At American Express, great service begins with the people who deliver it. This means meeting the emotional as well as physical health needs of some 50,000 employees and their families in the U.S. and around the world.
“We recognize the importance of creating a best-place-to-work environment, and we know that doing so leads to successful business outcomes,” says David Kasiarz, PhD, Senior Vice President of Global Compensation and Benefits. Kasiarz began his professional life in the mental health field, ultimately following his passion to evolve human resources management by working to create what he describes as “enlightened policies.”
The genesis of Healthy Living and Healthy Minds dates back to late 2008, when companies across the business spectrum were beginning to reevaluate and retool their employee benefits packages. Up to that point, American Express had offered a telephonic-only EAP model, which had a utilization rate of just 4.2 percent. Data from health-appraisal questionnaires suggested that employees and their dependents were looking for additional support for mental health issues and other behavioral disorders. Moreover, mental health was becoming a significant driver of lost work days.
In 2009, mental health issues accounted for 10 percent of American Express employees who were on short-term disability — second only to pregnancy. That year, stress and related factors accounted for more than 16,000 work days lost. “Many of the trends we saw in our work environment, such as stress, were also occurring nationally,” Kasiarz says. “That’s when we really started to see the value of investing in employee health and well-being.”
Initially, American Express added free, onsite counselors at its regional Wellness Centers across the United States. In 2012, Charles Lattarulo, PhD, a psychologist with expertise in behavioral health management for global businesses was hired to lead mental health at American Express. He created the Healthy Minds brand, which ultimately became synonymous with all aspects of the company’s global mental health strategy.
Once on board, Lattarulo reviewed the available information, then immersed himself in the culture to understand employees’ needs and gain a sense of what they would find valuable. Working with the company’s Compensation and Benefits communications team, he created Healthy Minds and integrated the program into Healthy Living’s lifestyle, safety and disease management and prevention offerings. With its bright colors and positive imagery, the Healthy Minds brand is well on its way to becoming ubiquitous within American Express.
Healthy Minds incorporates a powerful blend of peer-reviewed science, evidence-based practices, professional partnerships for quality resources and services, pilot testing and rigorous evaluation to deliver the best and broadest range of resources and information to its geographically and culturally diverse workforce. The program supports the physical wellness component of Healthy Living and includes onsite activities and events, issues-based campaigns, a website and blogs, and information online and in print that covers an exhaustive list of work-life topics: financial and legal matters, substance use, relationships, parenting, eldercare, supervisory skills and much more. All offerings are company sponsored and free of charge to employees and their dependents.
“Find Your Brighter Side”
Destigmatizing mental health is a major goal of Healthy Minds, Lattarulo says. The program’s tagline, “Find Your Brighter Side,” was chosen to appeal to a wide audience. “We put it on email signatures and created a blog with links to an online application, so people can share how they’re doing,” says Lattarulo. “And we’ve built webinars around it that are time-sensitive, so employees in different time zones can participate.”
In some cultures, behavioral interventions are most effective when delivered indirectly. For example, employees in certain offices overseas tend to be more comfortable with online chats and email than with face-to-face counseling. So Healthy Minds provides those options.
Other effective means are less conventional. To explore the link between workplace productivity and computer applications that are grounded in sound psychological principles, American Express has tested online games based on cognitive-behavioral research and practices at its offices in Mexico. Initial research suggests the game may enhance users’ overall outlook as well as their performance.
“Every region has its own drivers,” Lattarulo explains. “Utilization around the globe varies. You have to be aware of what works and what doesn’t.”
‘Hot Pockets’ and Pilot Testing
In his role as Global Director of Healthy Minds, Lattarulo and his team review and analyze a wealth of employee information to identify “hot pockets,” areas where programs are most needed.
“Everything we do boils down to research,” Lattarulo explains. “The trends we are seeing tell us what employees are experiencing, where it’s taking place, and how it’s affecting productivity.”
Many prospective initiatives are pilot tested at the company’s Customer Care Center in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Doria Camaraza, Senior Vice President and General Manager for Customer Care, is responsible for thousands of employees who are on the phone with customers around the clock. She is an enthusiastic proponent of Healthy Minds.
