Aug 16, 2022 - Economy

CEOs are getting a new playbook for boosting workers' mental health

Illustration of many yellow sticky notes with a pink one in the center with a brain on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Led by an A-list of C-suite executives, a new nonprofit is developing a playbook to guide companies in supporting employees' mental health, plus a free online clearinghouse for anyone seeking help.

Why it matters: Recognizing that burnout from the pandemic has even reached the corner office, Project Healthy Minds is trying to reduce the stigma of mental illness by getting CEOs to talk openly about their struggles — and to enact meaningful policies.

Driving the news: Project Healthy Minds is building what it calls the "first direct-to-consumer digital mental health marketplace" — a one-stop shop for finding a crisis hotline, a psychiatrist, a substance abuse treatment program or other relevant help.

  • "We want to build an for mental health services," says Phillip Schermer, founder and CEO of Project Healthy Minds, who previously helped map mental health strategy at BlackRock.
  • A second mission is to partner with business leaders, celebrities and public officials who will talk openly about the importance of mental health — perhaps their own.
  • A third is to create national standards to guide companies' mental health efforts — an issue of tantamount importance to millennials and Gen Z.

"In a knowledge economy, we need workers who are mentally strong and resilient," says Schermer.

Who's on board: Supporters of Project Healthy Minds include Bill Kolb, chairman and former CEO of McCann Worldgroup; Jeff Raider, co-founder of Warby Parker and Harry's; Jacqui Canney, chief people officer at ServiceNow; and Brian Offutt, chief workforce innovation and operations officer at Weber Shandwick.

What they're saying: During the pandemic, "you had employees absolutely on the edge," said Kolb, adding that several McCann employees had recently died by suicide.

  • Severely rattled by those deaths, Kolb personally called the employee assistance program (EAP) hotline to test his company's safeguards — and was kept on hold for 12 minutes.
  • When a human picked up, "the first thing I had to do was not talk about the fact that I'm about to kill myself, but tell my employee ID number," Kolb recalled.
  • After that, "we started doing things really, really rapidly" to help, like offering the Headspace app and "Wellness Wednesdays," where guest speakers talk about mental health hygiene.
  • The company also started training all workers to be "mental health advocates," and to be able to recognize emotional distress in colleagues and others.

"No matter how much brainpower, time or effort you put on this, there's no silver bullet — no quick fix," Kolb tells Axios. "This is a multiplicity of things that you have to do consistently, and not take your foot off the gas."

Where it stands: McCann Worldgroup hired Project Healthy Minds to build a mental health training program for its executive board and its next-most-senior executives.

  • Kolb "thought it was important that leaders get trained on these topics," said Schermer, noting that the curriculum was built in collaboration with the National Network of Depression Centers.

By the numbers: A Project Healthy Minds survey found a disconnect between millennial and Gen Z workers' expectations and what they're getting.

  • 2 out of 3 consider their mental health when choosing an employer.
  • Only half say their employer is supportive of their mental health.
  • 77% say they'd leave a job if it was harming their mental health.

What's next: Project Healthy Minds plans to compile a robust library of research on best practices in mental health programs, plus develop metrics by which companies can be assessed.

  • There's a need for "standardized measurements" that prospective employees can look at, Schermer said.
  • Investors who evaluate companies by the yardstick of "ESG" — environmental, social and governance practices — could use a firm's mental health policies as a way to size up its "social" performance.

The bottom line: "We're in the bottom of the first inning of a long game in reimagining what it means for companies to support employee mental health," Schermer says.

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