Wellness in the Workplace Isn’t a Luxury

Mental health programs aren’t just nice, they’re smart

By Isaac Stone Simonelli


ong before clinical depression or suicidal tendencies take hold of a person, the mental health of an employee can impact a business, large or small.

Wellness at Hope

“For-profit organizations that have wellness programs make more money—straight up,” says Rick Benjamin, the director of organizational and spiritual wellness at the secular, nonprofit organization Hope Community Resources. “That makes the point that this whole wellness thing isn’t just a nice thing or a feel-good thing, it’s very practical. If people are better, they do better work—and the for-profit business makes more money. So businesses that have wellness programs aren’t just nice, they are actually smart.”

Hope provides services to individuals and families who experience intellectual and developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, and mental health challenges. But when it comes to supporting these individuals and their families, the process really starts with ensuring the mental wellness and quality of life of Hope’s employees.

The wellness initiative at Hope started in 2001 as an intervention to create a healthier, more respectful workplace for employees, Benjamin explains.

“In the meantime, we hope that it’s become a culture, not just an intervention, but kind of a way of life for employees and everyone else, including people who come for services,” he says.

A wellness seminar is now part of the onboarding process for new employees, with a longer follow-up session three months down the line.

“We just wanted employees to feel valued and recognize that in the field of social service you need to take care of yourself. Part of the wellness strategy is helping staff develop their own personal wellness plan so that they have a strategy,” says Michele Girault, quality of life director of workforce development and organizational wellness at Hope. “Employees need to recognize that conflict is normal, stress can be normal, and taking care of yourself is normal—it’s okay to take care of yourself.”

In addition to the wellness culture and seminars, the company also provides an employee assistance program, which is a counseling and therapy resource.

Working with local counseling therapy providers, Hope employees can reach out for help while Hope picks up the bill for up to three sessions per issue faced by the employee.

“It’s totally anonymous. All we get is a bill,” Benjamin says. “Often times, staff are dealing with their own personal issues—family, grief, family dynamics, or just the day-to-day job stress—and they just need someone to talk to outside of work. That’s what that provides.

“These are just talks—if they need a deeper dive, they are referred out to another therapist.”

For 2018, Hope received a $10,000 grant from insurance company Aetna to assist with its wellness program, and the company received a grant again for 2019.

Structured Wellness Initiatives

Aetna provides a number of resources for employers wanting to promote employee wellness and mental health, including the Mindfulness Challenge, Aetna Resources For Living Employee Assistance Program, and Mental First Aid.

“Aetna recognizes both the need for and the value of creating a psychologically safe and healthy workplace,” says Greg Haley, Aetna’s vice president of sales and service. “Through an exclusive collaboration with the National Council for Behavioral Health, we are pleased to offer Mental Health First Aid training.

“Mental Health First Aid is a high impact, evidence- and skills-based training program that teaches employees and/or managers how to offer help to a person developing a mental health concern or experiencing a mental health crisis. Similar to CPR, the first aid is given until appropriate treatment and support are received or until the crisis resolves.”

Mental Health First Aid training is available in both eight-hour and four-hour programs, with the longer program providing more in-depth information about some mental disorders and many more exercises, as well as covering the additional topics of trauma and non-suicidal self-harm.

At the end of the program, each attendee receives a Mental Health First Aid certification, which is valid for three years.

“Aetna’s enterprise strategy is to create a more connected, personalized, and convenient healthcare experience for our members—one that cares for the whole person physically, mentally, and emotionally,” Haley says.

“Research demonstrates that a psychologically healthy workforce is productive, creative, and engaged. It also tells us that untreated mental illness costs the US a minimum of $105 billion in lost productivity each year. Mental illness is estimated to result in 35 million work days lost each year, and almost 50 percent of managers have no training in managing workers with mental health issues.”

Rick Benjamin, the director of organizational and spiritual wellness at the secular, nonprofit organization Hope Community Resources, poses on Wellness Street.

Deloris Benjamin

To shore up this hole in the market and the ensuing damage to employees and companies, Aetna has a business model whereby a company can purchase wellness products on a standalone basis.

“In some cases, these programs are included in another Aetna medical product. In this case, we know that supporting the emotional health of our members leads to better health overall, which is a financial benefit to all,” Haley says.

Another service offered by the company is the Aetna Behavioral Health’s Condition Management program, touted as “an innovative approach to engaging members in their own recovery.”

“Behavioral health conditions do not neatly fit into single categories. Many conditions can overlap each other,” Haley explains. “This program uses an integrated approach that follows an evidence-based, holistic model. We engage our members and their families struggling with acute and chronic behavioral health conditions.”

The primary objectives of the program are to identify and engage members who have a diagnosis with high-risk, acute, and chronic behavioral health conditions. These conditions include depression, anxiety, bipolar conditions, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, and alcohol related problems, as well as other substance abuse issues.

“Once enrolled, members receive support to promote active engagement and adherence with evidence-based treatment and behavior change to improve overall functioning and wellness,” Haley says. “This program recognizes that one condition may affect the successful treatment of the other. To be effective, we promote active collaboration and coordination between all who are involved in the member’s medical and behavioral healthcare and treatment, including other Aetna clinical programs, treating providers, and family/supports.”

“If people are better, they do better work—and the for-profit business makes more money. So businesses that have wellness programs aren’t just nice, they are actually smart.”

