In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan and Nancy Board, MSW discuss mental health and the role employers play in supporting the mental health of their employees. Nancy is an expert in Employee Assistance Program operations, and is a business professional experienced in corporate health and well-being globally.
Interview with Nancy Board, MSW
Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan, I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It's my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview, where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Nancy Board.
Nancy is an expert in Employee Assistance Program operations, and is a business professional experienced in corporate health and wellbeing globally. She is a leader in workplace mental health, trauma response, women’s issues and a sought-after speaker and facilitator. Combining her unique background in behavioral medicine and global human resources, Nancy has spent over 25 years building sustainable solutions for individuals and organizational leaders, always with a focus toward mental wellbeing.
Nancy spent eight years consulting with the United States Postal Service on employee assistance and workplace improvement initiatives, collaborating with both management and labor executives. Additionally, she has managed healthcare, wellness, and EAP benefits for JPMorgan’s 38,000 diverse employees across the Asia-Pacific region, including 18 countries.
Nancy is currently in the role of Clinical Services Manager with the Washington State Employee Assistance Program. Nancy received her master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, and a certification as a global professional in human resources from HRCI.
Nancy, I am so excited to have you here today.
Nancy Board: Thank you, Mari. I’m so excited to be here as well.
Mari Ryan: Great. Let’s explore this topic of mental health and mental well-being. One in five people will be affected by mental illness in their lifetime. That means we all know someone who has experienced this in their life. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and we want to help create awareness for this important topic and to show how much we care and how individuals can be supported on this topic.
I’m curious, Nancy, why are we seeing and hearing so much more about mental health issues?
Nancy Board: First of all, I’m thrilled that we are hearing more about mental health issues, and I’m looking forward to the day when it’s not just May that is mental health month, but every month and every day is Mental Health Awareness Month and Mental Health Day. I think the reason that we are hearing so much more now, a lot of it is due to the younger generation, millennial generation, coming into the workplace and standing up for themselves much more so than my generation did in the workplace. In my generation there was stigma about you had to keep things under wraps. It wasn’t okay to have any issues whatsoever. You had to be strong. You had to be resilient. You could show any weakness, but I think when I look back about how this generation was raised, their parents said, you can have emotions. It’s okay, we’re not going to stuff feelings anymore. Millennials are demanding more services and benefits anyway, and I think they are demanding more from the workforce and their employer, which is positive.
The other thing, Mari, that I thought about, take an example – I always pick as an example of Prince Harry. Prince Harry lost his mother, Diana, in … Gosh, how many years ago? He was just 12 years old. So, he was an adolescent boy who had to stuff his feelings, at least publicly. Now, he is working with Oprah on a documentary around mental health. It’s exciting that people like him are giving voice to mental health issues and realizing that because of what he went through, probably his own depression on some level, that he is saying no to this.
I think part of this change is that more people have finally been on the bandwagon, demanding change around mental health and realizing that to have a mental health issue is normal as any other kind of medical issue.
Mari Ryan: That is so true, and yet there is still such a stigma around it. What do you think we can do to be able to remove some of this stigma?
Nancy Board: It’s a great question, and truthfully I’ve been working on this stigma my entire career. It’s troubling that there is still this stigma because there are so many other health issues where we have decided you don’t have to have a stigma around it anymore. If someone has a cancer diagnosis, they don’t usually keep that under wraps in the workplace. Usually they are given support. I’ve done webinars and trainings my entire career on this subject on let’s reduce this stigma, let’s get rid of the taboo.
Even today, as recently as this morning, I read something where somebody was talking about let’s remove the taboo. Let’s get rid of the stigma. What I think can make a huge difference is all of us need to get on board with the fact that our mental health, our head is connected to the rest of our body. Historically we separate those two. Just think, anything that goes on up here that’s related to emotion or illness of some sort, couldn’t be talked about and couldn’t be supported publicly. So with those changes it still takes all of us to reduce the stigma, but I think that it is changing, and I think that we all have to be a part of that. We all have to speak out to reduce the stigma. It’s the only way anything is going to change.
Mari Ryan: So well said -- I really appreciate those thoughts. I’m curious, some of the things that we hear regarding mental health are often around stress and burnout; what happens when the workplace is that source of stress and burnout?
