Making Mental Health Manageable
Unlike some physical ailments, mental health disorders are often less outwardly evident. This, combined with stigma, makes it easy for many people to avoid talking about mental illness or deny its existence altogether. And in the workplace, the mere mention of stress, depression or anxiety can make an otherwise capable manager uncomfortable.
In the absence of timely and appropriate intervention, mental health problems can undermine a company’s culture and even affect its bottom line through absenteeism, lost productivity, reduced individual and team performance and, ultimately, diminished returns.
Bringing the subject out into the open and tackling it head-on requires equal parts courage and determination, thoughtful planning, ongoing training and sustained outreach at all levels of an organization. In this regard, Prudential Financial is uniquely positioned to lead the way in mental health awareness in the workplace.
A decade ago, Prudential’s leadership looked at the fallout from mental health issues among their 20,000 employees in the U.S. and resolved to take action. Long recognized for its pioneering dedication to employee well-being (its first onsite health clinic was established in 1911), the company’s health and wellness experts have mounted an ambitious internal and external effort to challenge people’s long-held perceptions of mental illness and get them talking, without fear of embarrassment or reprisal. Prudential’s leaders have also teamed up with executives and professional groups in the larger business community to combat stigma on an even broader scale.
In recognition of the company’s successful, ongoing efforts to promote psychological well-being and destigmatize mental health issues within its own work culture and beyond, the American Psychological Association is proud to honor Prudential Financial with its 2017 Organizational Excellence Award.
Breaking down barriers
When K. Andrew Crighton, MD, joined Prudential in 1999 as vice president and chief medical officer, most employee health activities were being carried out in onsite health clinics in the larger Prudential offices by medical professionals and employee assistance program (EAP) specialists. Crighton, who also directs health strategy, expanded Prudential’s mental health offerings and also broadened the company’s definition of health, identifying five interdependent “dimensions of health” on which all of Prudential’s wellness efforts are based.
All of the dimensions are considered equally important, but the emotional component is key to Prudential’s efforts to raise awareness of mental health issues, remove barriers associated with stigma, and encourage meaningful dialogue. Getting to that point involves every member of the Prudential family.
“We focus on the individual, but we’re also here to help the manager and the team,” Crighton says. “If we don’t include the manager and team as participants, it’s less likely that employees will feel supported and can flourish.”
Assessing and addressing risk
Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, MSW, vice president, health and wellness, has been with Prudential for 19 years. Reporting to and working closely with Crighton, Dolan-Del Vecchio is the company’s senior behavioral health specialist and a member of its Behavioral Health Services group, which provides counseling, assessment and training as well as employee coaching and healthpromotion activities.
“When people come to work, or whether they’re working remotely, the culture of the work environment is extraordinarily important,” says Dolan-Del Vecchio. “Because on any given workday, we spend most of our waking hours engaged in work activity. So the extent to which that workplace supports our health is vitally important to our ability to make the best contributions.”
In 2007, Prudential’s Health and Wellness team introduced Prudential’s first annual employee Health Risk Assessment questionnaire. Questions touch on the five dimensions of health, and the assessment takes about half an hour to complete.
“The assessment is the big component of a number of measurements we take to evaluate the overall health of our organization,” Crighton explains. But presenting the data, he says, requires a human approach. “Most of our programs and interventions are driven by data that we then make accessible by telling the human stories behind the numbers. That resonates with employees and leaders alike.”
More than three-quarters of Prudential employees took the assessment in its first year. The aggregate data suggested that stress and depression were significant risk factors for employees. The following year, during the nation’s economic downturn, the data revealed that more than a third of employees were experiencing stress related to finances.
Prudential’s leadership responded by greatly expanding resources targeted to those risk factors and more. Among the services now available at no cost to Prudential employees and their families are those designed to alleviate some of the stressors that can lead to depression and other mental health problems:
Prudential even offers hotlines for employees who prefer to seek help anonymously. There are monthly “Stress Busters” events and “Budget Boosters” workshops on money management to reduce financial stress. Regular lunchtime learning sessions are hosted by onsite health professionals and guest speakers. And since 2016, Prudential has offered weekly 15-minute “Take a Break, Take a Breath” stress-relieving meditation sessions.
Each year since the first assessment, the risk factors for stress and depression have steadily declined. For example, the incidence of financial stress has dropped from 34 percent to 16 percent — below the national benchmark.
Taking the message on the road
“Psychological and mental health is something we’ve worked hard to care for in the workplace in ways that are protective, proactive and instructive,” says Sharon C. Taylor, Prudential’s senior vice president of human resources, whose responsibilities include the company’s health and wellness programs. With 41 years at Prudential and 20 of those years in human resources, Taylor has witnessed a sea change in the company’s approach to employee well-being.
“Before we began seriously addressing stigma, you would hear people say they were stressed out,” Taylor says. “But heaven forbid you mentioned anything related to mental or emotional health. Managers didn’t want to pry, so they tended to stand down. We needed to move beyond that.”
And move they did.