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Mental health at the workplace
Culture | 15 Dec 2019
Mental health in the workplace is a huge topic. So much that it seems like managers spend much of their time acting like therapists.
As personal and professional barriers fade away, companies need to care for the entire employee, not just manage their work.
Cheryl Kerrigan is the VP of People at BlueCat Networks and takes this topic very seriously. When you spend a lot of time and money recruiting people, you want to take care of them and make sure they enjoy staying with you.
What we learned from this episode
-The added complexity of managing the mental health of remote workers who don’t have as many social connections. This includes learning how to connect in a more personal way.
-Why reducing stress is so central to better mental health.
-Generational struggles with mental health in the workplace.
-The end of stress-related short term disability
-Could an AI bot spot mental health issues before a human manager could?
What you can do right now
-One-on-ones are essential to making sure you pick up on your team’s mental health.
-Sending your team to a mental health first aid training so they can spot the early warning signs and be linked to resources.
-Start with employees who really care about the issues and don’t just make it mandatory training.
Today, our guest is Cheryl Kerrigan. She’s the VP of People at BlueCat Networks. And this episode we’re going to call Work Minus Therapy. Hi, Cheryl. How are you doing today?
I’m great. How are you?
I’m doing great. And I’m very excited to talk to you today because we’re talking about mental health in the workplace, which is a huge topic. And there’s a lot to cover today. But I want you to start with just a little bit of a background of who you are. And tell us a little bit about BlueCat Networks.
Sure. So, I’m the VP of People here at BlueCat. I’ve been here four years. We are a global company with employees all across the U.S. and Canada, Europe, Mexico, so very distributed workforce. BlueCat is a technology company that focuses on network security and helping our clients with transformations into the cloud. So, we’ve been around for 18 years and we’re a high growth company and very much growing rapidly. So, lots of things that we are focused on.
So, let’s dive into mental health. Tell us about from your perspective where you sit as a people director for a larger organization, what is your perception of where mental health is today versus maybe where it was 20 years ago?
Yeah, great question. So, I think that we are starting to get a lot more comfortable talking about mental health in the workforce. I’ve just noticed even an uptick in having conversations in the last five years. I think 20 years ago it was still very much a stigma. You didn’t talk about whether you felt comfortable coming to work. You definitely didn’t want anyone at work to know if you were suffering from mental health. I don’t think it’s actually widely accepted yet. But I think we’re starting to see a lot more acceptance, a lot more companies focused on making sure that employees can bring their full selves to work. And that’s everything from the stresses that are going on at home and if you’re not feeling yourself today being able to talk about that. So, I think there’s a lot more acceptance or at least a lot more conversation starting to happen than 20 years ago.
Yeah. But you still feel like there’s still a stigma there around somebody who comes out and says, “I’m really struggling with this.”
Yeah, I honestly think it’s because people really don’t know how to handle it. I remember, and I’m going to date myself, 20 years ago, when someone said that they needed to go to the doctor because they weren’t feeling well, you’d ask for a doctor’s note and that’s it. So, but now, people are expecting a lot more empathy and support in the workforce. And I think that’s why it’s starting to change. I also was just reading an article about the fact that mental health issues are starting to pop up a lot more in younger folks than they were 20 years ago. So, I think just that combination of that it’s more pervasive in today’s society is making us have to have those conversations at work.
It’s maybe a hard question to answer and just where you’re sitting in Toronto, do you feel like the issue of mental health has become more prevalent across society in general? Or do you feel like we’re just more open about it, we’re just talking about it more and more people are aware of it?
Yeah, I think it’s hard to pinpoint it. I think, again, that just due to the emergence of social media, people aren’t as connected as they used to be. They spend a lot of their time on their phones and not actually physically connecting with other humans. I think that has actually created an uptick in mental health issues. But I also think that there’s still very much a stigma around it, but people are demanding that the conversations happen and they’re a little bit more open. So, I’m not sure which is higher. But I think that those two things coupled together are making conversations occur.
