Manage Your BusinessCompany CultureQ&A with SVP Paula Allen: What small business owners must know about...

Q&A with SVP Paula Allen: What small business owners must know about mental health in the workplace

Conversations regarding mental health awareness gained an incredible amount of traction during the COVID-19 pandemic when employees made it abundantly clear workplace mental health measures needed to be taken more seriously. To learn more about addressing and investing in workplace mental health assistance, ASBN spoke to Paula Allen, Global Leader and SVP, Research and Total Wellbeing with TELUS Health.

ASBN: The Surgeon General has spoken clearly about the mental health crisis and has issued a framework for mental health in the workplace. Why do you think the focus is on the workplace? What do employers need to know?

Allen: The focus on the workplace is based on the reality that the workplace has an impact. We’ve seen in our own Mental Health Index that individuals do better when they work for organizations that actively invest in and focus on mental health. The available services for mental health make a difference in people’s lives. Services like EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) deal with people who are at risk of dying by suicide every single day. It can literally be a lifesaving turning point. EAP also helps people with the full range of personal, emotional, and practical life issues. Services are vital, but we also know that the experiences one has in the workplace have an impact. Feeling valued, safe, and having a sense of belonging supports good mental health and wellbeing and enables people to deal more effectively with daily stressors. Your life isn’t really separated from your work. The time you spend at work is part of your life and directly impacts your health.

We already know that workplaces have had a positive impact on people’s physical health. Health is better among workers who have access to healthcare benefits and health-related information through their workplace and who have experience with workplace practices that promote safety. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a positive impact from mental health support, training, and healthy environments as well.

ASBN: You have been focused on the continuum of care. What does that mean?

Allen: In its most basic form, a continuum of care means that every person at every point has access to the right type and level of care for them. Having a continuum of care is essential when supporting groups of individuals in ways that each person’s needs can be met at any given time. Some people have higher needs, some lesser—and a person’s needs may change over time.

A continuum of support also necessarily offers guidance. No one should have to be an expert in understanding what they need, especially in times of distress. Though choice is important, some level of guidance is the first step. TELUS Health’s Mental Health Index has shown that 1 in 2 workers are interested in a free and confidential assessment of their mental health. That is great! It offers a solid interest in mental self-awareness, which is important for self-care. The call to action now is to make assessments available and easy to access and to communicate their availability repeatedly. As with physical health, people can be at their best when they have opportunities for a “check-up” to identify and address things early rather than waiting until they are complex. That’s where workplace programs have a significant impact – and should wisely take heed of the Surgeon General and make sure they are appropriately front and center. As a population, we are finally starting to accept the value of mental health support, not just crisis support, and that is a great thing.

ASBN: What are the biggest challenges from an employer’s point of view?

Allen: Things are fragmented. Mental health support grew up ad hoc, so EAP is in one place, behavioral health services in another, medical reimbursement in yet another, and separately, we find tools such as meditation apps. Though many employers are investing in these services, the entire system is less effective when everything is fragmented.

It’s hard for employers to manage multiple services. Communication often cannot be sustained, so the services go under-utilized. It also confuses people who don’t know where to start or what’s necessarily good for them.

Ideally, employers can reduce fragmentation with one door (or portal) for people to enter and be guided by professionals toward care that is right for them while offering that continuum of care. Employers can easily manage the administration, and employees don’t have to figure out where to get help with addiction or divorce or just meditation. They can also get help in finding options that meet personal preferences. If a technique may not work and causes frustration, it’s essential to be guided with another path.

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ASBN: The last report focused on diversity and inclusion. Why?

Allen: There is no way to have a mentally healthy workplace if you don’t include diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. The overlap is clear.

Diversity is a good business strategy to be representative of your community and to serve it well. It enables companies to tap into a wide range of skills and thinking.

