Patrizia CiuppaMay 12, 2022
Topics: Employee Experience

It’s Time to Talk about Employee Mental Health

With nearly three quarters of U.S. companies reporting mental health challenges within their workforce, HR leaders have a renewed responsibility to address workplace wellness in a meaningful and sustainable way. However, only 26% of employers have adopted a well-being strategy, according to SHRM research.

Phenom’s Jess Elmquist, CHRO, and Brad Goldoor, Chief Employee Experience Officer, joined Talent Experience Live to discuss how organizations can take action to support employee mental health and their businesses.

Learn how to champion a caring work environment for happier, healthier, and ultimately more productive employees by reading the highlights below, or view the episode here.

Why Is Mental Health in the Spotlight Right Now?

A focus on the importance of mental health started gaining ground with the evolution of work-life balance, something that was already in motion pre-pandemic, Goldoor said. “There was awareness, but I think the pandemic really drove it to the forefront because the lines got so blurred between personal and professional lives.”

And although many companies are getting on board with the concept of encouraging employees to bring their "whole selves" to work — a critical aspect of well-being — it takes more than merely giving permission. “How can we ask people to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work if we’re not going to … create an environment where they can actually do that?” Goldoor asked.

How Do You Build a Successful Employee Well-Being Program?

In his previous role as Executive VP of HR at luxury chain health club Life Time, Elmquist led a well-received employee mental health initiative, Life Time Mind — a holistic performance coaching program designed to improve wellbeing and empower breakthroughs in professional and personal growth. Since its inception five years ago, hundreds of employees have participated, 70% of which are in leadership roles.

The following factors helped springboard the success of the program:

1. Securing buy-in from leadership

The program grew out of Life Time’s CEO’s vision that mental health should be supported as a vital aspect of job performance. Having an executive champion was a key element in the program’s success, Elmquist noted: “Getting that executive buy-in — making sure the C-suite really sees the benefit of it — that’s where you really see a program, top-down and bottom-up, start to grow.”

2. Destigmatizing the conversation around mental health

Beyond the metrics, Elmquist described how the program inspired a “trickle-down effect” tied to destigmatizing the conversation around mental health. “Leaders [use] different language. Their empathy and their compassion increases; the way they’re interacting with their team and consumers — it’s been a game-changer.”

The Life Time Mind program benefited more than just its participants, creating a halo effect in the overall community by making a huge impact on how individuals dealt with the daily work stresses and their colleagues. “That intangible contribution to a company’s performance is really important,” he concluded.

3. Engaging outside expertise

Life Time Mind includes meditation, mindfulness coaching, and cognitive behavioral therapy. The company engaged outside professionals skilled in these areas to provide coaching and training — an investment that ensured employees would truly benefit from participation.

Learn more: Change Your Mind, Change Your Life: Prioritizing Mental Health for Employees

How Is Phenom Supporting Employee Mental Health?

At Phenom, the focus is on empowering employees to practice positive mental health habits — and on making professional help affordable, accessible, and acceptable.

1. Prioritizing meditation

Meditation is in the company’s DNA, Goldoor said. Meetings often begin with a group meditation, and employees can get a daily dose of mindfulness with the company’s on-staff meditation expert.

2. Providing a paid mental health benefit

Phenom recently rolled out a $1,000 mental health benefit for employees and families. Out of 400 eligible employees, Goldoor was happy to report that 5% have utilized the benefit since its launch just 3 months ago. Encouraging employees to take advantage of this benefit helps destigmatize seeking help, he noted.

3. Weaving happiness into the employee experience

Promoting mental health and well-being can come in the form of smaller, less expensive activities, too, Goldoor added. Need some ideas? Here are some from Phenom’s playbook:

  • Host regular coffee chats that serve as an open-discussion forum
  • Start a step challenge to get everyone moving
  • Facilitate mental health buddies for employees
  • Host a company wide dog walk in nature
  • Give everyone a plant to care for

Goldoor emphasized the importance of giving employees the freedom to integrate moments of self-care into the work day. “You always hear the same things when it comes to happiness or mental health … get out in nature, exercise, eat right, meditate,” he said. “How can we now create an environment where those things can easily happen, and have them be flexible and personalized?”

How Can HR Leaders Ensure an Authentic Approach to Employee Well-being?

Making the moral case for investing financially in employee mental health is the first step. Long-term follow through is next. “Then you find the authenticity grows in the organization,” Elmquist said. “Determine you’re going to do it long term … then, hyperfocus on the things that really make the largest difference. You might start with four things, and find that two really make the difference.”

Dedication to employee mental health has to be evident in an organization’s mission, values, and employment brand, Elmquist said. “Think about: how do I create a human-centered environment in my organization? How does that change our workplace to a caring place?”

The idea is to integrate vision and values into the company’s DNA, and highlighting those values from the candidate experience (to draw talent in) to the employee experience — providing a supportive environment that makes them want to stick around long term.

Learn more: Inside the Mind of a CHRO

How Can HR Leaders Win Continuous Support for Employee Mental Health Programs?

Along with the feel-good factor, evidence shows that workplace cultures that emphasize well-being see greater retention, Elmquist said. However, it can be hard to prove the ROI will be worth it, business-wise. To navigate that, he recommends reporting tangible impact — like participation numbers — and encouraging employees to share positive stories about the program’s impact on their lives.

Elmquist continued: “Even if you have to start small, start small. And then report on it and defend it. Get those people who are champions to champion it, and then incrementally build it to something that’s even larger.”

“The price of doing nothing is way greater,” Goldoor added.

What Is the “One Health” Trend?

Elmquist touched on a shifting approach that he’s noticed nationwide: a transition to “one health,” the idea that physical, mental, financial, and spiritual health are closely intertwined.

It’s important for employers to recognize that personal life and work life are so closely related that they must support employees’ well-being at home and on the job.

“We have one health – we have our mind, our body, and our spirit, and we bring it everywhere we go. And if an organization asks me to shut it off, you’re asking me to shut off a piece of what I am and what I can bring to the organization,” Elmquist said.

What Are the Key Takeaways?

According to Goldoor, taking it one step at a time is essential: “Just do something … a walk, pet your dog, a one-minute team meditation,” he said. “Start small, iterate, get feedback, and take it from there.”

Elmquist suggested thinking about it in four categories:

  • Prevention
  • Access to programs that work
  • Flexible working situations
  • Providing a caring space, not just a work space

With these elements in place, and a commitment to employee well-being, “You can really be magical to the human capital that ultimately fuels everything else,” he concluded.

Finding Bliss at Work with Meditation

The episode wrapped up with a short chat with Phenom’s on-staff meditation expert, Sireesha Dammalapati, who leads daily meditation sessions as part of the company’s well-being program. Through this program, “Phenom has taken a revolutionary step [for] employees,” she said.

The daily sessions allow our minds time to rest and to return to the day with more clarity and insight, helping us approach challenges with fresh thoughts and increased confidence.

And the benefit of meditating as a group? According to Dammalapati, “We get inspiration from [other] team members. Group meditation is sometimes more powerful than individual meditation because we blend our energies and consciousness with the other team members. It builds acceptance.”

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