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s interesting you say the fact that we’re spending less time with other human beings in the same physical space is actually making that harder and because we think social networks are ways to connect with people, but they often prevent that.
Well, just given even the nature of work, we’re connected, we’re not all sitting in physical environments. We work in global distributed at home by ourselves. So really, the only connection that you’re having to humans is through a computer. You don’t have that water cooler work because of the way the nature of work is happening, especially at tech companies.
Yeah. Well, tell us about your setup. How much of your team is remote just totally by themselves?
Yeah, that’s So half, half of our employees are remote.
I hadn’t really thought about the mental effects of being at home. There’s a lot of benefits to that. You can relieve a lot of stress and anxiety that comes along with it. But you do limit that interaction with other people, which maybe is a way to improve mental health. So, what’s been your strategy in terms of… or even observations between those who are remote workers versus those who are in location.
So, we spend a lot of time actually training our leaders on how to manage remote workers. It’s not something, again, that is that natural to people. So, we spend a lot of time teaching them about that when you’re having a call, make sure it’s a video call so you’re actually connecting and seeing someone, otherwise, sometimes those employees the only connection that they’re having is through calls. So, really trying to personalize it with seeing people’s faces is one of the things. Making sure that regular one on ones are happening, that they’re really kept in the calendar. It’s easy as we all go into our weekly work to maybe skip a one on one. But that connection with especially remote workers is often the only connection they have with their leaders or their employees. So, really, really making sure that that’s a priority, it’s not something that’s missed is another connection. We also make sure that we are bringing people in. So, once a year, we schedule what we call BlueCat kickoff, and we fly everyone across the company to spend three days together really just helping to form those relationships, those connections, alignment to the organization, so that there’s something to look forward to. And wherever possible, we do regional events on a quarterly basis, so our sales teams getting together on a quarterly basis, and really trying to, again, drive those connections and form those relationships so that when they are not together, that they still at least have a connection.
I want to get into this from a different angle I was hoping to get to later actually, but even from a manager’s perspective, when you’re managing remote workers, a lot of times when you’re wanting to pick up on somebody’s mental health feel, it’s difficult to do just in the transactions of work. Somebody’s giving you work to do, you’re reviewing it, you’re maybe talking about work, it’s often when people really pick up, hey, maybe this person is really struggling, it’s in those other interactions, you just see them throughout the day or you pick up on things that are going through. So, that would also make it much more difficult to identify when a remote worker is struggling with these things, right?
Definitely. That’s why, again, going back to those making sure that you’re having at least a weekly check in, if not more frequently, that employees feel that they can call their manager when needed, really trying to form those relationships and making it okay. I think it does take more effort, you’re right, than just seeing someone in the hallway and looking at their faces or something about their demeanor that may not be what you’re used to. Those connection points with, especially remote workers, that’s why you have to be almost holding more frequent communication with the employees that aren’t in your office.
I want to come back to a phrase you mentioned talking about bringing your full self to work. I feel like probably when we think about television dramas of old work, it was, like, if you had a mental issue, that’s a personal thing. You keep that to yourself, deal with that on your own time. But it’s really hard to isolate where mental health starts and stops. And these days, it’s totally spilled over everywhere. Like you said, it’s something people deal with at work, it comes out at work. There’s all sorts of things. So, what’s been especially your company with BlueCat, what’s been your response to that? Because I think some companies would say, “Look, this is not our deal. They’re having family issues, they’re having other things. That’s not our responsibility,” versus, “No, we care for the whole person that goes through.” So, what’s been your journey in that?
So, I think especially, again, in tech, we have a war for talent going on. So, we spent so much time trying to recruit talent to our company. And then when they get here, it’s our responsibility to really work with them to retain them, to give them a great employee experience. So, having that sort of lens, that your employees are how work gets done, so that is your most important resource, if you will, and I hate calling it a resource, but that’s really what your focus should be. So, I think given the fact that we’re in a tech sector where talent is very transactional and you want to create a great employee experience, so having that understanding that with the most brilliant people, sometimes things happen, and you have to have that understanding. So, that’s kind of our lens, how we look at it. But the second point that we do is that we’ve actually invested in some mental health training and I think this is becoming a lot more common in workforces just again in the last couple of years. So, we sent our employees, we sent about 12 of our employees to what was called a Mental Health First Aid training. And we very purposely did it for those employees that not all of them are managers. Some of them are, but not all of them are managers. And we really wanted to give the people that were interested in helping others. So, it came from somewhere, they were already interested in doing it. So, we weren’t forcing people that maybe weren’t as interested in doing this.
