Culture change is the cutting edge of mental health benefits at work.
New York: When Hartmut Braune comes to work in security communications at SAP, he never knows what emergency will land in his inbox.
It is a challenging job, compounded by the fact that Braune also coordinates the company’s global Lighthouse Core Team, which provides peer assistance to struggling employees, as well as a shoulder to cry on. “It’s the difficult part, but sometimes tears help clear the situation,” said Braune, who is based in Germany.
Many companies offer employee assistance programs, mindfulness apps or in-office counselling. But experts say a culture shift toward openness, from the C-suite on down, is most effective. That translates to peer counselling, colleagues sharing their experiences and open dialogue.
Companies take a myriad of approaches to this challenge. At SAP, considered a thought leader on employee mental health, the company calls its system the Employee Care Cycle. That starts with prevention and destigmatisation, said Torsten Paul, SAP’s director digital health and well-being.
Indeed, Braune coached one woman who returned to work at SAP after a mental health leave, but had not been open with her manager and colleagues about why she took time off. “People have a tendency to hide what was happening – they feel shame,” Braune said.
Braune walked the woman through some tiny steps she could take, and eventually, she met with her manager. A week later, when Braune saw the woman, she was smiling. Overall, depression causes an average of 40 days of absenteeism per sufferer at SAP, Torsten said. Serious cases might involve short- or long-term disability. But if a person returns to work and the same stress factors exist, they will just get sick again.
One key offering for employees is a two-day immersive mindfulness program, so popular it has a waiting list of 9,000. The company also shares video testimonials on its internal website from colleagues who have overcome challenges.
In addition, SAP encourages workers to do frequent self-assessments, and managers assess the organisation itself. At Microsoft, individuals at all levels share their own mental health experiences, in person, on social media and via podcasts.
“We didn’t ask, but it has happened that many of our leaders stepped up and started telling their stories, their personal struggles or ones they’ve witnessed,” said Sonja Kellen, senior director of global health and wellness at Microsoft. “And it has naturally become pervasive in the culture.”
One employee who shared her story was 25-year-old program manager Beth Anne Katz, who detailed her battles with depression on YouTube videos and a company website (here). “Being open about my suffering was the hardest thing I’ve done, but I am not afraid of who I am anymore. Depression isn’t something to be ashamed of,” Katz tells her colleagues.
Last May, Microsoft hosted several movie screenings about anxiety and suicide, followed by conversations with the people who volunteered their stories. A counsellor stood by. “It’s been gratifying to see the sheer volume of people to speak up,” said Kellen.
Cost savings are not the key driver, even though mental healthcare is a top spend, Kellen added, noting that mental health breaks are one of the top reasons people go on leave at Microsoft, beyond parental leave.