American Express’ approach to creating enlightened wellbeing policy
18th September, 2018
Dr. Charles Lattarulo
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
“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
“Find Your Brighter
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
‘Hot Pockets’ and
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
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
“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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Dr. Charles Lattarulo
Dr. Charles Lattarulo, a psychologist with over 20 years of behavioral health experience, is the creator and Global Director of the Healthy Minds program at American Express. Prior to his role at American Express, Dr. Lattarulo served as Director of Behavioral Health at a home care agency, Clinical Director of an international Employee Assistance Program, and Director of Training and Clinical Instructor at a major metropolitan hospital.
His vast expertise includes corporate behavioral health, anxiety and stress, bereavement, and substance abuse issues. Dr. Lattarulo’s diverse role at American Express includes managing the company’s global mental health strategy, onsite EAP counselors, U.S. and global EAP vendor relationships, and behavioral health absence management. He also creates and ensures the viability of the company’s behavioral health programs and works to provide ad-hoc expertise across the organization. Has been with the organization for 7 years.