What changed? Why is mental health a top priority for employers now?
We recently hosted a webinar with Coley Williams, Director of Mental Health at Wellview, to discuss our current mental health crisis and what can be done to support employees. She talked about:
Why mental health should be a top priority for every organization
Why an EAP may not be enough to meet employee needs
What employers can do now to improve mental health
One in four workers quit their job over mental health issues like burnout, isolation, depression, or anxiety. Making mental health a top organizational focus is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business.
While addressing mental health in the workplace has been important to many employers in the past, it’s even more important now. For more ways to ensure better emotional health among employees, check out this blog post: How to Address Emotional Health in the Workplace.
In This Podcast
Coley Williams, LMFT
Coley Williams, Director of Mental Health at Wellview, is a Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty in Clinical Art Therapy. Her expertise lies in treating stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, and helping individuals, couples, and families navigate major life transitions. For more than 10 years, Coley has worked with adolescents, adults, and couples in hospitals, community clinics, and private practice. She has served on the board of the Group Psychotherapy Association of Los Angeles (GPALA) and has taught psychology at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels.
Hello. And welcome back to For Your Benefits, the podcast where we talk with HR professionals, benefits advisors, and other experts about what’s going on in the world of employee health and wellbeing. I’m Meghan Henry, Director of Marketing at SentryHealth, sponsors of For Your Benefits.
We recently hosted a webinar with Coley Williams, Director of Mental Health for Wellview, to discuss our current mental health crisis and what can be done to support employees. Coley shared why mental health should be a top priority for every organization and what employers can do now to improve mental health. She also discussed why an EAP may not be enough to meet employee needs. So without further ado, let’s listen in.
I’d like to introduce to you today’s presenter, Coley Williams. Coley is the director of mental health at Wellview and is a marriage and family therapist with a specialty in clinical art therapy. Her expertise lies in treating stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, and helping individuals, couples, and families navigate major life transitions.
For more than 10 years, Coley has worked with adolescents, adults, couples and hospitals, community clinics, and private practice. She’s also served on the board of the Group Psychotherapy Association of LA and has taught psychology at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels. So you guys are in good hands today, and I’d like to go ahead and turn the presentation over to Coley. Thanks for joining us.
The Current State of Mental Health
Thank you. Okay guys, so today I just want to give us an idea of some of the things that we’ll be talking about. So we’re going to dig into the current state of mental health and especially how that’s playing out in the workplace. Why mental health should be a top priority for employers. Why our traditional channels of mental health support, like the traditional benefits of EAP, might not be meeting the need that we’re seeing currently. And what employers can do to improve mental health now. So let’s get started.
One thing is for sure, which is that we’ve seen an enormous increase in engagement with mental health services over the last couple of years, and there’s no doubt that experiencing a pandemic has driven the increase in mental health needs. I could speak to the numbers on a worldwide scale, on an international scale, on a national scale, but I think what’s most impactful is to share with you exactly what we’ve seen within Wellview.
Effects of COVID on Mental Health
So since the beginning of 2019, we’ve seen over a 400% increase in mental health sessions across the board. And some interesting trends that we’ve seen are amongst demographics. So we’ve seen young adults, those under 25, engage at a rate of 486% increase. It’s kind of hard to calculate these numbers. I’ve broken them down to the actual numbers so that you can see how many sessions we’ve engaged, but from a percentage standpoint, you can see these are just really unprecedented, and they paint a picture of two things. One, it would be strange at this time, throughout COVID, and again, the newsfeed and news cycle that all of us are experiencing right now, a really increased desperation to think that you could go about business as normal and might not need extra support.
And the other thing is that we’re finally seeing a decrease around the stigma that’s traditionally been experienced around accessing help, and folks are finally seeking what they’ve always probably needed. So just to go over these numbers a second more, it’s been really increasing to see, again, across the board, all demographics have seen a shift, but in traditionally resistant demographics, such as the Baby Boomer generation, older adults, we’ve seen 126% increase in those folks reaching out for mental health services. And males, another population traditionally difficult to engage in mental health services, 420% increase. So you can see across the board, that these are significant numbers that tell a story.
Impact On Our Brains
So let’s talk about what’s actually happening within us right now. We’ve been doing this pandemic thing for two years. We’re luckily seeing some reprieve, but the world continues to demonstrate its angst. So this graphic on the left of the pandemic brain, I like, because it does paint a picture of just kind, the everyday tasks that we’ve had to begin to think of that we didn’t have to think of before. School panic, the COVID cortex, childcare. So when we saw the onset of the pandemic, we quickly saw people having to be home, stay home, and assume roles that were way outside of their wheelhouse.
