How Is Your Company Addressing this Trillion Dollar Issue? 6 key takeaways from NOD’s Corporate Leadership Council Roundtable on Mental Health

Ignoring mental health in your workplace can affect productivity and the bottom line

On November 1st, the National Organization on Disability held our Corporate Leadership Council Fall Luncheon and Roundtable. Hosted at Sony’s New York offices, the event centered on the topic of mental health in the workplace.

Members of our Board of Directors and executives from nearly 40 companies held a candid conversation, heard from business leaders, and participated in an insightful Q&A where successful strategies were discussed to accommodate and support employees with mental illness in the workplace.

Thought bubbles reading: "1 in 5 adults has a mental health condition"; "It's time we talk about it"; National Organization on Disability logo

“Mental illness is the single biggest cause of disability worldwide,” said Craig Kramer, a panelist at the event and Chair of Johnson & Johnson’s Global Campaign on Mental Health. “One out of four people will have a clinically diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives,” he continued. Another 20 to 25% of the population will be caregivers to loved ones with a mental illness.

The costs are staggering. “In the coming decades, mental illness will account for more than half of the economic burden of all chronic diseases, more than cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases combined…. It’s trillions of dollars,” said Kramer.

From an employer’s perspective, the need for a successful strategy to deal with mental illness in the workplace is clear. But what are the most effective ways to confront this challenge? Roundtable participants discussed a wide range of ideas and success stories aimed at de-stigmatizing mental health and incorporating the issue into wider conversations around talent, productivity, and inclusion.

6 Key Takeaways on Mental Health in the Workplace:

How Is Your Company Addressing this Trillion Dollar Issue? 6 Key Takeaways to address mental health and boost productivity. 1. Be Empathetic; 2. Tell Stories; 3. Model from the Top; 4. Communicate Peer-to-Peer; 5. Be Flexible; 6. Build a Trustworthy EAP

  1. Be empathetic. “The most important workplace practice [with respect to mental health] is empathy,” said NOD President Carol Glazer. Empathy is critical for normalizing conversations about mental health, but also for maximizing productivity. “A feeling of psychological safety is important,” said Lori Golden, a panelist and Abilities Strategy Leader for Ernst & Young; and this sense of safety requires the empathy of colleagues to flourish.
  2. Tell stories. “Nothing is more activating of empathy than for people to share their powerful stories,” said Dr. Ronald Copeland, NOD Board member and Senior Vice President of National Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and Policy and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Kaiser Permanente. Copeland’s organization partners with the renowned nonprofit, Story Corps, to capture the stories of Kaiser Permanente employees, and also provides a platform on the company intranet for employees to communicate in a safe space. Both Craig Kramer and Lori Golden also shared examples of how their companies provide opportunities to share their stories and “start the conversation, break the silence,” as Kramer put it.
  3. Model from the top. Carol Glazer received a standing ovation at the luncheon for her account of her own experiences with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This type of executive-level modeling sends a powerful message that a company is committed to improving mental health for all employees. Lori Golden shared how EY had experienced great success with a program where top-level managers host office-specific events and share stories of mental illness or addiction that they are personally connected to – either about their colleagues or loved ones or, in a surprisingly high number of instances, about themselves. Senior leadership setting the example conveys that this is a forum in which employees can feel comfortable sharing.
  4. Communicate peer-to-peer. “We all know that there’s greater trust of our own peers than there is of the organization,” said Lori Golden. So to build trust, EY “took it to the grass roots,” creating formal opportunities for employees to have conversations about mental health and asking other ERGs to co-sponsor these events. Craig Kramer also noted that Johnson & Johnson had simply folded mental health issues into their global disability ERGs, eventually building the world’s second-largest mental health ERG by piggy-backing on existing infrastructure and leveraging existing connections.
  5. Be flexible. Accommodating [the fact that people live busy, complex lives] gets you better buy-in…and keeps production pretty high,” suggested Dr. Copeland. A representative from one Council company concurred, explaining how their company has recently instituted a new policy of paid time off for caregivers on top of federally-funded leave. “Being in a culture in which we measure what you produce and not whether you show up in person all day, every day, and where if you can’t be there, you negotiate how the deliverables will get done and in what time frame…is immensely helpful to people who themselves have mental illness issues or addiction or are caring for those who do and may need some flexibility,” summarized Lori Golden.
  6. Build a trustworthy Employee Action Plan. Many employees do not access or even trust their organization’s internal resources. According to Craig Kramer, the percentage of calls placed to most company Employee Action Plans (EAPs) regarding mental health is “in the low single digits,” while “if you look at your drug spend, you’ll find that around 50% is [related to] mental health.” The people answering those calls must be trained in mental health issues, and employees also need to be assured that EAPs are truly confidential.

