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Expert Interview: Mindwise Innovations

April 21 2020 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by Lisa Desai, Psy.D. and Bryan Kohl from MindWise Innovations to discuss mental well-being. Mindwise-1

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Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan. I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guests today are Lisa Desai and Brian Kohl of MindWise Innovations.

Lisa is the Director of MindWise Screening Program and Research. She is a licensed psychologist and a behavioral health professional with 20 years of clinical management and consulting experience. Through her work at MindWise innovations, she helps companies prioritize effective and sustainable behavior health strategies through the business development design, implementation, and evaluation of mental health and substance misuse programs. Lisa lives in the Boston area with her husband, two daughters, and a beloved black lab. She is of South Asian descent and enjoys all things social.

Brian is the Senior Vice President at MindWise Innovations. Brian has over 20 years as a technology professional who is spent his career working with startups and large organizations, such as Bose Corporation and Dell technologies. Now as the Senior Vice President of MindWise Innovations, Brian leads all strategic and organizational development efforts, prioritizing the innovation of educational technologies and the digital transformation of all behavior health programs. Outside of work, you can find Brian playing the drums, spending time with friends, reading, running, or in most winters, but not this one, skiing.

Brian and Lisa, welcome. Thanks so much for being here today.

Brian Kohl: Oh, our pleasure, Mari.

Lisa Desai: Thank you.

Mari Ryan: Mental wellbeing is our topic for today and this has increasingly become a much more visible topic in the workplace. Now that we’re in the midst of the world wide coronavirus, it is even more the case that we need to be concerned about mental wellbeing. What we’ve seen is the crumbling of the Maslow pyramid. No longer are we worried about self-actualization, we are worried about those things at the base of the pyramid, such as food, financial wellbeing, and safety. Our world view and our personal view has changed dramatically in a very short period of time. At that base level we are worried about, and really thinking about the ways in which this virus is having an impact on the emotional wellbeing of people. Everybody is feeling, and none of us are really exempt from this, we are feeling fear, we are vulnerable, we are feeling helplessness; there is a wide array of emotions that are at play today.

Let’s explore this emotional impact of the coronavirus and how employers can support their workforce through this. Let’s talk at first, how is this crisis impacting people? What is the emotional toll that it is taking?

Lisa Desai: Mari, as you said, it has really upended of what we think of as normal and people are talking about the new normal. When you mentioned Maslow, those basic needs, physiological and safety have to do with food, shelter, having a job, clothing, and so forth, things that we take for granted. So what has happened is not only has it impacted the workforce, it has impacted family, the spouses. Developmentally, based on where you are, whether you are a child, teenager, college student, adult, your behavior and your reactions are going to differ.

What the breakdown, what the upending looks like in a working woman, or working spouse, or a child looks very different. I think one of the things we think about and it has become very clear, is employers need to stay connected with their employees. Whether they are delivering unfortunate news, like furloughs, whether they are thinking and reimagining how teams can work more productively … you mentioned earlier before we started this, remote working. That has taken on a whole new meaning. How can employers support that? How can they provide behavioral health information, and really have a door-open policy of being able to reach out and say, I’m not doing well. What can I do?

Brian Kohl: Mari, it’s … When we think about it from an organizational development perspective, it’s challenged every structure we’ve ever known, from org charts to how teams are structured to what it even means now to be a high performing team. So, yes, the physiological, the safety, that sense of belonging is critical. Regardless of how your organization was structured you’ve got to maintain that sense, that semblance of belonging. Very quickly, look how you are going to redefine what it means to be a team, what it means to be a high-performing team because every assumption we’ve made has been challenged.

Mari Ryan: Right. So much so, yeah, it really is. Let’s talk a little bit about what employers can do to support their employees. This is a really critical time for employers to step up and recognize that to keep their people strong, and productive, and engaged, and loyal they are going to need to be able to support their workforce. What are your thoughts about how employers can do that?

Brian Kohl: Mari, if you use the word earlier that we use an awful lot internally called “vulnerable.” Yes, we are all feeling a little vulnerable right now, but we are not powerless. What do we mean by that? When we think about basic leadership models, maybe it’s servant leadership for example, demonstrating, exhibiting, not being afraid to demonstrate that vulnerability in front of your team is critical -- more now than ever.

