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Have You Pressure-Tested Your Employee Assistance Program?

So much in our professional lives has been pressure-tested over the past few years: our response time to change, our ability to pivot strategically, even the environments where we work. How we provide mental health assistance to employees in the midst of all this disruption is no exception.

Leaders find themselves faced with daunting facts about the support their employees need today. According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s survey of workers, 84 percent of respondents said their workplace conditions had contributed to at least one mental health challenge. Another 81 percent reported that they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future.

Challenges of this scale call for robust workplace programs that are as human-centered as they are broadly accessible for many types of mental illness inquiries. Most organizations have employee assistance programs (EAPs), but many leaders don’t truly know what happens when someone calls.

In my Off the Rak interview with University of Colorado’s Dr. Neill Epperson and Dr. Matt Mishkind about mental health in the workplace, I agreed that was the case when I worked at Prologis. I doubt that many of us on the executive team knew our assistance programs from the outside looking in. Sure, we had discussions with our HR folks about what would be available to employees, but what the process looked like for someone making a mental illness inquiry was unclear.

It’s also likely that today’s employees contribute to a—perhaps unconscious—code of silence if something’s awry. A recent Gallup poll explains that what might have been “at the heart of quiet quitting—and its many spinoffs—seems to be the feeling that we can’t speak up at work.”

The promising news is that employees do want to perform and build fulfilling careers, have better connections with their employers, and have a closer working relationships with their managers. It’s up to leaders to break the silence by showing they care about employees as people, and mental health is one of the primary ways.

What can you do to pressure-test your assistance program?

Test 1 – Does your leadership behavior create safety and engagement so employee assistance programs can thrive?

One of the most important realizations I had at Prologis was that when our leaders began to show vulnerability, that gave everyone else permission too. It also allowed us to collaborate more effectively because we knew that no one person could reach their goals alone.

Epperson echoed these thoughts and shared her own example on campus where the medical center is located. She said everybody was incredibly stressed [during COVID], and when leaders took it upon themselves to say they needed to seek treatment and how beneficial it was for them, that vulnerability empowered them to encourage others to do the same. No one lost anything by admitting the need for help; they actually gained something by showing peers and employees that they were real people with struggles of their own.

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Test 2 – Upskill your employees on mental health like you would on CPR

Mishkind provided a great analogy: When you’re giving cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to someone, you’re helping them in the moment. You’re not being asked to perform open heart surgery. It’s no different from someone who needs mental health support in the moment.

Often what friends and employees need is listening, talking, and initiating an open conversation; you’re not expected to provide clinical therapy. When Mishkind asked mental health patients what they wanted others to say or do, they responded with the fact that they do want to talk. They may not initiate, but they would be willing to talk if someone approached them.

Mishkind added that when he coaches employees on this topic, the idea isn’t that you create these long, drawn-out interventions. They can be five, ten, or fifteen minutes at a time. You’re letting the other person know that you cared, you listened, and you noticed them.

Test 3 – Have you made your own inquiries with in-house assistance programs to experience what your employees do? What are the roadblocks?

One story that Mishkind shared was about a leader who personally investigated their employee assistance program and realized just how difficult it was to get to the support they needed. The leader made it part of his mission to evaluate how they could improve their program.

If you find that seeking help is difficult, where are the breakdowns and how can they be addressed? For example, Epperson suggested evaluating how many therapy sessions your employees receive through the program. Is the number enough to work through their condition? Does the assistance program offer the type of clinical help your employees need?

Today, it’s not enough to check the box that’s labeled “employee assistance program”; you and your HR folks need to regularly vet the process so you know the level of care your employees receive. Their health and your company’s sustainability depend on it. Ask yourself if you’re creating a safe environment where issues can surface and receive support. Keep your executive team informed by collaborating with and training employees to create an environment of care for one another.


A discussion on mental health continues in my upcoming Off the Rak interview with Susan Packard on July 27.

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