Culture change is the cutting edge of mental health benefits at work

Culture change is the cutting edge of mental health benefits at work

Many companies offer employee assistance programs, mindfulness apps or in-office counseling. But experts say a culture shift toward openness, from the C-suite on down, is most effective.

Credit: Reuters

When Hartmut Braune comes to work in security communications at SAP, he never knows what emergency will land in his inbox.

It is a challenging job, compounded by the fact that Braune also coordinates the company's global Lighthouse Core Team, which provides peer assistance to struggling employees, as well as a shoulder to cry on.

"It's the difficult part, but sometimes tears help clear the situation," said Braune, who is based in Germany.

Many companies offer employee assistance programs, mindfulness apps or in-office counseling. But experts say a culture shift toward openness, from the C-suite on down, is most effective. That translates to peer counseling, colleagues sharing their experiences and open dialogue.

Companies take a myriad of approaches to this challenge. At SAP, considered a thought leader on employee mental health, the company calls its system the Employee Care Cycle. That starts with prevention and destigmatization, said Torsten Paul, SAP's director digital health & well-being.

Indeed, Braune coached one woman who returned to work at SAP after a mental health leave, but had not been open with her manager and colleagues about why she took time off.

"People have a tendency to hide what was happening – they feel shame," Braune said.

Braune walked the woman through some tiny steps she could take, and eventually, she met with her manager. A week later, when Braune saw the woman, she was smiling.

Overall, depression causes an average of 40 days of absenteeism per sufferer at SAP, Torsten said. Serious cases might involve short- or long-term disability. But if a person returns to work and the same stress factors exist, they will just get sick again.

One key offering for employees is a two-day immersive mindfulness program, so popular it has a waiting list of 9,000. The company also shares video testimonials on its internal website from colleagues who have overcome challenges.

In addition, SAP encourages workers to do frequent self-assessments, and managers assess the organization itself.

At Microsoft, individuals at all levels share their own mental health experiences, in person, on social media and via podcasts.

"We didn’t ask, but it has happened that many of our leaders stepped up and started telling their stories, their personal struggles or ones they’ve witnessed," said Sonja Kellen, senior director of global health and wellness at Microsoft. "And it has naturally become pervasive in the culture."

One employee who shared her story was 25-year-old program manager Beth Anne Katz, who detailed her battles with depression on YouTube videos and a company website.  

"Being open about my suffering was the hardest thing I’ve done, but I am not afraid of who I am anymore. Depression isn’t something to be ashamed of," Katz tells her colleagues.

Last May, Microsoft hosted several movie screenings about anxiety and suicide, followed by conversations with the people who volunteered their stories. A counselor stood by.

"It’s been gratifying to see the sheer volume of people to speak up," said Kellen.

Cost savings are not the key driver, even though mental healthcare is a top spend, Kellen added, noting that mental health breaks are one of the top reasons people go on leave at Microsoft, beyond parental leave.

An app for that

Of course, there are apps for helping culture change. Technology is particularly good at crunching data from employee self-assessments to help companies figure out what services they need.

London-based Unmind, for example, provides a workplace mental health platform, used by companies in 47 countries, including British Airways and Live Nation. Employers get data, such as how many people are stressed or feel ill because of stress, and information on how managers can help them be less stressed. Workers can access targeted educational material.

Many companies also turn to web-based mindfulness apps, one of which is Raw Mind Coach, and app-based therapy delivery like Talkspace. These are helpful to those without access to in-person counseling.

Consultants help companies develop a tailored strategy, such as Mind Share Partners, a non-profit consultancy, which recently published a report on mental health at work in partnership with SAP.  

"We’re not a benefits provider. We see our trainings as what’s needed to reduce stigma," said Kelly Greenwood, Mind Share Partner's founder and CEO.

Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, a workplace mental health consultant, preaches the following message to companies, urging them to take action on mental health: "The health of employees is correlated positively to business outcome. It would be foolish to leave that to chance."

(By Beth Pinsker; Editing by Lauren Young and Dan Grebler)

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