and partner with people to make that message clear, then we need to make sure that people can access services. If an employee finally works up the courage to ask for help and then gets told, “Not today, we’ll see you in six weeks,” that can be devastating. The message is clear: You are not a priority. So I think it’s really important to make sure that as employers we are partnering with providers who can make mental health available immediately. At our organization, we have a promise to our partners that they will have mental health access within one hour. This promise to employees, that help will be available when they need it, has made a tremendous difference. The act of proactively calling to check in with employees has produced a willingness on the employee’s part to engage that we hadn’t seen before. We have always been fans of proactive outreach, because too often when you actually need help you don’t ask for it or even recognize you need it. We’ve definitely seen a huge increase in people who are willing to talk to us. This leads to us being able to teach coping skills or a breathing exercise that may actually lead them to do larger work later on.
Luze: We’ve added different avenues through which employees can access mental health support and resources. We’ve long had the EAP, but once the pandemic hit, we added in the ability for our employees to access mental health support through text, through email and through phone conversations. We’ve added multiple vendors, and we even did one-page tip sheets that an employee can go through and consume themselves. They don’t have to reach out to anyone just in case they’re not comfortable. We’ve also done webinars internally. As employers, we have to be agile about recognizing that employees are in different spots, and they’re going to have different comfort levels about whether they go into a provider’s office or just do it by a text.
Vergolias: We did all these things and also looked at what I call the soft resources. For example, several times during the pandemic the R3c leadership sent a pizza to every person in the organization, on the same day and about the same time. It was a small gesture, but a wonderful unifying moment. For all employees with children, we offered them a three-month subscription to Tinker Crate. We offered support for online child tutoring for parents who were struggling at home. We arranged virtual happy hours, water cooler checks, and play dates. Typically, you would not consider these as mental health resources, but they’re the things we don’t have easy access to anymore, and that take that extra edge off for a struggling employee. While certainly we must continue to talk about clinical and semi- or pre-clinical services, there are other services and actions that we can offer that really help bolster people, that just give them some hope.
Doll: Experiencing mental health and wellness is more than the absence of illness. According to the World Health Organization, “There is no health without mental health.” In the course of a lifetime, not all people will experience a mental illness, but everyone will struggle or have a challenge with their mental well-being (i.e., their mental health) just like we all have challenges with our physical well-being from time to time.
People are all in varying places on the wellness continuum, and right-sizing the level of care is important to meet the needs of employees.
Patt: As employers are offering different programs to support the mental well-being of their employees, many employers are making these programs available to not only the employees but their families and communicating them to the family. It is common that the employee may not be making the health care decisions for the rest of the family. So making sure that we’re communicating to both can provide a better outcome. And then about telemedicine, we had to get creative on finding resources that employees would use during Covid. Many employers offer telemedicine and encourage employees to use this resource. Most telemedicine resources are able to provide mental health services. It saves money and eliminates the need to go into the office, while providing quicker turnaround time to seeing someone and getting the support they need. MMA offers free recorded webinars that employers can use and share with their employees. We also created a mental health toolkit that can be shared with employees and their families. And, we have a blog with a variety of different topics that are covered, including mental health, stress management, etc.
Doll: Melissa, I would like to hear more from you about this concept of self-awareness and the role that plays in mental health and well-being?
Albers: I am not what I would call a mental health expert. I really consider myself more of a people expert. I help people understand where they are in their own process so they can appropriately identify what they need next. I think it really does begin with self-awareness. Telehealth offers many, many benefits. When people are doing these kinds of deeper conversations on Zoom or similar, there is a level of comfort they have become accustom to that is unlike anything else. Just in my own practice in the past year, I’m having the kinds of conversations that I’d wished for the past 10 years. People are more open and willing to be authentic.
Self-awareness is so critical because we’re really used to numbing out our own pain and being able to continue on with our lives. But when you understand yourself better, and you recognize the thought you were thinking is actually making you feel bad — when you can recognize everything you think, say and do needs to be in alignment for you to be in your sweet spot to be who you really are — you can proactively choose better feelings, thoughts and actions. Then when you find yourself feeling anxious, depressed, scared or worried, what a wonderful time to be able to say, “Wait a minute. I need some extra help. I didn’t even know how bad I was.” As we continue to grow in awareness, we become different and more expansive. We become more able to be our authentic selves in support of our mental health and that of others.
Doll: There is now discussion about reopening the workplace. How do you anticipate this will be compared to the shutdown a year ago?