So, we started with a group of 12. That group of 12 has then taken on monthly lunch and learns where they talk about different mental health issues in the workforce. And it’s, again, not mandatory for employees to come but we’re offering that once a month, come and have your lunch, we’ll talk about some things that are going on, sometimes it’s stress. Because we’re close to the holidays right now, we’re running one tomorrow just about that extra financial burden and stress that the holidays can bring out in people. So just acknowledging that. So, that’s what we’ve done. And then our next step, because that’s actually had such a good response and people are interested in it, now we’re going to our managers and saying, “Hey, would you like to learn more about mental health and how to deal with it with your employees?” And there’s been an uptick. But I feel like if we hadn’t have started with the employees that really, really cared about it and had an interest and tried to go right to our managers, it might not have had the same success. So, it really started off as a journey and we keep doing things just a little at a time to make sure the conversations are happening and that employees feel comfortable bringing their whole self. So, that’s been a real, real turning point for us.
Yeah. And that First Aid course, was that with Jonathan Mosa?
Yeah, it was. So, it was at their training facility. They didn’t actually run it. They brought someone else in to do it.
It’s great to hear that those things are out there. And I like the idea of first aid. Because if we think of managers as therapists, with all the other things they need to do, that just seems like an extra thing to really deal deeply with these issues is difficult. But if you know just the basics, how to identify when somebody is really hurting, those are the big things. Can you give us some other ideas about what’s covered in first aid for mental health?
Yeah. So, it’s really about recognizing those signs, and really about how to speak to someone when they may not be having the best day. So, it’s, again, just making sure that they are also… So, you mentioned managers as a therapist. We’re not trying to make managers into therapists. We’re really just trying to give them the information to say, “Hey, looks like something’s going on with you. Here’s some other resources. Here’s some professionals you can go to or just to spot the signs because, again, like you don’t want to necessarily be having your manager if they’re not trained on how to deal with mental health issues. So, it’s really about having the conversation and then giving them the tools to say, “It’s okay. I see you. I empathize with you.” It’s really driving empathy. That’s what we’re trying to do here. And having those conversations where people feel safe to be able to talk about what’s really going on and not have to hide it. So, that’s what we spend a lot of time doing.
Yeah. And I like the driving empathy part. I think the more prevalent mental health issues become, perhaps the more easier they become, because, I mean, all of us either are dealing with it ourselves or have a very close family member that’s dealing with it or a very close friend. And so, you recognize that this is not just some strange thing that’s going on to somebody else, but you can see that.
Well, it was incredible. That’s a great point that you make. So, when we started this Mental Health First Aid training, and we started doing the lunch and learns and people started sharing their stories, and again, like you said, it might not be about them personally, but they know someone. Mental health is not something that only happens to one or two people. It’s rampant. And so, being able to talk about those and driving connections and just saying, “Okay. Yeah. This is a real thing. And this is what people are dealing with.” That sharing of information was probably the most powerful thing that we did here because you start having those conversations and there was not one person in that room that mental health hasn’t touched them somehow or some way.
What are some things that at BlueCat, I’m just wondering, because identifying mental health is a big thing. But sometimes work can be the cause of bad mental health in some systems that are there. Have there been any changes that you or other companies that you’ve seen have taken to really kind of calm the anxiety, calm the stress around you, even as a matter of policy that you’ve taken up because you’re trying to improve the mental health of your employees?
