When Debbie Burnette first began her career, she remembers that everyone at the office was expected to “buckle down and get over” whatever they were dealing with in their personal lives. Work was for work, and that’s it. Today, she is grateful that this mindset is changing.
Creating a culture where employees can bring their whole selves to work has become a priority for more and more companies in recent years. That means businesses are focusing on cultivating environments—both in-person and remote—where people are not only allowed, but encouraged, to share what is going on in their lives. Case in point: the media agency MediaCom, where Burnette is an office resources manager and administrative assistant.
“It’s nice to be part of a company that is supporting mental health and not brushing issues under the rug,” she says. “We should be able to help one another.”
MediaCom’s approach to employee mental health is all part of the company’s “people first” ethos. “It’s about fostering an environment where we recognize and put our people’s well-being first. A business does not run without its people,” says Yorlene Goff, the U.S. Executive Director, People.
And the company’s commitment to employee well-being couldn’t come at a better time. According to SilverCloud Health’s 2021 Employee Mental Health and Wellbeing Checkup, around two-thirds of employees in the U.S. have clinically measurable mental health symptoms of anxiety or depression. Yet despite the prevalence of these issues, employees tend to hide their distress at work: SilverCloud’s survey found that more than 80% of employees report that they don’t mean it every time they say they’re “fine” or “good” when employers ask how they’re doing.
A New Program That Prioritizes Employee Mental Health
Among MediaCom’s many initiatives that focus on employee well-being is the recently launched Mental Health Ally (MHA) program. Volunteers from the company who join the MHA program are trained to serve as allies to support their colleagues. Throughout the training, the cohort of volunteers learn about the fundamentals of mental health, mastering how to listen without judgment, recommend the right resources, and provide a safe space.
“It’s truly a game changer,” Goff says. “The program serves as a stark reminder that mental health is something we need to be proactively safeguarding in our organization.”
Learning How to Listen
To become a mental health ally, employees are immersed in two full days of training, during which the goal is to learn how to listen—and forget about the solutions-focused mindset so many of us use in an attempt to be helpful.
“It takes practice to stop yourself from telling someone what you think they ‘should’ do,” says Burnette, who was eager to go through the training program because helping her peers is a treasured part of her job.
Burnette adds that mental health allies are not there to solve anyone’s problems. Rather, it’s their job to pose a question or prompt that might trigger an idea the person might not otherwise have. “I think a lot of people have what they need to do inside of them. They might not know or how to access that information,” she explains.
Giving Employees a Safe Space to Be Heard
Now that the first 25 allies in the U.S. have been trained, they are always available for 1:1 check-ins with colleagues who want to talk. There are also two virtual drop-in sessions every week where anyone is welcome to share, vent, or just listen. In addition to creating more of a community, these give people the chance to “meet” different allies and decide if there’s one they want to reach out to individually. Cameras can be on or off, and it’s all confidential.
The sessions offer space for anyone, regardless of job title, to access a safe and supportive community where they can expect to receive understanding and kindness at the other end of the line. Goff says the “rawness and transparency” is unlike anything she’s ever experienced in a workplace setting. And that’s the point.
“This platform gives people the opportunity to take care of each other and be champions for each other. It really works,” Goff says. “And to be able to have an outlet where you have specific points in time to go and unplug is really important.”
This is especially critical right now since people are working from home, where the professional and personal often overlap—and where colleagues are much less likely to interact with each other in more casual, social ways (beyond virtual “coffee” dates or quick online chats).
Having a volunteer-based mental health program wasn’t an easy feat to accomplish—and once launched, there's always the question of how many employees will actually utilize such a benefit. But, Goff says, it was a challenge that companies like MediaCom can't afford not to face head on.
“We’re being courageous enough to say we’re going to invest in this and make sure the lifeblood of our agency is taken care of, and people have what they need to be successful. Work is where we spend most of our time,” she says. “So don’t you want that environment to be a nurturing one?”