While revealing and accommodating mental illness remains a massive challenge in the workplace and beyond, a number of successful strategies are emerging for tackling this challenge – many of them pioneered by companies in NOD’s Corporate Leadership Council.

Engage. Advance.

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Is Your Company Supporting Veterans in the Workplace?

A veterans’ hiring initiative can make a significant impact on your company’s bottom-line due to characteristics they offer from military training, like a solution-oriented approach, loyalty, and integrity, among others. However, studies have shown most veterans leave their first job upon returning to civilian life within two years. Not only do these men and women have to adjust to life outside of the armed forces, but many also have to make the transition with a newly acquired disability as a result of their service. Employers can play a pivotal role in the reintegration process by creating a welcoming and supportive environment.

Use these 5 tips to build a veteran-friendly workplace and ensure your company’s veterans’ hiring initiative not only attracts, but retains these service men and women.

  1. Prepare

    As you develop your hiring initiative, ask yourself: Who are the leaders or managers that can champion this initiative? What kinds of resources do they control to make the program successful? Nothing will hurt the effort more than a supervisor who is non-supportive.

    Employers should also audit their workplaces to ensure they are accessible to veterans with disabilities. Take the time to establish a protocol to identify and fulfill accommodations requests in a timely manner. Having a centralized accommodations budget will alleviate financial barriers at the department-level. Ensuring there is a network of systems set up to support veterans before they are hired will help make their transition easier and more effective.

  2. Create a Culture of Inclusion

    A culture of inclusion is arguably the most important way you can help your veteran employees with disabilities. What might seem like common knowledge to civilians, like corporate language and practices, can seem alien to veterans, many of whom have only experienced military practices in their adult life.

    A cultural assessment will give an opportunity to identify areas of the organization that will be more or less welcoming to veterans. Ask yourself: Are managers open to the idea that some changes might have to be made in order to create a more inclusive environment?

    Make sure that newly hired veterans are informed of commonplace business practices and terminology for your company. Highlight key resources available for veterans with disabilities and ensure that not only veterans, but all employees, are made aware of them. You should also familiarize your veteran employee with “how things work” at the company, for both formal and informal practices. Similarly, educate supervisors and staff about common military phrases and methodologies so that they can accurately communicate with their employees.

  3. Ensure Consistent Support

    Once you have started a veterans’ hiring initiative make sure there is consistent and comprehensive support throughout the employment life cycle. In the military, there is training for almost every aspect of military life, unlike the civilian workplace. That support should start at the onset of employment with the onboarding process. Providing a more structured onboarding process helps to acclimatize veterans to the workplace more quickly and to accelerate their productivity. Similarly, have clear and direct training for the veteran that is both formal and informal.Another way to support veterans with disabilities is by engaging them in workplace groups that can make them feel welcome and connected. Having mentors will also help give veterans, especially those with disabilities, an outlet to ask questions that they might not feel comfortable asking a supervisor or manager. Veterans who feel they are consistently supported at work will demonstrate increased engagement and loyalty.

  4. Be Flexible

    Anticipate that there will be a learning process for both the employer and the veteran employee. Both you and the veteran are figuring out how best to work together and help each other succeed. The employer should be flexible, especially with regard to service-related disabilities, in order for the veteran’s employment to be successful. For example, a combat veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might prefer sitting with back against the wall or need a quiet place to work. Many times there are simple fixes to a veteran’s needs as long as your company is flexible in allowing those changes to occur. Keep in mind: A veteran who is adapting to a new disability might need additional time and resources to adjust.

  5. Provide and Welcome Feedback

    Establish open and honest, two-way communication. In the military, there is frequent performance feedback and instructions and communication are typically very direct between service men and women and their superiors. In the civilian workplace, it can help to lay out some of the key goals and metrics that are expected of the veteran. Establish a clear career path so that the member can understand where their career is headed and their pathway to success. Check in to make sure the veteran is feeling supported and see if he or she has accommodation requests that could improve their work experience. By taking these conscious steps, employers can establish an authentic relationship with the veteran and ensure success on the job.