“We want every customer who communicates with us to come away with a lasting favorable impression of the company,” Camaraza says. “Investing in people, giving them the freedom to care for themselves as well as our customers, makes a huge difference. It sets us apart from the competition. And it’s what makes us not just a good employer, but an employer of choice.”
One way that American Express approaches stigma reduction is through broad, global mental health campaigns. In recent years American Express has launched campaigns such as “1 in 4” teaching colleagues that 1 in 4 people globally have a diagnosable mental illness. Their “I Will Listen” campaign recruited employees to listen and assist people with mental health issues. And the “Asking for a Friend” campaign taught employees how to recognize and respond to emotional distress. All campaigns are led by high level leadership and have engagement from dozens of countries across the globe. They are a true unifying factor in the quest to support mental health at American Express.
Integral to the success of the truly global Healthy Minds program is the scope for our local teams to imbue the core with a local flavor. We empower our local partners to take the principles of the central program and integrate them according to what is appropriate to the local culture. For example, the UK has offered a progressive emotional wellbeing strategy since 2014. The commitment to embed positive emotional wellbeing as business as usual was brought to life by a public organizational pledge to the Time to Change public health campaign, lending our voice to the national campaign to combat stigma around mental illness. The local Healthy Minds programs have developed and expanded according to the insights generated by working with Mind (the UK’s leading mental health charity) fully to understand and embrace the needs of colleagues and leadership alike.
Understanding the needs of our people is key, and continues to form the bedrock of the local deployment of the global strategy. The company’s latest innovation is an emotional wellbeing service based on a stepped care model, from online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy ‘Space to Thrive’ right through to counselling and CBT services – regularly reviewed and revised according to the needs of the individual.
In April of 2018, American Express in the UK was recognized with a Silver award in Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index 2017-18, a benchmark of best policy and practice, designed to celebrate the good work employers are doing to promote and support positive mental health.
Our Silver award means we are achieving impact within our workplace, having made demonstrable achievements in promoting colleague mental health, taking action across a number of key areas and demonstrating progress over time. Our participation also means we are contributing to cutting-edge research on workplace wellbeing. We are now integrating the findings into our UK emotional wellbeing strategy to ensure that we continue to drive the best possible experience for our colleagues.
A Sound Model
While Healthy Minds is still relatively new, the program is gaining traction company-wide. In its sixth year, the Healthy Minds website records tens of thousands of hits annually. Healthy Minds blogs are well-read, and the number of comments on the blog’s site, from both office- and home-based employees, is growing. In an employee satisfaction survey, 90.6 percent gave the program high marks.
“Our aim is always to be proactive,” says Lattarulo. “Why should we wait until stress becomes full-fledged anxiety, or until sadness turns into depression? Our belief is that we are catching stress before it becomes anxiety, and catching sadness before it becomes depression.”
While Healthy Minds’ offerings and utilization are on the rise, one important statistic is going down.
“Already, we are seeing a leveling-off of both medical and behavioral health claims, and the rates of behavioral health issues are decreasing,” Lattarulo says.
In the future, as more data is collected and analyzed, employee health patterns and their impact in the employee health patterns and their impact in the workplace can be targeted and addressed even more meaningfully.
Kasiarz and Lattarulo regard Healthy Minds, with its solid research and evaluation components, as a sound behavioral health model for any company or organization. Kasiarz cautions, however, that workplace wellness programs are most successful when they are supported at the highest levels of an organization.
“Healthy Minds is first and foremost a business initiative that is scaled globally, customized locally and supported through investment,” he explains. “No company of any size should write off mental health as a societal responsibility alone. If business leaders have the courage to raise the issue of health and wellbeing and understand the long-term benefits of investing in employee health, good things can happen.”
Lattarulo adds, “Business leaders need to understand that behavioral health issues can have a significant impact on their bottom line. American Express was extremely savvy to envision a global mental wellbeing component and to hire someone to manage it. Doing the research, identifying evidence-based interventions and tailoring them to a company’s culture can result in a huge win.”
We look forward to finding out more and continuing the conversation with Charles and Georgia at the Mad World Summit on Tuesday 9 October. If you haven’t already, don’t forget to register here.
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