So, the way that stress works right, is that there are two kinds of stress. There is acute stress, which means it’s an isolated incident. So we could think of that as maybe this presentation. It’s a little stressful to give a presentation to people I’ve never met, but that’s stress that I am well able to contain. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s a tangible circumstance. This is an opportunity, a career opportunity, and it’s going to come with some nerves. These are the kind of stressors that our brain is used to or built to adapt to.
But in the face of chronic stress, we start seeing folks move into a state of burnout. So I want to spend some time today talking about what the difference is between just plain old, regular being stressed out, and actually reaching burnout. And the big difference is its exposure to chronic stressors. They’re ongoing, they’re unpredictable, and we can’t determine a beginning, a middle, and a definite end. So what happens when we are being exposed to chronic major stressors, if you can bear with me for a second, this is my very sophisticated model of a brain.
This part of the brain would be the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of our brain that’s in charge of problem-solving, empathy, decision making, delayed gratification, and higher-order thinking. And the brain stem is where we think of fight, flight, or freeze. When we are really stressed, that means we feel a state of threat, which is what happens when there’s a new novel virus, or what happens when we’re sending kids to school. We lose access to this part of our brain, this most sophisticated part of our brain, and we go into that fight, flight, and, freeze response, which our brain and our bodies are only built to do for a short, limited amount of time. When we’re stuck in that state for an extended amount of time, we start to decompensate. And that leads to burnout.
Silver Linings of the Pandemic
So, before I get ahead of myself, let me keep moving on with the slides and we’ll talk a little bit more about what happens in burnout as we move forward and why it’s so important that we’re considering that folks aren’t just really stressed out right now. They’re likely experiencing burnout. So before I just sit in the upsetting news, let’s take a second and look at two silver linings of the pandemic.
When it comes to mental health, we’ve seen two things that I can identify that are really promising. One is that prior to COVID, folks were apprehensive about the delivery of care through telemedicine. And the truth is that telemedicine does away with many of the traditional barriers that keep people from accessing the help that they need. When we think about mental health services, they’re often delivered once weekly, whereas going to a doctor, or even a specialist is something that might happen once a month, once every 90 days, or even once a year.
So, telemedicine means that there’s no commuting to get to the care you need anymore. And we’ve really proven out that telehealth is here to stay. Delivering mental health services through video is an effective form of treatment and provides people with the access that they really need, especially when they’re wearing those several hats that we talked about that became crucial at the beginning of the pandemic, like being a parent, a boss, a school nurse, a teacher, and probably even the mental health counselor of your family all under one roof for a while. The other thing is that stigma is loosening its grip. I started the day by talking to the team of therapists that I support and reminding them that it’s really okay to not feel okay today.
For a very long time, we’ve had an attitude that to be strong, you needed to white knuckle it and just keep wearing the mask that everything’s okay, even when internally that might not feel true. And one of, again, I think, the silver linings that we’ve seen in the pandemic is that folks are really having true conversations about the reality of their mental health state and are starting to get away from the idea that weakness is asking for help, and recognizing that vulnerability is actually a strength. That’s changing the landscape, meaning that more folks than ever are seeking help and strengthening their mental health.
One very obvious piece that we’ve seen as an impact of these chronic stressors is an increase in substance abuse. So we’ve been facing, as a nation, the opiate crisis for several years now, and it’s only gotten more intense since the onset of COVID, which has increased isolation, driven anxiety and fear, and really increased rates of depression. Overdose deaths have increased by almost 30% between April 2020 and April 2021, and that trend is unfortunately continuing. And one thing that we really have to think about is often when we’re thinking about substance abuse, it’s easy to go to images we might see on the news of the homeless crisis, folks on the street with opiate addiction, or other addictions. But the truth is, and what’s important for employers to realize, is that addiction does not discriminate. It impacts the lives of individuals of every socioeconomic class, every race, and every religion. It really can impact anyone. And the thing about substance abuse is that it doesn’t just impact the individual, it impacts the entire family system.
Burnout in the Workplace
So as I move from talking about the crisis to talking about what employers can do, one thing I want to keep in mind is not just thinking about what we can do for individual employees, but how we can support their families and their communities. So let’s dig into burnout because this is really, I think, what is top of mind and what we’re seeing the most in the media when it comes to supporting employees right now.
These are just a couple of headlines in the recent news cycle. And these are some of the things that we’re talking about when it comes to burnout in the workplace. Employees have experienced a big disruption that was sudden and unexpected. And again, it’s created a lack of continuity in their experience. So having a literal water cooler to be with colleagues, and just get to know them and know about their lives disappeared overnight, and responsibilities increased in a way that no one expected.