For more information on recruiting and retaining veterans with disabilities, check out our Employers’ Guide to Welcoming and Supporting Wounded Warriors.

Parents of Disabled Children Can Develop PTSD

I know because it happened to me.

Nov 3, 2017 | By Carol Glazer, President, National Organization on Disability

Carol Glazer hugging her son Jacob
Carol Glazer hugging her son Jacob

Twenty-five years ago my first son, Jacob, was born with hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. Doctors told us Jacob would grow up with both physical and intellectual disabilities. What those doctors didn’t tell me at the time was the emotional toll his illness would take on me.

It’s a story all too familiar for parents of children with severe disabilities, yet many of us struggle in silence. This week I decided to share my story publicly for the first time at a mental health forum in New York hosted by the National Organization on Disability, the nonprofit I am privileged to lead. As someone who encourages companies to create inclusive workplaces that invite employees to disclose their disabilities, the time had come for me to disclose mine.

I was diagnosed four years ago with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. PTSD is most commonly associated with military veterans returning from service. Yet parental PTSD is more common than you might think — nearly 30 percent of U.S. children live with chronic health conditions. Many of them might not have survived in previous generations, but because of advances in pediatric and therapeutic techniques and a changing spectrum of disease, they do live — but often with a lifetime spent in and out of the hospital. Nearly half of their mothers exhibit symptoms of anxiety and PTSD. Count me as one of them.

All these years later I can still feel the way my face tingled when the doctor told me the news about Jacob. It was the start of a year in which Jacob underwent 12 brain surgeries, two experimental surgeries, and suffered from three brain infections – the first of which, acquired in the hospital at birth and undiagnosed for six weeks, had caused considerable brain damage, particularly to his visual cortex. At the end of this ordeal, we were told that Jacob would likely be blind, he might not walk, and that his level of cognitive functioning would only become clear in the next three to five years.

In an instant, all of the excitement and anticipation of the arrival of our first child suddenly turned to mass confusion and terror. I tried to wrap my mind around the painful reality of what Jacob had been through, the massive uncertainty surrounding his long-term prognosis, and a life we knew would now entail regular trips to the hospital.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but something profound happened to me in those early years of Jacob’s life. I became a different person. More cautious. More prone to worry. Impatient or angry with the wrong people. I wasn’t happy with the person I’d become.

Clearly and unmistakably, I’d experienced trauma. Not the kind soldiers experience on the battlefield, but similar. When you think about it, repeated hospitalizations are not unlike multiple deployments.

I hate talking about myself, and usually don’t. But I chose to share my story in the hope that it will bring to life many of the questions we seek to shed light on as it relates to mental illness in America, as it’s fraught with stigma, misconceptions, fears, and myths.

Why for so long did I dismiss the feelings of terror, the insomnia, flashbacks, and sheer exhaustion, believing I had to just get over it?

Why did I not seek a diagnosis until only four years ago and then reject it as nothing compared with combat trauma?

Why am I only now telling this story?

The answers, of course, lie in the stigma and misconceptions surrounding mental health issues in the workplace. At NOD, we work every day to reduce the stigma around disabilities, both seen and unseen. We have amazing companies in our Corporate Leadership Council who are making this a priority so that their employees are less reluctant to share their stories, thus allowing their managers to create more inclusive workspaces, and benefit from their diverse talents and perspectives.

As for Jacob, I am happy to report that through a persistent regimen of early intervention treatments and multiple therapies, and with New York’s unparalleled special education system, he has thrived, with each victory bringing pure joy as he’s turned out to be a happy, clever, busy and loving young man.

And while the trauma of those early experiences crushed me to the core then, a new self has also emerged. Determined, skilled at dealing with adversity and solving problems. Resilient, vulnerable, and more compassionate. These are all skills a talented therapist has helped me recognize in myself.

Perhaps most of all, I have learned a workplace-leading practice that we all can use when facing coworkers, bosses, or team members who are dealing with mental health issues. It’s just one simple word: Empathy.

My colleagues have consistently been willing to put themselves in my position, not just feel for me, but put themselves in my place and think about how they’d want to be treated. That has engendered my loyalty, productivity, and ability to turn my life experiences into positives for my employers. In the case of NOD, I’d venture it’s had a direct impact on our mission.

As humans we’re built to be empathetic — but that empathy has to be activated. Once you find your way to that as a coworker or friend of someone who’s experiencing a mental health issue, or any disability for that matter, much of what you need to do will follow.

That is my story. I wish I’d told it sooner.

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