What that begins to do, and our friend Amy Edmondson at Harvard University can speak to this wonderfully, but what it then begins to do is inculcate the psychological safety. As a leader, as a manager, as a team member, demonstrate that vulnerability. Don’t be afraid to put it out there. How do you do that? You do that in your daily conversations. You do that in your huddles. You do that in your team meetings, wherever. That’s the first thing. Don’t be afraid to talk and/or exhibit that vulnerability because quite honestly we’re all feeling it right now.

Lisa Desai: Exactly. We are all in the same boat. We are big believers in tools and providing information and tools to people because it helps with coping. We have a team, an incredibly talented seasoned team at Riverside Trauma Center, which is connected to part of MindWise, and they put together a framework that has been unbelievably helpful in this situation that we are facing, the pandemic. In particular, in the workforce and their framework is safety, predictability, and control.

Very briefly, to review that, we have information that we can provide to your audience to follow up with later. If you think about that, going back to Maslow’s, what has ended in our lives? It’s the core aspect of feeling stable. For the safety aspect, there’s a lot to talk about keeping a social distance, washing our hands, wearing masks if we have them. There are physical ways we can stay safe, but we are not necessarily hearing as much yet, hopefully we will, about what do we need to do to stay emotionally safe. What that means is staying connected to one another, I think people are getting very creative about doing that, to stay connected socially. Kids are using it to stay connected. I reconnected with college friends that I hadn’t talked to forever over this. I think they are staying socially connected.

The emotional safety of what do I turn to in healthy coping ways; is it walking, is it exercising, is it yoga, is it being artistic, what do I do that makes me feel emotionally grounded? So that’s the safety piece.

The predictability is, predictability is out the window and control is out the window for us in the face of this pandemic, but we have to remember, as Brian says, we are not helpless. We can think about small things in our daily life that we can build into a schedule. Predictability is about routine, it’s about rituals, however you want to think about it. It may be adapting a schedule to this working from home, and everyone’s home. So there are going to be different schedules and encouraging family members to have a schedule. As an example, my older daughter is home from college and she said the other day when she was walking from her bedroom to the study room where she was going to an online class, she said, “I’m going to class now.” I think it was a joke, but I also think there is a way in which it was marking I can’t walk across campus, but I am walking from my room to this study area where I am going to log onto a class. So think of ways we can build that kind of scheduling is key.

Control is how can we collaborate on our decision-making. Whether it is with your team, whether it is with your folks at home, and with team members, how do you problem-solve? The way that you led meetings, the way that you organized around tasks, three months ago is very different than now. How do you enable every person on that team to feel a sense control and to use their talents? We often forget what our skills, what are talents are, what we gravitate to, and this is a time to bring that up, brush it off, shine it up and use it.

Mari Ryan: That’s great. Brian, some things you want to add?

Brian Kohl: Mari, Lisa knows me as the silver lining guy. Yeah, look, things are awfully difficult right now and dire for tens of thousands of people across the country, but when I think about where we could be, where we might be in 12 to 18 months from now, I think about conversations we had throughout the 50s and 60s and the 70s around Edwards Deming saying, drive out fear from the organization.

When we referenced Amy Edmondson earlier around psychological safety, and some of the work that Google did to better understand what goes into high-performing teams, what we’re really saying is that this idea of checking your baggage at the door – forgive the expression – but this idea of checking your baggage at the door no longer exists. It can’t exist because we are a whole self and it’s forcing organizations of any size, any make up to really think what it is needs to be embedded in their culture.

It’s these kinds of conversations, it’s that vulnerability, it’s the safety, it’s the predictability, it’s the control that Lisa just referenced. It’s this overarching idea that no matter who we are, we should never, ever be concerned about speaking our ideas, talking our concerns, asking questions, checking assumptions. Forgive the silver lining, but I’m incredibly optimistic about what this will mean for organizations moving forward, specifically the culture that they are trying to engender, or will need to engender moving forward.

Lisa Desai: While Brian and I were preparing for this – sorry – I said to Brian, I wonder, it will be interesting to see the research that comes out of this in terms of working from home, working remotely because there is often this, in some ways, a myth that when you are working from home you are not as productive. I thought, gee, I wonder what that research will look like – and Brian, of course, knows of this research.