So that hard and fast shift in family dynamics, again, has an impact, not just on individuals, potential employees, but also on their communities, their church communities, their synagogue communities, their schools, their children’s schools, and couples. It does seem as though, and statistic I didn’t share, but it’s the incredible increase we’ve seen in folks asking for couples therapy. It seemed like the pandemic and lockdown were almost a make-or-break situation for some couples.
What makes burnout unique?
Let’s talk about the difference between just, again, plain old regular stress, which is acute, beginning, middle, and end, and burnout. And the thing that I want us to really focus on is this shake-up to personal and professional identity. This is the place, the shake-up to personal and professional identity, where perhaps employers have the greatest reach, the greatest capacity to support their employees in coming out of burnout and feeling more engaged and alive in their lives again.
So when we have burnout, we have this really gnarly recipe of exhaustion, physical, and usually, it’s physical and emotional. A reduced sense of accomplishment. A lot of times this looks like feeling like things that you may be naturally good at just aren’t coming naturally to you anymore. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve talked about who said, like, “I know how to lead people, but I don’t know how to lead people when I have a four your old knocking on my door and know that I’ve got to get an aging parent to a doctor’s appointment this afternoon,” in the midst of masks, et cetera. So even though we’re coming out of the pandemic, we’re still feeling the impacts of this personal mix-up and chronic grief.
Is an EAP enough?
If we’re talking about burnout, we should be thinking about, as employers, how do we help people come back to themselves? And that’s a good time to think about what a traditional EAP has done, and maybe why in this landscape that’s simply not enough. So when we’re talking about traditional EAPs, which most employers have, those programs are designed to engage folks who are in some acute crisis. So when something has happened in life and they might need a little extra help for a very short amount of time. Traditionally we see the EAPs offer between 3 and 10 sessions a year, and I’m recommending and suggesting today that we really turn that model on its head, especially in the face of unprecedented stressors and challenges.
So the way that I really promote that we do this is we look at three different levels of mental health support. Traditionally we’ve had to wait until people meet medical criteria to access mental health support. So that means that they already meet the criteria to be diagnosed with something like major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, or even PTSD. I’m making a stand that we proactively treat mental health. That you can access a therapist, even if you’re simply feeling stressed out. We don’t have to wait until we’ve experienced a panic attack or a depressive episode. Let’s turn that model on its head and say when you’re ready or you feel like you need some help, or you’ve forgotten who you are in the midst of many stressors, we’re here to help you find yourself again. That’s preventative instead of reactive.
We can also meet people proactively, meaning, “Hey, there’s a lot going out on out in the world. I’m experiencing stress, but I’m doing a pretty darn good job of keeping it managed, and I’d like to be even better at that.” That’s meeting folks at a place of mental fitness. Becoming even healthier than they might already be. And then, of course, we need to have services to serve folks if they are in crisis. If they’ve already gotten to the point where they are meeting medical necessity for treatment. And at Wellview, we do that too. The final piece is we’ve got to think about treating people from a holistic perspective. Since the 1980s the data has been very clear in demonstrating that collaborative care is the most effective care for long-term health outcomes. So collaborative care means that providers are working on a care team and no healthcare is delivered in a silo. Now that’s been a hard model to follow because in the ’80s we could really only do that in an inpatient setting.
Going back to one of the silver linings of the pandemic, telehealth is here to stay. So what we’re able to do now, and what we actively do at Wellview, is we work holistically with the participant. I will share with y’all a case sample of that shortly. So again, just to repeat, is EAP enough? Not anymore. We need to meet people proactively, preventatively, and/or in crisis. And it’s best if we do that from a holistic approach.
How can employers address mental health?
So what does this mean for employers? It means seeking solutions that can do those things, that meet folks where they are, that can meet them at any level of need that they present, and that make sure that they don’t silo care. Now then, as leaders of our employees, it’s important that we be attuned to the individual needs. What I may need today is not the same thing that Meghan might need today. One size doesn’t fit all. So really engaging in services or making services available that are relationship-driven. Where folks have the opportunity to work one on one with a professional who can know them and their individual needs.
Another thing that employers can do is instate and live by clear boundaries between work, family, and pleasure. So this comes back to promoting health, not only to the individual employee but also to them and to theirs. To those who are in their community and their household. And making sure that we’re living by example and showing folks that it’s healthy to take time away from work and completely disconnect. And that pleasure should not be a luxury. It’s something that should be a birthright. Supporting people finding their way back to themselves.