Wainwright: A year ago, like many organizations, we became a remote workforce overnight. The change was hard on some employees and some immediately embraced it. But as time went on, like humans do, we adapted. If, as an employer, your committed to hearing what your employees have to say, I think we have an opportunity to transform the way we work. What we’re hearing is that people want to work from home. I think as employers we have a responsibility to listen. If we’re serious about respecting the unique challenges and individual needs of our employees, then we need to find ways to support them in this new working world. I think many employees are afraid of things changing all over again. We run the risk, if we don’t handle this thoughtfully, of introducing another traumatic event. All the control has been taken away. They feel vulnerable in a way that many of them felt a year ago when everything changed and the majority of their choices were made for them. If we can honor what our employees are saying, and try and make it work, then I think we will earn their trust, which will result in fierce loyalty and commitment to our organizations in the long run.
Vergolias: We’re having this conversation with a lot of clients who we consult with right now: This is a time where employers are either going to lock in loyalty and commitment from their workforce for years to come, or they are going to just wantonly waste that emotional equity and employees are going to move on. It isn’t about the specific decisions that are being made, it’s about how well are those decisions being considered and communicated, and whether employees feel heard and understood. And it’s going to be different for different organizations. We all have different industries, workforces, demographics, and we’re going to have to cater to those and find out what is the best balance based on business needs and human needs.
Luze: We have employees who have to be on site and employees who don’t have to be on-site. We have to meet them where they’re at, and regardless of the culture of the company, what we can’t lose sight of are the humans behind all of this. How do we support them in coming back on site, help them be comfortable? But we also want to retain the learning we’ve had, because regardless, it’s a process to bring people back on-site and back together. People are burned out from meetings and Zoom and all of these other formats. So we need to support them by empowering them to create what we at RBC call “my time.” To carve out “my time,” we first tell employees to set boundaries, which means empowering and demonstrating control over your calendar. Sometimes control is established simply by taking a look at your recurring meetings and asking tough questions like, “What’s the cadence?” “Is that the right cadence?” “Is this meeting really needed?” But “my time” is also adjusting how we meet. Do you have to sit in that office or could you walk? Lastly, getting back to the human side, one of the things that Zoom has taught us is people have lives outside of work. We’re seeing the dogs and the kids and the chaos of people’s lives. Don’t lose that, and continue to acknowledge it going forward.
Doll: Our intention of this panel was to discuss how organizations can address these challenges, generate awareness, share insights and foster hope for employees that help is on the way. What else is important for the MSPBJ audience to know?
Patt: Our experience over the past year is going to have a psychological mental health impact that’s going to extend well beyond these next couple years. We don’t know even the impact this is going to have on our children and future workforce. We offer the Mental Health First Aid certification training, which is a great program for leaders and managers who desire to better understand the signs and symptoms of someone who’s experiencing a mental health challenge. We help them understand what to say, how to help support someone, and how to get the person the help they need. Many times, people don’t know how to handle the situation so they are silent, which could be costly. Since our program went virtual in September 2020, we have graduated 400-plus Mental Health First Aiders from our trainings. We are excited about the impact this program has been making on individuals, organizations and communities. We have heard from attendees of the class that they had no idea how little they knew about mental health and learned so much in the training. They have been able to apply the skills learned in their personal and professional lives. If you are interested in learning more about Mental Health First Aid, you can find programs in your community (mhfa.org) or MMA has instructors who provide the training in the workplace virtually or in-person.
Albers: My hope is that every individual, every leader, every organization has an opportunity to recognize that mental health can be and should be a proactive conversation, not simply a reactive state.
Luze: As a manager, as a company, as a leader, all you have to do is just know how to avail yourself of resources and tell your employees to do so. The people who say they have all the answers and who don’t ever say, “I don’t know,” are the ones who concern me. Admit you don’t know. Admit you’re not the expert. It’s just recognizing we’re all humans, and that there are resources out there. Just support your employees and be vulnerable and authentic.
Vergolias: My big thing is to keep beating the drum on resilience, because resilience is ubiquitous. It is the normative response to difficult times. Times are tough, but we can do tough things. I do a lot of training internationally on resilience and threat management, and I often say this: “Every time you said you couldn’t go on, you did.” It’s more important now than ever to be on point in a message with that while we get people to resources and destigmatize accessing those resources.
Wainwright: Two things: One, every human being, employer and community should ask themselves, “What would happen if we put the emotional health and well-being of our people first?” I think we would all be really surprised by the result. And two: Hope is available to everyone. It does not discriminate. If there is anybody who is out there who is struggling, who is suffering in silence — ask for help. Don’t wait for things to get worse, because you do matter. Whatever is causing you to not be yourself or keeping you up at night, say something to somebody, because I guarantee you’ll be surprised by the results. We can come together as communities, as human beings, and provide the strength and the hope that we all need to thrive.