Brian Kohl: We know some research that’s been done by various organizations, large organizations that have come to the realization that remote teams, solely remote teams in some cases can be more productive, and as a result reducing potentially reducing the number of days that are expected during the week. We’ll see how that unfolds moving forward.

The one thing we’ve got to be aware of, is that digital, virtual fatigue; forgive me, those are our words. But this idea of virtual fatigue, look, staring into a camera and being focused on this conversation is a different level of exhaustion than we might experience when we’re in a boardroom. So please, we ask everyone to be cognizant of that virtual fatigue and as we say, ditch the computer every now and again and hop on your phone or go for a walk. Just basic, basic things, but be cognizant of the fact that we are all experiencing this virtual fatigue and we need to think about ways to mitigate that fatigue whether it’s again, just a simple walk around the block or what have you.

Mari Ryan: It sounds like we’re really asking leaders and managers to adopt a new mindset, if you will, around flexibility, to be more empathetic, to be more compassionate, to lighten up a little, to be able to make sure that it’s … we’re all going through this together and we have to support each other in this. While productivity is important, it can’t be viewed as everything.

Lisa Desai: Although when they are empathic and they are connected, and when they are flexible, it will likely result in a more productive workforce. It’s a win-win in that way. It’s part of that psychological safety.

Brian Kohl: It was … leave it to Google, but it was Google that I think came to that conclusion through their Project Aristotle that said exactly that. Through increased empowerment, really establishing the trust needed to build these high-performing teams. In the end it was all about making sure that the environment was comprised, or psychological safety existed within those environments.

We do a lot of work across a number of sectors and sometimes we like to think about the physical safety that exists within our day today. Take for example the construction industry or even manufacturing. There is that physical safety but it is also important for those organizations to start thinking about the psychological. Our expression is it’s one thing to know what’s happening outside the hardhat; it’s another thing to know what is happening inside the hardhat. We find moments like now where organizations are really grasping, trying to understand that and making a difference.

Lisa Desai: Mari, to address that question of what can employers do, we also think about it in terms of the short-term and the long-term. We are in crisis response mode right now with organizations, throughout the globe, but also organizations. It is also in Phase 2, so to speak, in terms of looking at the long term at what employers can do, and think about how can we build in the wellbeing, the behavioral health, awareness, and the tools to have conversations. A lot of what we hear when we are working with corporations and employees in corporations is an appetite and willingness and desire to talk about behavioral health, to talk about depression, anxiety, substance abuse, stress, burnout, to talk about how do I manage 200 emails an hour. So there is the desire to talk about it, but not the comfort level because of stigma we’re not used talking about behavioral health at all, let alone in the workplace.

What we’ve learned is provider language to talk about, and I think of it as Psych 101 or Organizational 101 blended together. What does depression look like? What does anxiety look like? How do you know, how does it show up at work? How can managers address it if they notice it in an empathic, caring, connective way? Optimally how can that eventually lead to … Our mantra, so to speak, is early identification, early access to treatment, better outcome.

That is a long-term way in which employers can tackle this so it is sustainable.

Mari Ryan: Those are great suggestions. I think about this from the perspective of where we are headed. We are in the midst of this slow motion trauma and we don’t know when it is going to end, which is part of the agonizing part of it. Every day feels like a week and it just keeps going. I’m curious as to … there is going to be so much to learn, as you say, as we come out of this and think about what the world is going to look like or how we want the world to look, which is the way I prefer to think about it as we do have some control over this, but we are prepared for what comes once the worst of this is behind us, and whether we need to be thinking about this from a trauma response perspective. Certainly in the healthcare industry, in hospitals, that is going to be the case. There is certainly going to be some post-traumatic stress aspects that are going to need to be addressed. We need to be conscious of that, I think, for all employees. We’ve got a whole group of people who are now unemployed and have job insecurity; they don’t know if they are going to have jobs.

What your thoughts on how to look out a little bit and see where we are headed with this and what our response is going to need today?

Brian Kohl: Forgive some of the business jargon but one thing that we know is when someone doesn’t show up to work, they are absent, they don’t show up to work. For those who show up to work but aren’t there, they are checked out, and the expression we use is presenteeism. I think what we’re already seeing is increased rates of presenteeism, and presenteeism leads to distractions, leads to lack of productivity, both for the organization and for the individual.

