Mental health awareness seems to be at an all-time high among employers. Articles, webinars, and online HR events have all focused on this important issue. But where does that leave the countless employees out there right now suffering from a wave of mental health concerns? I recently spoke about the issue with Betty Thompson, EVP and Chief People Officer for Booz Allen Hamilton.
I asked Thompson what she thought about the growing awareness surrounding mental health concerns. She said that “while there’s been a growing awareness around mental health and we have been focused on this for several years, very visibly and actively aware of it and working on it, I think the pandemic has brought it more into focus that this is important. I think more people are asking a question about how people are handling [and] experiencing this unprecedented situation. Nobody’s not impacted by it in some way.”
Her last point is the real crux of the situation. A shocking number of people had mental health challenges before the pandemic, and those challenges have likely worsened. Meanwhile, a new wave of people with mental health challenges has arisen. Some experts wonder if anyone can walk away from the pandemic without some kind of mental health issue. For this reason, it is now more important than ever for employers to show awareness and understanding while directly supporting their employees.
What Booz Allen Hamilton Does to Support Mental Health
Simply having a benefit that enables employees to see a therapist 10 times, with a copay buried in your overall health benefits package, is not enough to get them through this very difficult time. Booz Allen Hamilton takes a more comprehensive approach. “Our initiative focuses on physical wellness, the importance of being part of a community, financial wellness, and then mental wellness at the early stages,” says Thompson. She adds that the company’s initiative comes with the support of a nonprofit “that’s very much focused on mental health. They were driving a campaign asking for corporations to sign a pledge, to educate their employees on the five signs of emotional suffering.”
Taking into consideration social and financial wellness as a part of mental wellness, combined with the support of a dedicated organization, puts the company in a stronger place to really help its employees—ideally before a minor mental health challenge becomes a major one.
However, HR professionals may potentially end up functioning as a therapist if they don’t have a mental health strategy. If employees are suffering and they don’t know what benefits they have, they will have to talk to HR to find out. “We don’t want you to be the therapist,” says Thompson. Using an outside organization that specializes in mental health challenges can help make HR the facilitator that gets employees the help they need.
How Mental Health Facilitation Works
To better serve their employees, the HR staff at Booz Allen Hamilton are given materials and education so they can recognize mental health concerns when they see them. “Maybe you can pick up on personality changes, increased agitation, withdrawing behavior, poor self-care, and feelings of hopelessness.” The nonprofit they work with helps them understand these signs and what to do when they see them. The nonprofit also educates employees and leaders about these challenges so they understand how to handle the situation.
“The most important thing is to just ask people how they’re doing. Just that. That question shows you care and is a great opening. Again, the goal isn’t to be a therapist,” says Thompson; it’s to direct employees to the resources they need.
Thompson says that another way Booz Allen Hamilton helps HR is by “training hundreds of what we call first responders all over the firm, located in all kinds of different places geographically,” so employees who are struggling have someone other than HR to reach out to. “First responders are much more familiar with all of the resources to navigate some of those conversations so they could support people, promise to check in on them, care for them, or just ask them how they are doing. That’s part of our annual compliance and ethics training,” Thompson adds.
Committing to making mental wellness visible is an important part of Booz Allen Hamilton’s approach. The company has an annual mental health symposium every year, “and this year, it was virtual, but it was focused on the feelings of isolation and the stresses of the pandemic.” It includes experts and leaders. When organizations make their dedication to mental health public, they help combat one of the most sinister aspects of mental health: stigma.
Stigma Creates Barriers to Help
People with mental health challenges often do not want to share their concerns with anyone. They may confide in friends and family and maybe even coworkers. However, because of the stigma surrounding mental health, many do not seek help or speak to anyone, let alone their HR staff. How an organization positions itself around mental health, then, becomes the single most important tool for helping employees overcome the barrier of stigma and seek help.
I asked Thompson how her organization meets this challenge. “We make it very clear that the EAP is [for] the employees to have, that it’s no different than going to your own medical doctor. Nobody’s going to know; we are not going to see any individualized information.” Other than that, the company regularly educates its employees on benefits and its dedication to mental health support. “And I also think that when you have leaders who will stand up and tell their own colleagues” about their own mental health issues, says Thompson, “that makes a big difference.”
Not all mental health initiatives are made the same, but during this trying time, it behooves any employer to find ways to improve its approach. Most people have suffered in one way or another since the pandemic started, and they need your support.