Over the past year and a half, the bombshells kept dropping. A global pandemic, racial upheaval, political unrest, report after apocalyptic report about climate change. All this turmoil has been taking a major toll on our mental health — and our ability to focus on work.
A recent study found that three-quarters of 1,500 working Americans surveyed had experienced at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the past year, such as anxiety, burnout, or depression. This is up from 59 percent in 2019, according to Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit focused on mental health in the workplace.
As these issues are thrust into the spotlight, more companies are realizing the crucial role employers can play in supporting the well-being of the people they depend on. A number of local businesses are implementing company-wide days off during tumultuous times, providing free therapy visits, and tracking company morale; one CEO who took her weekly staff meditation sessions virtual has seen attendance skyrocket.
Executives at video hosting platform Wistia have shut down operations several times due to “sheer urgency and trauma,” says Taylor Roa, Wistia’s director of talent. The Cambridge company closed for two days shortly after the murder of George Floyd, and for one day after the January 6 insurrection at the White House. After a nerve-racking presidential election cycle, Wistia granted Inauguration Day off, too. “There were a number of moments last year when we just couldn’t fathom asking people to show up to work,” Roa says. “Telling folks to take the space they need is something we always do, but the reality is that some teams can’t really take space completely if the company is still functioning in the same capacity.”
Wistia even tacked on an extra day off before Labor Day weekend as a gift to employees. It’s a people-first investment, Roa says, noting that these shutdowns haven’t had a significant negative impact on revenue or customer satisfaction. He said the company will consider closing down again if conditions call for it. “I think part of the shuffling we’re seeing in the talent market, the ‘Great Resignation,’ as people are calling it,” he says, “is mostly just born from a realization by people that there are companies out there that will care more about their mental health and their work-life balance and that they don’t have to grind and put work first.”
But there is still a disconnect between what employees need and what employers are giving them. A September survey by Modern Health found that more than 85 percent of C-suite executives and human resources leaders said they were adequately supporting workers’ mental health, yet only about 65 percent of workers agreed. Nearly 30 percent of employees said their employer failed to meet their mental health needs.
The switch to remote work during the pandemic was a major source of anxiety, especially for parents dealing with caregiving responsibilities and people isolated from their usual sources of support, such as group fitness classes and lunch with friends. “Whatever people were struggling with was intensified,” says Janna Koretz, founder of Azimuth Psychological in Boston, which specializes in helping people in high-pressure careers. “And the unknown of a pandemic, both in terms of actual health . . . and the unknown about when people would be able to go back to regular life, was pretty scary for folks.” Companies would benefit from investing more in mental health, Koretz adds, because employees work better under conditions that foster well-being, whether through systemic changes that promote flexibility or the addition of health insurance benefits.
In April, Akamai Technologies in Cambridge started offering staff members 16 free visits to a mental health professional through a platform that helps employees find therapists and schedule appointments. For parents who had to balance their day job with teaching from home during the pandemic’s initial school closures, says Amy Claffey, global benefits director of the Internet company, “These benefits have been really great to give people an outlet to talk to someone and get those feelings out.” Spouses and children on employees’ benefits plans can also sign up for free therapy sessions.
Akamai program manager Jason Main, who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan four times during 26 years in the Navy, knows more fellow veterans who died by suicide after returning home than were killed in combat. During the pandemic, he had been processing everything in relative isolation, until a close friend and fellow veteran took his own life. “I thought it was probably time that I started talking to somebody,” Main says. “I’d been cooped up for a while and alone with my own thoughts. I wanted to seek some professional help to kind of make sure that I was in the right mind.”
Until Main started therapy through Akamai’s new program — the first time he’d talked to a professional since leaving the military — he didn’t realize the extent to which trauma had impacted his life. The experience has been transformative, he says.
Leaders at Carlisle-based design and construction company Adams + Beasley Associates have been sending out a monthly “morale meter” for several years, but the pandemic pushed the company to track these employee well-being metrics more consistently. “We ask people to rate their morale on a scale of one to 10, 10 being footloose and fancy-free, and one being, ‘I’m pulling my hair out,’” says cofounder Eric Adams. The most notable dip in morale came in March of 2020, Adams says, but picked back up after the company pulled its construction workers out of job sites. Since then, the morale meter has hovered around the high 6s and low 7s — around what it was pre-pandemic.
Company leaders can assess the data either as a company-wide average or by comparing different branches of the business. Employees also have the option to offer comments about their responses, which the executives then use as a basis to make changes to workplace practices. “We do quarterly all-company meetings, and one of the feedbacks from a morale meter survey a couple months ago was a suggestion about changing the format of the company meeting,” Adams says. “And we did that, and it was really appreciated by the individual that made the suggestion. They felt like they were heard.”
At The Hollister Group, a staffing company in Boston, attendance at CEO Kip Hollister’s weekly guided meditations for staff has gone through the roof since she opened them up to the public by hosting them on Zoom.
Vice president of recruiting Sarah Dardeno was introduced to meditation after joining the weekly sessions in 2017, and the pandemic helped make them a staple. “When you’re a leader, you have to be there for your people and be a sounding board for them, so you have to take on a lot of that hurt and frustration and fear that people were feeling [during the pandemic],” Dardeno says. “So for me to have a time where I could step back and have a quiet moment of clarity and calm, that really helped me again to be more present and be there for anyone that needed me.”
In an in-office meditation room lined with cozy seating and floor cushions, Hollister kicks off each session asking everyone to describe how they’re feeling in one word. By the time she asks again at the end of the session, she says, their answers have usually taken a positive turn.
“It’s so counterintuitive because when we’re stressed out, we tend to keep doing the stuff that stresses us instead of pressing the pause button and going inward,” Hollister says. “And when we put ourselves first with self care, all of us will be better at our jobs.”
Angela Yang is a Boston Globe correspondent. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angela Yang can be reached at email@example.com.