“Nobody is the same as they were two-and-a-half years ago,” said Adeola Sonaike, chief operating officer, Baker Street Behavioral Health, discussing mental health in the workplace as part of a panel presented by NJBIZ. Sonaike noted that when people lose loved ones and face such significant life experiences, they are going to change. And she believes the experience caused a lot of self-reflection.
“The pandemic did force us to stop at times, and really look at what’s really happening around us,” she explained. “And so, I think that we’re seeing the fallout from that now. We can’t go back to forgetting that the people that work with us and for us are humans and have a very human side to them.”
The moment was a particularly poignant one in a discussion moderated by NJBIZ Chief Editor Jeffrey Kanige. In addition to Sonaike, the panelists included: Kelly Ann Bird, director, Employment & Labor Law Group, Gibbons PC; Gary Small, behavioral health physician in chief, Hackensack Meridian Health; and Deborah Visconi, president and CEO, Bergen New Bridge Medical Center.
“Everyone is suffering from some form of trauma for these last two-and-a-half years,” Visconi said. “And there are many people that are self-reflecting on what’s important to them in their life. I don’t like to call it the great resignation, but it’s really more like the great reflection. I think the world is just reflecting to themselves what’s important to them. What’s your priority and how does my workplace fit into this?”
“We’ve always had workplace stress. Before the pandemic, I saw a survey, 40% of employees reported being very stressed out or extremely stressed out as a result of their job,” said Small. “And I think it’s even getting worse as a result of the pandemic.”
The panel covered a wide range of topics including how employers can help break down the stigma surrounding and seeking mental health, the most important and useful services or benefits employers can offer, how to balance productivity and efficiency with burnout or breakdown, and the pros and cons of hybrid and remote work.
“I do think hybrid work is here to stay,” said Bird. “I think the workforce demands it now.”
While Bird believes that employers must adapt to the changing trends to attract and retain talent, she also said the issue is coming to a head as an increasing number of her clients are establishing more formal hybrid work plans. “As we move further away from those stay-at-home orders, it really is time to scrutinize where and how we work and to make a plan,” Bird explained.
She added, though, that doing so requires communication and setting expectations. Employees also like some structure. “I will tell you, not having a schedule for many employees is more stressful,” she said.
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As Kanige explored the issue of hybrid work with the panel, he asked whether there were some useful changes that emerged from these new trends and whether the COVID protocols solved some problems that had long affected many workplaces.
“Let me just say at the outset, this has been a horrible, horrible pandemic. People have suffered tremendously. There’s no question about that,” Small said. “But there are some silver linings.”
He cited the emergence of telehealth and tele-psych as examples of those positives, along with some of the benefits of hybrid working.
“I think for the workplace there are some advantages to that,” Small explained. “People who have been able to take advantage of that have the extra time not commuting. They can exercise more, try to focus on a healthier diet and learn some stress management strategies.”
Bird said another silver lining is that the extreme pandemic conditions forced employers and employees to learn more about each other’s lives outside of the workplace.
“We really did get to know each other better as humans and not just employees, colleagues, employer-employee relationships,” she explained. “We got to know where do you come from? Who do you care for? What is that place you live at? And it prompted employees to feel more comfortable saying, ‘I need,’ or ‘there is a barrier,’ because there is a more of a personal connection.”
And while the panel mostly agreed that there are benefits to remote and hybrid work, they also emphasized some of the downsides and pitfalls of the arrangement. Kanige noted that the biggest change now for businesses is the advent of working away from the office and just how widespread it has been.
“But did that also create some other issues about isolation and not really being connected to the world at-large?” Kanige asked.
“It is important to create some kind of a daily rhythm where you’re not just in your pajamas all day,” said Small. “Even with the advantages of the hybrid workplace, we’re social animals. There’s something to be said about a face-to-face meeting. I see it now. And those personal connections are much more impactful, both on a personal level and also on a professional level.”
Sonaike said Baker Street does regular check-ins with employees as they would with patients.
“What’s important for us is that when we are on the hybrid spectrum, and we are more remote than in-person, is making sure that we’re providing those resources that our employees need in order to thrive in a hybrid work environment,” she said. “And then we can’t assume what those things are. We have to ask.”
Visconi said the comfort, efficiency and cost-savings of hybrid work is a positive, but believes employers need to keep an eye on the limits. “That lack of boundaries and that constant you’re home but you’re working, and the anxiety that that produces,” said Visconi. “Also, the connection to other colleagues in the workplace. You really can’t underestimate the need for people to have those types of connections and those boundaries and really feel connected to a bigger part of what they do and a purpose.”
Bird said that a lot goes into a hybrid work plan and has been working on the issue with her clients for more than two years. But, she does not believe that plan needs to just be what is good for the company and managers. “We can also integrate what works for the employees and gives them that balance, that ability to be at home with their families,” Bird said. “Do a little exercise, maybe run outside and catch the sunshine while it’s there. Which is good for everybody.”
“We have to prioritize their families, prioritize their lives as well and do what we can to make sure that they’re truly happy,” said Sonaike.
“As a large mental health provider, one of the things we’re always aware of and in tune to is the mental health and well-being of our employees,” said Visconi
Visconi mentioned that she holds frequent personal meetings with her employees and puts out a weekly letter from her office. “And just to show them that I really do care about them, it was not empty words,” she explained.
Bird also noted how important that kind of company culture, team-building and communication can be in making employees feel comfortable.
“Our employees are human beings,” said Bird. “That weekly or daily letter, that company culture, that open door, we’re not paying extra for it. But it is so important to establishing that this is a workplace that cares about you.”
Kanige said those anecdotes about company culture raised an interesting question as he went around to the rest of the panel. “How far does that get you?” he asked. “Is that the most important thing, creating that kind of culture?”
“I think it’s very important,” said Small.
He added that experiencing the pandemic and all its effects has created a sort of community dealing with the collective pain even though workers were physically isolated. He also believes that employers need to offer more programs to support employees’ mental health, citing such an initiative at Hackensack Meridian Health that involves peer-to-peer counseling and support groups.
“And it really allows people to feel that it’s OK to have mental health issues,” Small explained. “It kind of reduces the stigma of behavioral health problems. And I think that’s another silver lining of the pandemic.”
Sonaike said companies need to have a mixed approach, offering anonymous care for an employee in need, along with the culture component that builds morale and ensuring that employees are not burning out.
“I think that employers just need to do some due diligence as well and prioritize it and make things easier for the employees,” she said. “There’s a saying that we have in the health care sector where it’s you make the healthy choice, the easy choice. And we need to apply that same model, not just to healthy eating, healthy lifestyles, but to our mental health as well.”
The panelists said that an employee’s immediate manager knows that person best, so they would be most qualified to determine if an employee is burnt out, struggling, or even dealing with addiction.
“They know the habits of the employees. They know their work product,” said Visconi. “We do spend a lot of time educating people on what’s the best thing to do and how to help an employee should a manager see something that is troubling to them.”
And the panel agreed that one other byproduct of the pandemic, which can no doubt be deemed a silver lining, is the increased dialogue around mental health.
“I think that we have created a general conversation in the public about the acceptability of mental health services and seeking help,” said Sonaike. “There’s these mass media campaigns that are saying it’s okay to not be alright. It’s alright to talk to someone.”