Nancy Board: Oh, yes. For so many people it is. Let’s carve it up in a few ways; there are many people who struggle with what we know as mental illness, a diagnosis of sorts. The majority of people outside of that 20% or 25% still have mental health concerns. When I think about mental health, I think about our health and well-being in the workplace, since you and I are workplace experts. Often the source of mental health concerns, stress – as you said – burnout, can be related to other aspects. It can be related to other kinds of conflict in the workplace. Bullying. It’s the fact that people, human beings, are interacting to compete for maybe the same promotion, or they are doing a similar job that they are trying to prove themselves to others. All these interactions me that we are bumping up against one another. Not everybody has the skills to know how to support or defend themselves or someone else, as well as the fact that people have different ways of being resilient. We both know people who are super resilient, and we know people who seem to be stressed out and create drama over anything.
So, you’ve got all that at work, in the workplace, and you and I have fought for years to say what’s the source of fact, how do we help employees be less stressed, or if they are stressed, how do we help them be more resilient? Because all of us are human and all of us are on the spectrum of what that looks like, mental health concerns show up in the workplace. There’s just no way around it.
Mari Ryan: No, there is no avoiding it.
Nancy Board: No, there’s no avoiding it whatsoever.
Mari Ryan: I don’t think I’ve ever been in a workplace that wasn’t stressful, but the challenge I see so often, is that we see programs that are brought into the workplace, resilience, stress reduction, and mindful meditation, and all of these things are all wonderful programs, but if you never address the root cause, whether that’s in the culture of the workplace, or, as you said, it could be a bully who is your manager, or your colleague, if those root causes are not addressed, that all those other programs are fluff. They are not really going to matter.
Nancy Board: That’s absolutely right. I think our audience needs to understand that programs are one thing and they can be beneficial. I’ve certainly worked in many different workplaces, and I’ve worked in some that gave everybody all kinds of wonderful benefits, like massages onsite, and mindfulness classes, and meditation, and ping-pong tables, and pet therapy -- all kinds of great things. However, one was still expected to work 70 or 80 hours a week. No matter how much fluff there was, no matter how much “support” there was, tick the box kind of programs, and you and I both know it really is about the culture. I have to say that in this point in my career, I love the team of people I am working with. It’s probably one of, if not the healthiest workplaces I’ve ever been a part of. We have such a super awesome leader who walks the talk, takes the time to get to know us as people, what matters in our life, and she doesn’t create more stress. She supports us. We all know it’s truly about the leadership, it’s about the culture at the top. When you feel supported and you feel like you have the trust from your manager or from the leaders in your workplace then you’ll be more inclined to say hey, this is really stressing me out, or I need more support here, my mental health is at risk. Certainly when you have mindful leaders, they appreciate and own the fact that mental health is so necessary.
So, we’ve got to stop the toxic workplace. That’s where it’s at.
Mari Ryan: That’s a topic for another day. I’m curious, Nancy, given your experience, what are some strategies that you would suggest to employers for how they can support employee mental health and well-being?
Nancy Board: The one tried-and-true program that we all have had in the workplace for almost 50 years, most workplaces have had employee assistance programs. They have been the original mental health programs for employees and their family members. They are no cost to employees. In America, 95% of companies now have, and a lot of global companies now also have employee assistance programs.
They are not well utilized, they never have been well utilized, and yet it’s a free benefit that is there to help employees with any kind of life issue they may be encountering, whether it’s workplace stress or family stress whatever that is. We’re all going to bump into some issue in our life that we struggle with. I always advise to go back to your benefits team and take a look at what resources are there already. Also take advantage of other programs that are there.
One of the ways that we can best support people is give more paid leave time off. So often, it’s young parents that are facing new issues of stress, so they need help and adjustment. There all these transitional times in people’s lives. Somebody dies in your family; there’s time to take off for grief. In our society in the U.S., it’s typical to give somebody three days. That’s usually not enough for somebody to truly go through whatever their grief process is, and it may take them a lot longer than that.
There are ways that we can be kind and compassionate, and again, that has to start at the top. That’s on the program you can tick off the box, it’s about how do we train leaders to get themselves into a position where they commit to kindness and compassion and culture change at that very top level. That’s where trust is instilled, and with trust employees are going to feel better and supported.
Mari Ryan: Fabulous suggestions and great strategies, but not easily implemented. It’s going to take some work to be able to do that.
Nancy Board: It takes, I think, true, committed leaders. I’ve looked for those, I found some of those. You and I both know healthy workplaces, we know toxic workplaces, and it takes that kind of commitment. It truly takes that kind of commitment from a leader to be there, to support his/her employees.
Mari Ryan: Absolutely. In my experience, and in doing some research around these topics, I’ve seen statistics that indicate that, as you mentioned, employee assistance programs are often underutilized, the 5-7% of a workforce utilizing these programs. I’m curious, why do you think they are so underutilized? It’s such a great resource.