—Rick Benjamin, Director of Organizational and Spiritual Wellness, Hope Community Resources

While it’s not a standard practice currently, some businesses now approach mental health issues as not being fundamentally different than physical issues; a broken bone is the same for HR as depression. This has led to some organizations, such as Hope, taking a holistic view of their employees and their clients for years—and some are doubling down on such endeavors.

“In this past year, going into this next year, we’re trying to put additional focus on the all-encompassing wellness, which includes the spiritual, wellness in your body, wellness in your mind, financial wellness—all aspects,” says Karen Fritsche, an HR specialist at Hope.

Whole-Person Health

Another workplace taking a holistic approach to wellness, including spiritual wellness, is Providence Alaska Medical Center.

“We care for the spiritual and emotional needs of our patients and their loved ones, as well as our caregivers here at the hospital,” says Chaplain Susan Halvor, manager of Spiritual Care at Providence Alaska Medical Center. “We do a lot of staff support here at the hospital, and I always like to emphasize to people that our job is never to convert or to proselytize. Our goal is to meet people exactly where they are and try to find the things that give them hope, that give strength and light, and help support those things.”

Hospitals can be mentally, spiritually, and physically taxing places to work. And when there are challenges—from a death in the maternity ward to a co-worker dying of cancer—a hospital chaplain works along with a social worker or mental health clinician to debrief those impacted by the event.

“We’re able to respond to critical events, and sometimes that’s a group debriefing, sometimes that’s an individual debriefing,” Halvor says. “We see a lot of suffering at the hospital. It’s pretty intense work, so anything that rises above the ordinary, we have a debrief team that can help respond to that.”

Because emergency room doctors and hospital caregivers are so likely to experience workplace violence and are often at a higher risk for suicide, taking steps to ensure the mental and spiritual wellness of these employees is absolutely necessary, Halvor says.

But Halvor, who has been with Providence for about twelve years, recognizes that some hospital employees will never feel comfortable opening up to chaplains or staff social workers. To make sure those employees still have the resources they need, she’s helping to launch peer support teams at the hospital.

“What we’re doing is trying to identify our clinical employees, nurses, therapists, and social workers who are already go-to people on their floor. These are people who, when something goes wrong or is hard, everyone naturally gravitates to.”

Once identified, these individuals are being offered additional training with regard to listening skills, knowing what resources are available, and how to establish and identify healthy boundaries
when helping co-workers.

“So we’re just trying to provide as many opportunities as possible so that there are people to talk to, debrief with, and, when there is a greater need—maybe if there is depression or suicidal feelings or intense needs involved—that we can also refer them to the appropriate place,” Halvor says.

Maintaining the mental and spiritual wellness of staff can do a lot to curb turnover and keep good employees happy and working for a long time, Halvor notes.

“Making sure that people feel cared for and have the support they need means they’re also going to do better work,” she says.

In addition to the non-formal support chaplains provide to hospital employees, Providence also provides a caregiver assistance program that is not limited to mental health.

“It’s available to help a caregiver find child care; provide guidance on overcoming financial challenges; locate a substance-abuse treatment resource; get access to couple’s counseling; get help with a legal issue; or find help in dealing with depression or other mental health matters,” explains Mikal Canfield, the senior manager of external communication for Providence Health and Services Alaska.

Providence also works with its employees to help them understand causes, symptoms, and measures to prevent burnout at work and/or compassion fatigue.

Fitting Wellness to the Organization

Though many of the programs and resources available to employers looking to provide better mental health support for their employees require an investment, not all of them do.

In fact, Hope “shares Rick [Benjamin] a lot” and is willing to do so even more in 2019.

“He’s gone out and done wellness seminars for other agencies and gotten them interested in how they could potentially replicate the idea or collaborate with each other,” Girault says.

Benjamin explains that often these seminars start with him sharing the story of the employee wellness program at Hope.

“We just always say: ‘First of all, wellness and self-care have to start at the top. So the key leader has to believe in it, model it, and want it to happen in the organization. And secondly, you don’t have to have a staff person like me or even an HR department. It can be a small organization but still have a culture that encourages everyone who works there to take care of themselves—it doesn’t have to cost money.’”

Benjamin and Fritsche agree that a business can’t mandate wellness—despite the impact employee wellness has on a company’s bottom line.

“There’s an ethical line here that we’ve talked about [at Hope]. You can’t make people be healthy, and you can’t punish them if they’re not,” Benjamin says. “Sometimes I think wellness initiatives do cross that line. You feel like you can’t work here if you’re overweight or if you drink diet coke or if you smoke cigarettes. So we’re really careful about that.”

Though some companies do choose to tie wellness initiatives to health insurance premiums, Hope has decided not to pursue that route.

“For us, it’s really been creating the culture where each individual feels appreciated,” Girault says. “When you work with people with disabilities who experience a lot of disrespect in their life because people devalue them as a person, we don’t want to create an organization that in any way devalues people.”

Better serving the mental health needs of employees is particularly important in an Arctic region, such as Alaska, where people are highly impacted by seasonal affective disorder.

“I think when you look at our Alaskan statistics around depression, around suicide, around alcoholism, around domestic violence, everything is connected,” Halvor says.

“And we certainly see all of this in the hospital, not just with our patients. I think it’s really important that in the location we’re in … a place with dramatic changes in light and darkness—and this is a heavy drinking state—I think [mental wellness initiatives] are especially important here.”