But the benefits of diversity fall apart in the wrong environment. Diversity needs a mentally healthy environment: inclusiveness, equity, and belonging. So the organization’s activity to support diverse workforces also benefits the mental health of the entire population. We found, despite best efforts, there are still areas of unconscious bias and barriers that can affect each person’s work experience. But the goals are symbiotic: a work environment that is strong in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging does improve the mental health of the workforce.

ASBN: There is some variation of scores in different geographies. Why?

Allen: Your mental health is impacted by experience, which can vary by geography, economics, politics, priorities, and day-to-day living experiences. But we find there is more similarity than difference when it comes to what affects mental health and wellbeing. So geographical categories are not the biggest thing to focus on.

One consistent curve we find reflects the size of a company in any given region. People who work at very small and very large employers tend to have better mental health scores than those with 50-100 employees. Smaller employers tend to feel like a community. Employees are more likely to feel they have an impact and a strong sense of belonging with personal support. Larger employers tend to offer services and benefits, and communications because they have the resources to do that. The most vulnerable group of 50-100 employees is too big to be a family and too small to have the infrastructure. That shows the value of both a supportive culture and the availability of services.

Many mid-size firms assume they cannot afford any services and may not even realize that some services, such as EAP, are embedded in their benefits package. They also may not regularly communicate the availability to employees. Cost sometimes is thought to be an issue, but it is generally not – EAP is a fraction of a percent of overall health costs but extremely meaningful to employees.

ASBN: Young workers consistently have lower mental health scores than older workers. What’s going on?

Allen: When comparing those under 40 years of age with the 40-and-over group, younger employees have lower mental health scores; for those under 30, the scores are even lower. The fact is, major life changes are stressful. Starting a career, establishing oneself financially, or starting a family, for example, are all wonderful; but they are changes that force people to adjust how they do things, and there are high stakes in achieving these new objectives. These stressors increase our vulnerability in our younger years. That said, mental health issues are increasing over and above the issues of life stage. This is not due to more reporting because of less stigma. Our stressors are increasing while the social supports that mitigate stress are diminishing.

TELUS Health is helping employers to understand the factors that are affecting younger adults, even focusing our annual Employers Connect event theme on that issue, with guest experts who will present what it takes for employers to connect particularly with Gen Z. (Free registration to the virtual event is here).

ASBN: Do you have any insights regarding kids these days? Have things improved since the disruption of the pandemic?

Allen: About half of the parents report some form of negative change in their kids during the aftermath of the pandemic, whether social development or mental health and coping skills, or a drop in their academic development.

Parents struggle with helping their kids, especially when things happen that are out of their control. But they can be helped to focus on what they can control. For parents, #1: take care of yourself. If you are anxious, upset, or angry, it will increase stress in your kids. When parents are grounded, supportive, and calm, kids tend to feel more comfortable with whatever situation is at hand. #2, Parents should trust their gut. If you think something is wrong, ask and really listen. Very often, the issue is that your child has misinformation that is causing distress. Sometimes they would benefit from your reminding them of other times they felt anxious or lonely and how they were able to deal successfully with that. Other times counseling is the best step, especially when things are interfering with your child’s day-to-day life or important milestones. Having your child know and see that you are solidly in their corner with any action you take has more value than many parents realize.

Paula Allen is the Global Leader, Research and Total Wellbeing at TELUS Health. Paula is a well-recognized expert in all areas of workplace mental health.

Building on a clinical background, she has more than 20 years of experience relating to workplace research, product development and operational leadership.

Paula is also a sought-after speaker by media, organizations, and conferences for her knowledge and expertise in current issues and the future direction of health, wellbeing, productivity, and related risk management.

Paula is a Director on several Boards given her expertise in health and health innovation.

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Anna Delvillar
Anna Delvillar
Anna Delvillar is the editorial coordinator and a staff writer at ASBN. She graduated with a B.A. in English Composition from Georgia State University and has five years of experience developing content strategy and writing for automotive, tech, and small business media.

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