Nancy Board: It’s such a great resource, and my biggest – and I’ve been in this profession a long time – my biggest pet peeve about it is also one of the benefits of it. Because of the confidentiality and the privacy that is embedded in these programs, that’s also, I think in some ways, why they are so underutilized and unknown; they are so private. It’s as if people don’t know about them and they don’t know enough about them, and they are usually offsite. So, the professionals who are providing those services are not seen in the workplace. When you have an on-site EAP, just like when you have an onsite wellness program and wellness manager, you have much more access to who these people are and what these services are about.
It’s kind of like that out of sight, out of mind philosophy that even though these programs are often promoted at an employee in-service, or an onboarding session, it’s easily forgotten. That’s one of the reasons why.
The other reason that we’ve heard for years is related to stigma. Oh, I don’t need that. I’m not bad enough. That’s for people who have a mental illness. The truth of the matter is, no, it isn’t. I want to sit down and talk to somebody because I have some transitions going on in my life. Or, as I mentioned earlier, maybe somebody is a new parent, and they are really struggling with what it’s like to cope with work and a new family and all the other pressures in life. That’s a great reason to use an EAP.
Those are some of the reasons, Mari, that it’s traditionally been because people are still not aware of what these services are. I always invite people to check those out, talk to someone, pick up the phone, give a call and find out what it is to go and talk to somebody. It’s absolutely free and confidential.
Mari Ryan: Right, exactly. Good reminder on that. What would you suggest for us as individuals? What can we do as individuals to look after our own mental health and wellbeing?
Nancy Board: I’m recalling as you asked that question just as recently as yesterday, I had two challenging calls related to two challenging situations. One was a young man who was thinking about suicide, and the other was working with a manager and her manager because they had an employee who had made comments about suicide and had a whole host of issues happening in his life. Everything imaginable was going wrong in his life. When I think about what it took for each of these individuals to pick up the phone, to trust a stranger to say, “I need some help here,” the one young man said, “I really don’t want to die,” and I said, “I know, I can tell. You don’t want to, you want to live,” but there is a reaction to just a terrible time, a terrible moment in time where the emotions were such that they were out of control and he just spiraled down into this depression and reacted to that.
That happens all the time. We had have this influx of suicide. It’s happening all over the place. But, what both of these, these two different situations involve people that said, I need help, I need consultation, I’m going to reach out and make a phone call. Any of us can do that, and it’s so important that we do that, that we say let’s not give in to these emotions and this situation. It actually does and can pass. There actually is help if people can pick up the phone or reach out to an online service or use an app or make a phone call. That always is there, but it takes strength and courage.
Mari, in our society today with people feeling so isolated, that’s harder and harder for folks to do, and yet it is so necessary that people have a support system somehow, somewhere, whether that’s a stranger, a support program that workplaces offer like an EAP. It could be a chat group, it could be a Facebook group, but really, it’s that connection. People are needing connections with other humans. However they can first access it, I’m totally happy with that, somebody makes the effort to do that.
Also, I think about our furry creatures in life; so many of us have access to furry creatures that can be there to provide some relief and it’s something to look after. A creature needs us to help keep them going. So, I always talk about “fuzz therapy” and pet therapy and things like that. We can all take a walk, we can all stop what we are doing, we can get out of our spaces, we can go out into nature, any of us who have access to green spaces and nature … nature is a wonderfully healing place to go take and absorb any of the stuff. Like anything I have going on in my life, I can throw it at nature and it always takes it, and I always come back feeling so much better.
Those are just simple, free ways that any of us can make a difference. It has to come from us. We have to be the ones to initiate that help.
Mari Ryan: Yes, as you said, it does take courage and strength to be able to do that, using some of those techniques, such as our furbabies and taking a walk in nature to be able to keep us in a state of equilibrium, even when the going gets tough. So, great suggestions there.
Nancy Board: Thank you.
Mari Ryan: If our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you are doing, where can they find you?
Nancy Board: A couple of things I will say; again, I am the Clinical Services Manager for the Washington State EAP, and I’m also the co-founder of Global Women for Wellbeing, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to women and healthy female leadership. I’ll give you that easy email address for me at Global Woman 4 Wellbeing is info at gw4w.org.
Mari Ryan: Excellent. Thank you so much for being here today and sharing your expertise and insights. It’s always a delight to spend time with you, Nancy. Thanks so much.
Nancy Board: Thank you, Mari, it’s my pleasure.
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