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Springfield Business Journal Executive Editor Christine Temple discusses mental health in the workplace with Clay Goddard, president of the southwest region for Burrell Behavioral Health/ Brightli Inc., and Katie Towns, director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.
Christine Temple: Let’s start with the impact of mental health on our workplaces and what the employer’s role is in this conversation. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates about one in five people have a mental illness. We know there is probably someone in this room with a diagnosis. There is definitely someone at work. What are the ways that mental illnesses impact us at work, and then what’s the role of the workplace to support?
Katie Towns: We definitely have mental health impacts at work. One in five I think just scratches the surface probably of the numbers in terms of mental health. But I think one of the things that we’re learning more and more about is this idea that mental health occurs on a spectrum. So, people can have a diagnosis that is worse at times and then better at times. So, we as employers and those that spend a lot of time with people on a daily basis can have a tremendous impact. I think we’re still learning a lot about what it is and how mental health can manifest and sort of affect individual productivity, but it shows up in lots of different ways. You’ll see it in absenteeism; you’ll see it within the workspace even down to the level of engagement at work in different settings. But we are looking at it more on a collective level. What does the evidence show us about how we might even be able to start to address some of these things so that we can improve mental health and productivity and well-being, quality of life, while people are at work?
Clay Goddard: It’s certainly, I think, pretty critical to our businesses. We’ve done some research, and in the United States I think the figure is $193.2 billion lost annually. Half of that is in worker productivity because of behavioral health diagnoses, and it may be something that’s not being treated. You add to that the fact that we’re all struggling to keep a full workforce. So, we really have to find ways to invest in our co-workers’ health, and I hope we can move away from the stigma even further. I think we’ve done a good job as a community, but we need to quit treating mental health as its own subset. The brain is a body organ. We wouldn’t think twice if someone was having a cardiac issue or if they had blown an ACL playing softball, and we would talk to them about that. But we seem to be so reluctant in a lot of segments of society to be able to talk about these issues openly even though we are all dealing with them in our own family and especially in our work families. I do believe that we can equip our employers with the tools to help them deal with employees that might be suffering from things that their managers might be afraid to approach.
Temple: In a practical sense, what are the ways that employers can help employees that are struggling with mental illness or with the mental health challenges?
Towns: One of the things that we have done in the Health Department, throughout the city, is Mental Health First Aid. It’s a daylong training, and it really helps to normalize the idea that people are and will experience mental health situations throughout their employment and it gives people the tools. You don’t have to be able to react perfectly in every situation, but if you don’t ever have training, how are you supposed to know how to open up a conversation or to even recognize some of the signs and symptoms that can lead to getting a person the help that they need? It does get a little bit gray when you start to open up a conversation with an employee about maybe performance and using performance as the jumping-off point of what might be underneath the surface of that performance-based issue. Because I can guarantee you, it’s probably not just the lack of productivity or the absenteeism. There’s probably other things going on underneath the surface there. It helps equip us to have that ability to sit down with a person and really take a human approach, not just an employee productivity approach. To find out who they are as a person, why things are the way they are and if there are things that as an employer we can do to connect the tools they need to help sort of improve whatever situation it is that’s going on. I would highly recommend that training.
Goddard: I’m so glad you mentioned Mental Health First Aid. I’ll never forget when I first encountered it. It would have probably been 2015. I got accepted into the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) cohort and went to Seattle and part of that was that we had to sit through, on a Sunday, a full day of Mental Health First Aid. I was not really thrilled with that prospect. I wanted to be out exploring Seattle, with my wife. It ended up being much-needed training. I found out that all the things I had done as a people leader over the course of my career in that space was probably wrong. It really is a nice set of tools. Beforehand, if I had encountered an employee who had anxiety or depression or some of those issues, it would have been an (employee assistance program) referral because that’s nice and clean and neat and you don’t have to really deal with it beyond that. I don’t think that’s enough. What Mental Health First Aid does is equip you better to deal with folks. I’ll throw in a couple of other initiatives. The One initiative, which Burrell is leading, the theme for that is it only takes one to save a life. It’s also designed to work with workplaces so that they can equip their employees to better be able to deal with suicide. Katie and I both have been impacted by suicide on multiple occasions. More than half of those folks, you have no sign that that’s coming. We’ve got to invest in that as a community. The other thing that I would throw out there is our Be Well initiative, which was stood up by Burrell during the pandemic. It was really initially designed for Burrell staff because the pandemic was difficult on all of us, but they needed a way to make sure they were taking care of people’s brain health in the organization. Now, it’s available to anyone who wants to join. Weekly they get together and have a Zoom meeting focused on brain health. Those are a few tools that folks can use as they navigate something that they’re probably not going to be overly comfortable with.
Excerpts by Editorial Intern Blake Biswell, email@example.com
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