Dr. Karen Doll, Doll Consulting Services
Dr. Karen Doll is a Licensed Psychologist, consultant and author of “Building Psychological Fitness,” forthcoming, November 2021. She has spent 24 years partnering with large organizations — including Target Corp., Chevron, Google, LinkedIn, Capital One, Genentech and Salesforce — and coaching high-achieving professionals to maximize talent. She is motivated by a desire to help people thrive, enhance well-being, and optimize leadership skills at every phase, from burgeoning new entrants to accomplished senior leaders. Throughout her career, she has remained committed to mental health awareness and advocacy and bringing psychology into the workplace to achieve results. Doll also serves as a lead coach for BetterUp and shares the mission of empowering professionals to live with purpose, passion and clarity. She is a 1994 Santa Clara University alumna and has gained most of her expertise in psychological fitness from her work as a mother of five.
Melissa Albers, The Self Awareness Journey
Melissa Albers is an executive coach and owner of a leadership development company. She is passionate about developing people’s self-awareness and ability to positively interact with others. She focuses on the importance of building influence and highlights the most important relationship we have, which is with self first. Albers speaks on leadership and self-awareness and is co-founder of The Self Awareness Journey.
Albers’ client work focuses on executive coaching, strategic planning, leadership development and team building. While professional results are obviously important, she believes true success is measured in quality relationships, maintaining a sense of humor (even in tough times), and always being open to try new things. Her clients include family businesses, financial institutions, nonprofits and manufacturing companies.
Shareen Luze, RBC Wealth Management – U.S.
Shareen Luze leads the human resources team and is responsible for the development and execution of strategic human resources strategies and initiatives for RBC Wealth Management – U.S. Her team supports the RBC Wealth Management – U.S. business through design and execution of HR programs that support employees and give them the tools they need to succeed. The team provides guidance on all aspects of human resources, including talent management, employee development, performance enablement, organizational design, change management, compensation, and diversity and inclusion. Luze’s expertise, energy and passion for people is evidenced by her ability to develop and implement HR programs to attract, retain, reward and develop a talented workforce.
Luze joined RBC in 2006 as associate general counsel. She transitioned to human resources in 2008, becoming director of the U.S. employee relations team, and took on additional responsibilities for workplace risk management in 2012. In that role, she led a diverse team responsible for managing workplace risk and supporting employees.
Courtney Patt, Marsh & McLennan Agency
Courtney Patt serves as a senior health management consultant for Marsh & McLennan Agency in Minneapolis. In this role, she partners with clients to build health management strategies and a culture of well-being within their organization with the end result of seeing improved health outcomes, a more productive workforce, and increased engagement to the organization. Patt also provides strategic well-being planning support, as well as communication and education assistance.
Patt is a certified Mental Health First Aid instructor who provides employees the skills needed to help support someone who is experiencing a mental health challenge or a mental health crisis. Just as CPR training helps a layperson without medical training assist an individual following a heart attack, Mental Health First Aid training helps a layperson assist someone experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis. Patt is also a certified intrinsic coach and certified tobacco treatment specialist.
Dr. George Vergolias, R3 Continuum
Dr. George Vergolias is a trained forensic psychologist and certified threat manager, serving as medical director of R3 Continuum, a company specializing in protecting and cultivating workplace well-being in a complex world. He oversees and leads R3c’s clinical risk, threat of violence and workplace violence programs, and has directly assessed or managed over 1,000 cases related to threat of violence or self-harm, sexual assault, stalking and communicated threats. He is also founder and president of TelePsych Supports, a telemental health company providing crisis risk consultation, resilience and diversion planning, and involuntary commitment evaluations for hospitals and emergency departments. He brings over 20 years of experience as a forensic psychologist and certified threat manager to bear to help leaders, organizations, employees and communities heal, optimize and ultimately thrive before, during and after disruption.
Jaclyn Wainwright, AiRCare Health
Jaclyn Wainwright is a behavioral health expert and CEO of AiRCare Health, a next-generation mental and emotional health care company. She is passionate about re-imaging emotional well-being for the modern-day workforce. Under her leadership AiRCare has focused on solving complex problems, providing immediate access and publishing outcomes. AiRCare’s approach combines the heart of clinical care management and the science of AI to transform the health and well-being of large populations. Wainwright has co-authored several studies and serves as a behavioral health subject matter expert for Microsoft’s Global Industry Leaders Program. Her strategic partnerships with employers, health innovators and data scientists around the world are igniting global health transformation.
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