The reason I bring that up is you can see absenteeism, you can see presenteeism. You know when someone isn’t fully there, they are checked out. What that necessitates within any organization is, as Lisa pointed out earlier, the language. We have to know how to talk about this stuff. We have to know what it is we are observing across the organization in and out of our teams.

So, 101 is let’s have the conversation, let’s learn the language, let’s learn what it looks like, presenteeism, and absenteeism to a certain extent. It has to start with the language. There are other things that we can layer on as we are seeing as best practice. There are other things we can layer on, tools, additional training, and programs, but starting with understanding the language, how to talk about this stuff is critical. Lisa?

Mari Ryan: So important.

Lisa Desai: I can’t help but, you know, when you were talking about trauma, and so much, again, the information I pulled from earlier, SPC, it was developed by a Riverside trauma team. They are unbelievable in terms of their knowledge and the way they think about, and they are preparing already with virtual learning, virtual training, to put information out to communities, to workplaces, to schools, around how are we going to cope with this. This is a new level of collective trauma, if you will, that we are experiencing.

If you think about people in the workforce that already have pre-existing traumas, and some in the clinical world with that area of expertise would say we all come to the world with trauma and during the course of our life, we all have some level of trauma. For those with experience with specific, or chronic, or acute trauma, this is layered upon that so it becomes more complicated. Having the ability for employers and corporations to recognize this and to have resources like Riverside Trauma Center and like other resources that are out there, to provide education, and I would say normalize this.

Brian Kohl: That’s the word.

Lisa Desai: Rather than you’re an outlier for needing help. Brian and I were talking about this yesterday and one outcome of this that may be oddly positive is help-seeking may not be a weakness to seek help. Again, much of what we encourage is for people to early identify I’m struggling and to be able to reach out. If you have a toothache you’re going to reach out to the dentist. You’re not going to think about it, you’re not going to think, oh my gosh I need Novocain, that’s not okay, I’ve got a toothache, I shouldn’t ask for help. But we do that around mental illness and substance abuse.

Again, I wonder if it will be a little easier. It’s always been executives, all levels of employment have needed, whether it’s executive coaching, whether it’s therapy, there may be a level of empathy around reaching out.

Mari Ryan: I really hope you are right because I think this is something that we certainly need and while there are plenty of resources that are available, we look at things like EAP services that are in many large organizations that are available that ace very small percentage, single digit percentage of employees actually take advantage of those services. I really hope that you are right that it will become much more of the norm for people to seek help.

Brian, any other thoughts on that?

Brian Kohl: Other than we … I think I loved your question and how you phrased the question; what are we hoping for, what do we see coming? I think normalizing is a really important word. I think another important word is operationalizing. Forgive the business jargon, but we need to make sure that this is more than just a training program, that this is more of just yet another thing that we all have to go through from a compliance perspective. I think what we are learning is that this, this conversation, the psychological safety, if you don’t mind me reusing the expression, that this is ultimately what will drive organizations moving forward. That’s what I think is happening and figuring out how to operationalize that, whether that’s in your morning huddles, your team meetings, the kinds of conversations you’re asking in those huddles and team meetings, that’s what we are starting to see take effect. Hopeful, hopeful.

We kind of had no choice. We’ve got to figure this out, don’t we, Mari?

Mari Ryan: Yes, we do. And we will, we will figure this out. Lisa and Brian, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work you are doing at MindWise Innovations, where can they find you?

Brian Kohl: It’s simple, mindwise.org. Keep in mind that we are a division of a very large non-profit called Riverside Community Care.

Mari Ryan: So you’ve got a lot of resources available there for people to be able to take advantage of.

Brian Kohl: Yeah.

Mari Ryan: Excellent.

Lisa Desai: Lots of expertise around all kinds of clinical realms.

Mari Ryan: Excellent. Thank you both for being here today. As always, I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation.

Both: Mari, thank you very much. Thank you so much for inviting us. Take care, ‘bye.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, workplace culture, wellness, employee experience, employee wellness, worksite well-being, mental health, employee well-being, remote workforce, health and safety, mental well-being, psychologically safe, psychologically safe workplace, remote working, work from home

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.