As Chair of the American Health Policy Institute, I recently opened a forum on what I consider to be one of the most urgent and important issues facing chief human resource officers — and every leader — whether in the public or private sector. I’m sharing my remarks more broadly here because it’s an issue that for too long has been relegated to the secondary or tertiary list of priorities. We can no longer let that be the case.
You all know the statistics. It was captured starkly in the headline of a release by the American Health Policy Institute in August of 2020. It read: 102% Upsurge in Risk for Depression Among U.S. Workers since February.
Similarly, our data at Marriott showed heightened risk levels for anxiety and depression. I am sure it reflects a trend in an industry that has been hit hard by the pandemic.
This is also an area that is personal for me.
As a child of immigrant parents who were hourly employees, I was curious about what they did at work and how their employment affected them physically and psychologically. For example, English was a second language for them as it also was for me. Having been ridiculed by classmates and even a teacher in my early grade school years because of difficulty pronouncing certain words, I grew to understand my father’s reticence at times to engage more fully in certain activities. While I did not have the frameworks and constructs to understand the pertinent psychosocial factors, I felt the emotional weight and impact of the workplace experience on my parents. I also intuitively understood that the relatively long hours that people spend in the workplace make it a major determinant of happiness in life.
It wasn’t until later in his life that we really were more conscious of the anxiety disorder that intermittently affected my father – in his old age he became more and more reclusive. I have had my own struggles with what is probably some variant of my father’s affliction.
Over time, I became more sensitized to the impact the workplace has on people and families, and what enables employees to excel in their work and extend efficacy to other parts of their lives. It is one of the reasons I became an industrial/organizational psychologist and human resources professional. In a sense, my lifelong interest in the field, in part, emanates from an intimately personal source as well as from an unquenchable curiosity about the interplay of the physical, mental and emotional dynamics that govern human potential in the workplace.
My childhood was not the only area that furthered my interest in this topic. About seven years ago, I was stricken with leukemia. In some ways, it was pivotal in how my focus has evolved as an HR leader. For a number of weeks, I was in constant intense physical pain as my body reacted to the drug regimen to fight the cancer. But as my body adjusted, it was the psychological fight that was at times even more daunting. With an immune system that was depleted, I was cut off socially and from the normal daily activities that are foundational to happiness and fulfillment. It reinforced to me that emotional and mental distress can be as destructive as physical ailments.
Some nine months later, as I resumed my career, I began the pursuit for a holistic framework to promote employee wellbeing at Marriott, and out of that and with the contributions of many, we brought TakeCare, our global wellbeing program to life.
I mention TakeCare because our approach to promoting mental and emotional wellness must embrace a complete approach to human wellbeing. To be sure, we need to advocate for the programs that bring relief and health to those who are suffering. However, there is a great opportunity for us to also create the conditions that can bolster human potential while preventing these disorders from ruining lives.
During the pandemic, we partnered with meQuilibrium to offer our workforce a clinically validated tool that can help our associates address detractors to personal wellbeing and to build resilience for themselves and their teams. We’ve found that associates who participate in meQuilibrium show reductions in risk for anxiety, burnout and depression. But we are also taking other steps that provide for a preventative effect, for example, working to ensure an inclusive workplace of constructive relationships, and evolving access to learning systems that can help people grow and reach for their dreams.
In the end, we need to help those in distress and also promote the conditions that provide for a holistically healthy workplace that builds immunity from a mental health perspective.
As we approach World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, I encourage leaders around the world to find opportunities to make a positive impact on human wellbeing. It’s one of the most important things we can do for our people and our organizations.