Dec 6, 2023 - Health

Powerful companies push for new workday dedicated to mental health

Illustration of a brain drawn on a calendar page.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A coalition of powerful companies and nonprofits is trying to turn the first Tuesday in December into "Wellbeing at Work Day," a new initiative aimed at changing the culture around mental wellness in the workplace.

Why it matters: America's mental health crisis — particularly salient among young people — is not only a priority for U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, but also for business leaders, as the economic cost of employee anxiety and depression comes into focus.

Driving the news: A nonprofit called the Mental Health Coalition, founded in 2020 by fashion designer Kenneth Cole, held a splashy news conference Tuesday to kick off the inaugural "Wellbeing at Work Day."

  • It's meant to be an annual event highlighting resources for people who struggle with mental health on the job.
  • Sponsors include Bank of America, Citi, Meta, Pfizer, the NBA, the Estée Lauder Companies, and more than 100 others.
  • The idea is for companies to dedicate the day to mental health communication — with managers leading by example, offering the message that it's okay to speak up and seek help.

What they're saying: "Talking about this is a big deal," Cole said at the event, which was held at his company's Manhattan offices and drew an all-star cast of prominent New Yorkers.

  • "Mental health is, I believe, the oldest and newest health pandemic that we are confounded by," Cole said.
  • "We will end the stigma in the workplace — I am convinced of that," he said. "Hopefully this helps us institutionalize this practice."
Kenneth Cole stands in front of a crowd delivering remarks.
Kenneth Cole founded the Mental Health Coalition in 2020. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

By the numbers: 1 in 5 U.S. adults lives with a mental illness, per the National Institute of Mental Health.

  • Anxiety and depression are leading causes of workplace absenteeism.
  • Suicide rates reached a record in 2022, the CDC reported.

Context: There's already a "World Mental Health Day" each October.

  • A variety of new nonprofits, including Project Healthy Minds, are trying to get corporate America to sit up and take notice of the issue, which young people describe as a workplace priority.
  • Among the groups working with the Mental Health Coalition to launch "Wellbeing at Work Day" are the National Alliance on Mental Illness, One Mind at Work, Mental Health America, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

Zoom in: Cole was joined at the launch event by wellness guru Deepak Chopra, who led a five-minute meditation session — the first that this longtime journalist had experienced at a press conference.

  • Former "Today" show anchor Katie Couric served as emcee, telling members of the audience who admiringly snapped her picture, "Please post away — tell everyone you were here today!"
  • New York City Mayor Eric Adams — who ushered in a mandatory mindful breathing program in New York City public schools this fall — told the crowd that in times past, "this conversation was taboo — it would stymie your career."

What's happening: Industries known for hard-charging, nose-to-the-grindstone culture are starting to soften — gradually — to reduce employee burnout.

  • Bank of America has a "Take Time on Tuesdays" program to emphasize self-care, said Ayanna Stephens, an HR executive at the bank, who took the stage at the Mental Health Coalition event.
  • Another banker, Rachel Duncan of Deutsche Bank, described the tough environment of the trading floor, which led her to seek out her company's employee assistance program.
  • "To really get this to work, we need organizational change, a complete cultural shift," she said. "I think sharing your own story just makes you more human."

Details: One Mind at Work, a nonprofit that targets CEOs, has created a dedicated subgroup for law firms because legal culture is considered particularly brutal psychologically.

  • "The history in my profession has been, 'Don't talk about it,'" Allison Friend, managing director for talent development at the firm of O'Melveny & Myers, said in conversation with Kathy Pike, CEO of One Mind at Work.
  • But lately "there's been a groundswell of support for making that change."

The bottom line: A representative sample of New York's power brokers are determined to make "Wellbeing at Work Day" happen — and, as Mayor Adams said: "If it happens in New York, it will cascade around the entire globe."

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