Jess ElmquistJun 29, 2023
Topics: Employee Experience

How Are You? The CHRO’s Role in Destigmatizing Mental Health


I went through a tough time in my life a few years ago when my younger brother died of cancer. I needed help, and I was fortunate to be surrounded by a network of people who saw me through to the other side.

Plus, my employer at the time gave me what I needed to step back from work and do what I needed to do. I was thankful for the room to grieve.

I still think of my brother every day. I certainly miss him. The difference now is I have learned new skills to support me to cope and I find joy to focus on all the great times we had growing up.

I share this story because while more employers are offering resources to deal with burnout, trauma, and other emotional crises, the fact is mental health is not necessarily a top priority for all companies, according to a SHRM study.

In fact, fewer than one-third of HR professionals (32%) claim offering mental health resources is a “high priority.” Another 41% say it is a “medium priority,” which fails to sufficiently treat mental wellness as the crisis it has become, SHRM found.

This is where CHROs can step up. To explain how, I invited two of the top professionals in the mental health field to join me in a webinar during Mental Health Awareness Month: Michelle Kligman, SVP of HR at Jackson Health, the largest Medicare provider in Florida; and Jen Elmquist, a licensed mental health professional and Executive Director of Life Time Mind. [Disclosure: Jen is also my wife].

Watch the webinar on demand, or continue reading for the big takeaways!

12 Billion + $1 Trillion = Crisis

Let me set the scene. More than 12 billion working days and $1 trillion are lost each year globally to depression, anxiety, and other issues that affect our well-being, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

A decent job with good wages promotes self-confidence and dignity, which in turn supports a healthy state of mind. Conversely, workplace discrimination and a lack of advancement can tear down those positive feelings and impact a person’s ability to enjoy their work and do their job well.

“Safe and healthy working environments are not only a fundamental right but are also more likely to minimize tension and conflicts at work and improve staff retention, work performance, and productivity,” WHO added.

Here in the United States, the post-pandemic nursing shortage triggered by burnout and overwork put a face to what was a silent workplace epidemic. Healthcare talent leaders watched helplessly as their workforces were decimated by mass resignations. People had had enough.

Workers questioned if the stress and long hours were worth it. Organizations were forced to look at mental health in a different way, not just as it relates to productivity, said Kligman. No longer was it about employers wondering how they can squeeze the most out of worker bees.

“It switched,” she said. “We’re starting to look at productivity in a different way.”

Take the Pebble Out of Your Shoe

How? Organizations used to have the mindset of “How can we get the most out of you?” Today it’s “How can we take the pebbles out of your shoe?” Kligman said. “How can we make the work easier for you to really thrive as a person?”

Historically companies have always had resources such as Headspace and other Employee Assistance Programs. But a noticeable shift happened in the last few years. Employers realized that they had to step up their game as hanging on to workers became a serious business issue.

“It used to be the employer was kind of the puppeteer,” she said.

European HR professionals take the view that Americans work too hard and don’t understand work-life integration, Kligman added. Nor do Americans have national policies that support mental health.

Hear more about what she has to say about that:

What we learned from the pandemic is that employees have choices, and they are looking for more autonomy and flexibility in when and where they work, she added.

Kligman comes at the topic of mental health from a unique perspective. After spending several years as a clinical psychologist, she shifted into the world of HR. “I just love the ability to really work with people from a different angle, which is — how do you fully optimize somebody's potential and how do we apply that to the workforce?”

Another shift she’s seeing among organizations is toward leading in a way that addresses people holistically. It’s no longer good enough to check a box by offering employee assistance programs that only a few are using anyway. Better outcomes start with the day-to-day way leaders manage their teams, she said.

The Difference Between ‘I'm OK’ and ‘I'm in Crisis’

It was 2019 -– so just before the pandemic started — when Jen Elmquist began an internal holistic performance coaching program called Life Time Mind. It serves about 8,000 benefit-covered employees across the country, and offers responses to FAQs such as “I am worried all the time. How can I calm myself down?”

Within the first year of the internal coaching program, there were already signs of success! A solid 67% of the participants in coaching were leaders in the company. They realized that they needed the space to build resiliency, dump their emotional buckets, and get filled up so they could go back and manage from a healthy place.

So it’s not about having programs for programs’ sake and thinking “OK, we’ve done what we have to do.” It’s about having effective tools that people will actually want to use.

“Oftentimes there can be a disconnect between words and actions, and it can feel like you're getting something done if you have all the programs in place,” said Elmquist.

Her advice to companies is: “When was the last time you looked at those resources and actually looked at the data behind them? Their usage rates, and the retention rate of people using them?”

That’s something you ought to be asking as an HR leader, because one of the biggest challenges companies are facing is that therapy is hard to find, Elmquist said.

Elmquist is totally on point: look at the data. They are the most powerful resource you have to understand how effective your programs are.

It’s hard to argue with the ROI reach on her program — 58% of people said they were having difficulties in relationships. After the coaching, 83% actually said that their relationships had improved both at work and at home.

I asked Elmquist to dig a little deeper into the stats.

Kligman had an interesting twist on that. She remembered what one of Jackson Health’s employees said during a town hall when the issue of mental health came up.

Employees are expected to bring work home with them, but they’re not expected to bring their home life or problems to work, she recalled the employee saying. How is that equitable?

Fair question. It goes to show how different generations view mental health at work. There was a shocking federal study earlier this year that found half of adults ages 18-24 reported anxiety and depression symptoms in 2023, compared to about a third of adults overall. That’s a wake-up call if ever there was one.

That’s the generation that’s coming into your organizations. They are normalizing mental health conversations. They’re comfortable talking about them, which means you and your teams should actively listen to feedback, look at the data closely, and offer programs that help.

By showing empathy and concern, companies can make a real difference in the lives of their people. Start by offering support that works. Listen to our teams, and remember that one of the most powerful questions leaders can ask is “How are you?” and then wait for the answer.

Let’s connect on LinkedIn. I’d like to hear what you learn.

Jess Elmquist

Jess Elmquist is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Evangelist at Phenom. In a previous career as the Chief Learning Officer at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, Jess hired more than 200,000 people and spoke to hundreds of his executive peers about talent trends.

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