So coming back to that piece around the shake-up in identity that happens when we’re feeling burnt out. I can speak personally to a shake-up of my identity that happens when I’m feeling overwhelmed emotionally, is that I lose access to empathy, which is something that’s very common in burnout. And as a therapist, you can imagine that’s a hazard, that’s a work hazard for me. The way that we help people find their way back to themselves is that we remind them of who they are. We encourage them to spend time with themselves, with their loved ones, and with professionals who can help reflect back to them with accurate mirrors of their strengths.
And finally, again, I feel like a broken record, but caring not just for the individual, but really caring for their family. And again, that doesn’t just pertain to folks who might be married or have children. Their system, their community, their family of choice. How are we asking important questions to ensure that they’re staying connected in the season that has really driven isolation? And how are we as employers providing opportunities for community and connection within our organizations?
Let’s look at a quick example of what this looks like in practice at Wellview. So we’re going to dig into a case study. One thing that I think is really important and that I try and live by in the work is that I support a team of therapists, but I also am in the work with them, seeing participants in supporting their wellbeing.
So I’m going to talk about one of my participants today. We’ll call her Jenny, she’s age 34. She came for treatment in July of 2020, just a few months into what then was lockdown. She’s a mother of three. Her youngest then was just an infant. And she came with the presenting a problem of experiencing multiple life transitions and stressors. A new mother to now three children under five. She reported many disruptions in her marriage that were happening as everyone was sent home. And she did not meet the criteria for depression, but she was certainly experiencing what for a long time has been called the baby blues. So not quite the criteria for postpartum depression, but certainly feeling the impact of multiple life stressors and not functioning at high capacity as she was used to.
The interventions that Wellview was able to provide were setting her up with a health advisor and our healthy mom, healthy baby solution. That health advisor is actually how she got to me as a therapist because the health advisor was able to recognize that some of her goals around her fitness, and her nutrition were being delayed because of mental health stressors. So we were able to collaborate in our care, both the health advisor and myself, to make sure that we were attacking behavioral changes that needed to happen to support her physical health, while also unpacking and working through stressors that had impacted her identity to bring her back to herself so she could be the mother, the wife, and the employee that she really strives to be.
So I started working with her a couple of months later, she invited her husband, who’s also part of her benefits plan, and he was able to also engage with a therapist, so now we’re treating his and hers. And through this process, they eventually engaged in couples therapy as well. So here we have a really clear example of how we’re having collaborative care for the entire family system, and it’s not just limited to mental healthcare. She’s also making great strides around taking care of her health, making sure that she can be present physically and mentally in all areas of her life.
Some of the outcomes that we’ve seen in this case are that she reports a much higher satisfaction in work-life balance. Her particular employee has continued a hybrid model of employment, and she and her husband have worked together to really have clear boundaries in the household that have allowed them space to have time together, have time as parents, and also have time to take on the responsibility of parenthood while working. They’ve come to a really good rhythm, which has not been easy to do.
She’s been promoted on a senior leadership track at work. So at a time when she was really considering if she could withstand staying in the workplace, she’s actually found her stride and accelerated. And she’s reporting really high satisfaction in motherhood and marriage. And while there are still symptoms of the blues that pop up here and there, she’s really been able to contain that experience and feels alive and present in her life again. I think it’s important to mention as well there are some biometric outcomes that I didn’t mention here, as our focus is on mental health at the moment, but she’s also back to her pre-baby weight, which was something very important to her, especially with a family history of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. So again, not just looking at physical conditions, but looking at the marriage between mind and body is something that’s essential to supporting our employees right now.
So a few takeaways that I hope that you’ve heard throughout this talk. We’re really in the midst of a mental health crisis, and I think as employers we have a responsibility to support our people. Chronic stress impacts the brain. It actually changes the way that we think, the way that we can problem solve, and what we know is that folks feel healthier in their life and have better health outcomes when they’re able to respond to stressors rather than just to react. Addiction continues to rise and in order to combat that we have to care for people. People are seeking help in record numbers. It’s important that they have easy available access.
Look, guys, this is a novel problem that we’re facing. In our lifetime, we’d never faced a pandemic, and it’s very obvious that we have an issue with aggression and violence right now. These novel problems require novel solutions and thinking outside of our traditional solutions. And finally collaborative, holistic care yields meaningful outcomes and life satisfaction outcomes that are sustainable, not just temporary.
Well, that wraps up this episode For Your Benefits. Thanks to all of you for joining us. If you like what you heard today, don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast. And if you want to learn more about SentryHealth, visit our website at www.sentryhealth.com.
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