One positive effect of the global pandemic has been an institutional focus on mental health. Being suddenly thrust into isolation and working from home with fears for one's health has increased anxiety, stress, burnout, and depression. This plethora of negative emotions has forced business leaders to engage in a national dialog on mental health. While these programs were for pandemic times, many will become a key part of an organization's talent acquisition and employee retention strategy.
In the past, we have delved into mental health topics such as the trap of staying busy, and workaholism, and Founder, and Managing Director, Jane Howze, wrote a moving blog about her experience with PTSD. We have also written about companies grappling with remote working arrangements post-COVID.
Over the coming weeks, we will examine how business leaders in different industries are addressing mental health. We first turn to Andy Colón, Chief Talent Officer, at Thompson Hine, a highly respected national law firm known for innovation. Thompson Hine addresses mental health and wellness with their employees, with innovative programs, including a strategic plan for professional development in light of the trend towards remote work. The firm views its approach to mental health and wellness as a valuable recruiting and retention tool.
What pandemic-related health issues are emerging in the workforce?
Based on what I have seen in the past 16 months, I would rank stress and anxiety as the top mental health-related issues. They have been a particular concern among those who have children to care for because schools have been closed or semi-open, and the need for child care and support has not been met fully for those who depended on it prior to the pandemic.
I’ve also noticed a sense of isolation, which I believe is caused in part by restrictions on travel and mobility. People have had to work remotely from their homes and have converted their homes into office spaces that are difficult to detach from. That has, in my view, created a sense of isolation, which is compounded by their understanding that their family members and children are also isolated. We often talk about the importance of making sure that our children are socializing appropriately; I think that isolation has created another issue there.
What can employers do in terms of encouraging mental well-being to help improve workers’ resiliency and remain competitive in the marketplace?
Many employers are making wellness a strategic priority. It is clear that when you have a population of employees who are not feeling well about themselves, it impacts their ability to contribute to the work, engage, and be resourceful. We are focusing on teamwork, connecting, and engaging with each other, even though most of us have been working remotely for the past year and a half. There is an ongoing conversation about wellness, and it’s not just in terms of a concept, but concrete, practical discussions on mental health, physical health, spiritual health, and even financial health. All of these affect an employee’s wellness. We try to ensure that people are connecting and feeling positive about their experience at work and toward their colleagues.
It is fascinating to me that just two years ago, it was a given that we would work from our employer’s office. Now that is not a given, which has created some concerns about employees’ professional and career development. How are people developing? You used to be able to talk face-to-face – now it takes an effort to connect, to pick up the phone or connect by video. My answer is to make sure that we support employees’ resiliency with a focused and driven strategy that addresses the need to have a strong foundation of balanced mental, physical, spiritual, and even financial health.
What kind of career development strategies will need to be in place since workplaces will be either hybrid or virtual in the future?
Now more than ever, we have to be clear about job expectations. Organizations are often unclear about what opportunities exist and about their objectives and expectations. This is particularly true in law firms, where partnership-track lawyers are presumed to be growing in their careers as they get closer to a partnership. Firms increasingly have to set very clear standards for what it takes to be promoted to the next level. There has to be a conversation about facilitating access to learning opportunities to ensure that people are investing in their career development in a way that closes the gap on what would have happened if people were working together in person. It can be helpful to take advantage of technological tools that provide more engagement by taking polls and separating people into groups during a virtual meeting to encourage roundtable discussions, similar to what would happen in a physical setting. Roundtable discussions that engage the audience and ask practical questions can also be an important tool.
For our firm’s leadership, the topic of professional development is critical because the population we train is the firm’s future.
If we are not focused on their development, what does that say about the future? We have a strategy we’re calling The Future of Work Strategy that includes conversations with firm leaders, lawyers, and staff on how we can effectively support our employees’ professional development. Career development is especially challenging for junior-level lawyers because they have never worked in a law firm environment and haven’t observed a law firm culture and career development in a law firm setting. It’s a matter of finding those opportunities in a hybrid environment to help guide the junior-level people and ensure that they don’t get lost in the potential isolation that a virtual experience could bring.
What cultural shifts do you see among employers regarding mental well-being since the beginning of the pandemic?
Employers elevating wellness to a strategic priority is a major cultural shift that had never happened before. We used to talk about wellness and engagement, but not at the level it is currently discussed. We need to respond to this cultural shift because we are competing for talent. Potential hires ask us, “What are you doing for your associates in terms of wellness?” and “What sort of programs do you have in place?”. To successfully compete for talent, we need to show candidates how the firm is investing in people’s wellness.
The cultural shift has been in three main areas: how we connect with people, how we balance home and work, and our willingness to discuss mental health. First, for some people, there has been an impact on relationships. As I said before, working remotely has created a sense of isolation. For others, it has given them an opportunity to create stronger bonds. For example, pre-pandemic, most people would talk on the phone if they were from different offices. Now, there is an intentional effort to connect by video to see the person’s face, which allows you to see aspects of their personal life that you didn’t have access to before. People have become very resourceful in thinking about ways to engage. For example, my team has done scavenger hunts during meetings. It’s something I’ve never done before. But again, because we don’t get to see each other in person, we try to allocate some time to engage at a fun level.
Second, there’s been a disruption in the way people are balancing home and work. But for some, it has given them an opportunity to find new activities, habits, and hobbies. Third, and most importantly, there are those who have lost someone and are grieving. There is a more open conversation about those issues than ever before. In my many years working in the legal industry, I don’t recall people openly discussing issues relating to stress, depression, declining mental health, or even physical health. People today are more comfortable having those conversations. The pandemic has surely prompted a willingness to talk about these issues. It is wonderful to see. I’ve never seen it before, but I certainly have embraced it.
What actions has your firm taken to help employees?
We are developing a program called Thrive, which will become a resource to help our employees address mental, physical, spiritual, and financial wellness issues. We have created mindfulness programs. We had Mindfulness Wednesdays, during which a coach virtually provided a mindfulness exercise to our attorneys. We created a Caregiver Alliance Program, an initiative focused on providing programming, coaching, and other resources to support caregivers. As part of that initiative, we are developing what we call the Mindful Return Program for parents returning from parental leave. During the height of the pandemic, we created a caregiver mentoring program for anyone who needs mentoring. We have weekly group coaching sessions led by an expert consultant. We had weekly group coaching sessions to address challenges that we were all facing and learn from each other’s experiences.
One program we created and are particularly proud of is called Peer-to-Peer Parenting Pods for employees with school-age children. We organized the pods by the children’s grade levels, and each pod would share what they were doing at home to educate their children, best practices, and available resources. We also are running a Wellness Series. Each month we bring in an industry consultant to discuss different types of issues such as healthy eating, nutrition, or techniques to cope with stress and anxiety.
This past week, we had an outstanding speaker whose presentation was titled, “How to Thrive, Even When it Sucks.” The speaker had plenty of practical advice on how to deal with stress and anxiety. One of those techniques is intentionally focusing on positive things. People were raving about the presentation.
Any final advice?
When you elevate wellness as a strategic business priority, you must be comprehensive in your approach. It is very important for any organization to maintain inclusivity in how it rolls out mental health initiatives to its population.