In Some Workplaces, It’s Now OK Not to Be OK

Good mental health seemed like a given to Kamini Cormier. Then, came the pandemic. Back in 2020, when she was forced to isolate herself at home with her husband and adolescent daughters, she started feeling aches and pains all over her body. She figured she’d probably caught COVID-19 and scheduled lab tests, and an online appointment with her doctor. But the results didn’t indicate COVID. Her doctor told her something she never expected to hear: Bottled-up stress was starting to attack her body.

In Some Workplaces, It’s Now OK Not to Be OK

“I had to kick it up a notch in caring for my mental health,” says Cormier, 48, who is the Western region business operations lead for technology practice at professional services company Accenture. So, she did something that a growing number of employees have felt more comfortable with since the onset of the pandemic: Cormier looked to her employer for mental health help. She found an online therapist to meet with weekly (paid for by her employer)—and started using a special app provided by her employer that offered calming music.

“People are talking about mental health issues at work in a way they were previously talking about high cholesterol or diabetes,” says Cormier.

It’s about time. Nearly 53 million Americans—roughly one in five adults in the U.S.—experienced some form of mental illness in 2020, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). And 27% of Millennials who have recently resigned say they did so because their job was not good for their mental health, according to a recent Y-Pulse study. Perhaps as a response, some 39% of employers updated their health plans since the start of the pandemic to expand access to mental health services, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2021 Employer Health Benefits Survey.

“Ten years ago, no one was talking about mental health at work,” says Jessica Edwards, chief development officer at NAMI. But since the pandemic, more than half of Americans say it’s much easier to discuss their mental health issues.

The pandemic effect

Working Americans—and their employers—are finally warming up to the notion that mental health care is as critical as physical health care. The mind matters. In what might have seemed unimaginable for a major corporation to do even a few years ago, Bank of America ran a full-page ad in the Washington Post in June 2022: “We drive open and ongoing conversations to help break through the stigma around mental health.” The ad stated that whether it’s through professional counseling, education, or tips for managing stress, “Our goal is to ensure our teammates get the resources they need.”

Promoting all aspects of wellness, including mental health, is not new to the company, says Bank of America’s chief human resources officer, Sheri Bronstein. “We listen, monitor and respond to changing needs,” she says. Through various programs and benefits, she says, “We support our teammates and their families through everyday issues, critical moments, and life events — including those we have all experienced and faced with the coronavirus pandemic.”

One-third of working Americans say it’s more acceptable now than before the pandemic to ask their employer for mental health support, according to a LinkedIn survey of 2,000 Americans in February 2022. And while 45% of Americans say they would have taken a “mental health” day off before the pandemic, some 65% of working Americans now say they would.

Finding mental health allies

Cormier is one of them. She also has become an active volunteer member of Accenture’s mental wellness employee resource group. The program helps employees better understand the mental wellness resources offered by the company. Employees are encouraged to take a three-hour virtual training class that, among other things, advises how to respond when someone under stress reaches out to them.

Cormier gained the confidence to openly discuss her mental health issues in part because Accenture’s CEO made it a priority in virtual meetings.

“For me, it’s a personal thing,” says Jimmy Etheredge, CEO of Accenture North America. “I have several family members who have struggled with mental health for a number of years. So, it’s something I’ve always had a lot of passion about. It’s okay not to feel okay.”

If the pandemic has a silver lining, he says, it’s the way mental health discussions have moved out of the shadows and into the light at so many companies. He’s made certain that Accenture has taken actions both large and small to de-stigmatize those talks.

The company, for instance, created a “Mental Health Ally” program composed of 9,500 employees—including Etheredge and his entire leadership team—who received special training on how to support someone who reaches out for help.

Another 170,000 Accenture employees have completed the “Thriving Mind” program to learn how to handle stress and improve their well-being. Those who completed the program report an average 8 to 11% increase in their ability to handle stress and nine out of 10 participants said they felt “significantly” better able to handle workplace challenges afterward, the company reports.

Etheredge says it’s also on him to consistently put into action best business practices that support better mental health. Instead of 30-minute phone meetings, he aims for 25 minutes, to allow time to get up and stretch, for those who have a second meeting scheduled during the hour. After years of habitually eating at his desk, he’s also learned to step away for lunch. “I can say that with no shame,” he says. And instead of sending out business emails late in the evening, he uses time-delay, so they’re not sent until the following morning.

“I want people to feel safe, seen, and connected,” he says. “Our future growth depends upon the well-being of our talent. We have to be mindful and take care of the people we have.”

Still not a prime concern for all businesses

Even while most HR professionals say offering mental health care can improve workplace productivity and agree that it increases employee retention, employee mental health hasn’t been a top concern at many companies.

Less than a third of the 3,400 HR professionals surveyed this spring by the Society for Human Resource Management said mental health was a prime concern at their company. “It’s becoming a priority, but not a top priority,” says Wendi Safstrom, president of the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation.

But according to one survey, some companies may be pulling back on mental health care just as employees are returning to work. While 71% of workers say their company increased the focus on mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, just 25% say they have kept up that focus in the last year, according to a survey of 500 CEOs and 5,400 full-time employees in the U.S., Australia, Germany, and U.K., by Headspace Health, a digital mental health platform.

How digital tools can help

Some positive steps were also reported by the survey. The use of digital mental health tools among U.S. employees, such as remote-based therapy and meditation apps, has doubled since 2020, according to the survey conducted in February and March 2022.

In 2020, The Hartford insurance company added more digital resources to its benefits plan to help employees with anxiety, including Daylight, a digital anti-anxiety app that teaches techniques to reframe negative thoughts and face difficult emotions. The company also enhanced the concierge support that helps employees find treatment for mental health issues. In April, it added a new medical provider that expanded access to therapy and counseling for employees and their family members.

“At The Hartford, we have taken a whole-company approach to remove stigma and create an open, inclusive environment,” says CEO Christopher Swift.

A mother’s story

That may be one reason why Caitlin Tregler felt comfortable seeking mental health assistance.

Tregler, 33, is a claims team leader at The Hartford, who says she lives with a social anxiety disorder — a form of extreme shyness that can cause her to withdraw from social interactions. It was exacerbated by the pandemic after she got pregnant and gave birth to her second child in the summer of 2020. She found comfort by leaning in on co-workers and utilizing company resources to support her own mental health.

She had an emergency C-section and, due to complications, had to stay in the hospital an extra week before she was allowed to return home. For a new mother, at the time there was anxiety aplenty due to COVID-19. Although she was seeing a therapist for her disorder, she quickly realized — after she started working from home — that it was critical to increase her online therapy visits from bi-weekly to weekly.

She worked exclusively from home until February 2022, and now goes into the office two days a week. She has recently become involved with an employee resource group focused on removing stigmas around mental health assistance.

“I don’t think I could work for a company that’s not as supportive,” she says.

Through the pandemic, Tregler learned the hard way about caring for her own mental well-being — including requesting occasional “mental health” days off “to reset myself,” she says.

This is precisely what positive mental wellness so often requires—an occasional reset.

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