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Wellness Takes the Lead with D'Ann Whitehead

Senior leaders are being called upon to address a higher level of care for the people they employ. They are guiding their teams through the uncertain maze we call the future. There is more fear, change and uncertainty whether we are working from home or office or whether we are in retail or technology. Almost everyone I talk to says that they are in the process of figuring it out as we move into this phase of the pandemic. For some workers who are fully remote or others managing a hybrid blend, the effects on our mental health is something we all experience. It is up to each of us to take control of our emotional health which ranges from thriving to distressed and it is influenced by many factors.


I found that one good outcome of the pandemic is a heightened focus on our own mental health.


I met up with D’Ann Whitehead who is a clinical psychologist by training and a Partner at Mercer, working out of the San Francisco office. Her work focuses on wellbeing. She works with large employers to address employee wellness encompassing the emotional, physical and social aspects of working in organizations today.

Sherry Benjamins: D’Ann, tell us about your work.


D’Ann Whitehead: I bring a clinical perspective to our clients in the wellbeing arena. There is no question that the pandemic has elevated the concept of wellbeing as well as mental health. Our clients are defining wellbeing more broadly. It is not primarily physical fitness any longer. This transition with COVID has brought a deeper and broader understanding of what wellbeing means and the impact on our lives at work and home. Much of what we took for granted in the pre-pandemic days now sheds new light and creates new stresses for all of us as we change working models.


Employers have a new perspective and a new level of involvement. We call it the dual pandemic with attention now on black lives matter and COVID. Senior leaders are getting involved as they learn about realities like difficulties with access to mental health care and specifically in finding a black therapist for example. Or, a black or brown employee gets hospitalized and it raises the bar for how we support them as needs emerge.


While our typical client was the benefit consultant inside companies, now we are working with CEO’s and executives who lead the business. This is a dynamic change coming from the top. They are experiencing the stresses themselves and are concerned about burnout. There are more questions about what employee flexibility looks like.


Sherry: What is the recovery looking like for your clients?


D’Ann: It looks very different for companies depending upon their business, services or product orientation. Where will employees work? Is it a manufacturing facility or can the work be done from anywhere? Shall we provide options? There is clearly a trend to allow for more flexibility and let people decide on their own. We are all entering a phase where we create a future state. We help our clients address the mental health and wellbeing needs of their workers. Supervisors on the front line need greater guidance. We are actually helping them to take care of themselves first.


Sherry: What are the stressors you are seeing in your clients as they form new models of work?


D’Ann: I am hearing the consistent message of burnout. Individuals want to know how to handle their own sense of overwhelm. Early in the pandemic, we had 24x7 work and it continues in many ways – for many, more than ever. There is growing concern for individuals and how they are dealing with this. It is consistent for us all to feel this sense of burnout. Burnout has been defined through much research – even prior to the pandemic – as an organizational issue. Organizations need to take ownership for their role in burnout. Prior to the pandemic we may have focused more on the doing side of business and less on the ”being “side. That shift to wellbeing is a good wake up call.


Sherry: Are leaders prepared to help their teams with emotions and mental health issues?


D’Ann: Everything from supervisor training to a mental health coach is important, and a lot of clients are looking at protocols around crisis intervention. They didn’t have the protocols before and there were gaps in defining who is responsible. Larger firms are taking time to create crisis teams so that we know how to help managers. It starts with a protocol on evaluating the crisis. Do they lean on their EAP’s more or create their own process, or some combination of the two. Initially during the pandemic utilization of mental health services went down. Later on mental health needs skyrocketed. Many large employers took quick action by implementing telemedicine and digital solutions for mental health from prevention to treatment. Having a foundation of access to care has been equally critical to training managers about mental health.


Sherry: Are we in a crisis of overwhelm?


D’Ann: I think it is important to recognize that all of us are in that state. We are feeling better as the restrictions are a little less, yet the psychological and physical reactions are normal for us. There is nothing wrong with us if we feel this sense of overwhelm. When we are stressed the body goes on alert, so we have been on alert for some time now. Fortunately some of our client leaders are asking how they can help. Some are acknowledging and sharing their own overwhelm. At Mercer, our leaders have said, “block your calendar to take time off for yourself.” This modeling and messaging to employees does matter.


Sherry: How do we prepare leaders for the managerial complexity of the future?


D’Ann: We definitely need more development for our leaders. We are identifying the skill sets of the future and EQ or emotional quotient comes to the top of the list. If remote working is the future and reducing the real estate footprint limits are time during a week to connect in person, then the adapting, connecting and building relationships for leaders will be even more important. Listening is the new human skill of 2021. Matter of fact, all the human skills are front and center. Thinking differently about work, having flexibility on things like work hours or understanding what works for me is different for what might work for you, is a new priority. Then, consider the complexity of how to connect virtually and engage a remote team to work on a problem together.


Sherry: Where is the most exciting innovations happening in mental health?


D’Ann: There are many innovative technology solutions that will support the diverse needs of our employees. Using technology to have people learn on their own is the exciting trend. We see it in many digital startups. They are transforming treatment with some incredible options.


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