You know what? I find that trying to write a policy to deal with all of the different things that could possibly happen to someone is super tough. But so, I’m mostly what we mostly do here at BlueCat and what I propose is that your understanding, you’re able to spot the signs so your employees that used to be volunteering for things maybe they’re disappearing a bit and you have to have the confidence and the empathy, again, to ask what’s going on. And I think we often don’t want to deal with those hard conversations. It just becomes something that people kind of shy away from. It’s, like, “Oh, they’ll get better on their own or they’ll figure it out.” But I think if you deal with it in the moment and really start to say, “I see you and I feel you and I don’t think that you’re having the best day,” that’s where we’ve spent a lot of our time. So, we actually partnered, there’s an organization in Toronto called CAMH and they ran a campaign called “Not Myself Today.” So, we have these buttons that are at our front desk at our reception. So, when people walk in, some of the buttons say “tired” or “stressed” or “happy” or “joyful”, and it’s really about we kind of tried to make it fun. So, you can put a button on and people can see what you’re feeling that day. And that’s not the only thing, but just again, having these little bit of tools and resources to talk about how people are actually feeling has really helped us. So, there’s still more to do and we have done wellness weeks where people talk about not just their mental health but their physical health, their financial health. So, again, giving our employees the ability to take care of things while at work and making those conversations happen here because that’s where the stress comes from, or the anxiety can come from that because they don’t have enough time in the day because they’re working. And then they still have to go deal with these other things. So, giving them exposure to lunch and learns about mindfulness or lunch and learns about financial health has also helped us.
What do you feel like tend to be the major causes of stress and mental health issues among your team? Do they come from work related issues or from financial related issues or family or…?
A variety of reasons. I think that often it’s from just whatever’s triggering them. So, a lot of the times in today’s society, we’re trying to keep up with other people. And I mentioned the whole idea of social media, seeing all of these things all over Instagram and seeing how other people portray themselves, that causes stress. People want to be able to live that perfect life. And that’s not realistic. 20 years ago, we didn’t have that pressure because it wasn’t in our faces every day. You might have tried to keep up with your neighbors, but it wasn’t so prevalent. And so, I think a lot of that, especially in our young people, where they’re getting that idea of what a perfect life is and trying to maintain that image. So, I think that that has something to do with it. And I think that stems from that just like, again, trying to project that perfect person, which no one is.
And I feel like, I don’t have data to back it up, but I think I’ve seen other things that say, especially Generation Z coming in, new people, like, I think this generation struggles a lot with mental health. I feel like they’re very aware that they struggle with it. And they’re even aware of the causes of it, but they often don’t have the tools to know how to deal with it.
Right. And it’s different once you get into a work environment where maybe you’re not supposed to talk about that. So, I think, again, I think we’re going to see a massive shift in the next 20 years about this is just the way businesses have to conduct themselves to get to employ the people, you’ll see more focus on wellness initiatives, mental health awareness and training. I think it’s just we’re getting there. But I’m hopeful that in 20 years, we won’t be having to talk about this. It will just be what it is.
And that’s the theme of our show. We’re talking about the future of work, but we’re talking about the good future of work, the good version that’s out there, that if we make these changes now, we’ll get to that place. So, give us just your picture of, say we’re 20 years, 30 years out in the future, if we make good decisions now, what do you feel like a company that really addresses the best mental health side of their employees, what would they be doing? What are some very forward thinking things you think are coming down the line? What would that look like?
You know what? I think that there will be instead of people having to go on stress leave or short-term disability, they’re not going to have to hopefully get to that point, that they’ll have the support system and the ability to manage themselves through whatever means, medication, and that stress will be taken away. So, you’ll just work alongside people that maybe have some mental health issues, but it’s not a thing where they have to disappear or hide from it. It’s just something that’s just dealt with and you have the programs within the workforce to be able to care for that. So, I’d love to see a removal of long-term disability plans because you don’t need it. Because often what I see just sitting in my seat, when people go on short-term disability, it’s often due to stress. It’s something that just it’s not usually like, again, if there’s medical issues, but most of the time it’s because of stress and most of the time, it’s something that has happened at work. So, I would just like to see a removal of stress related disability claims in the workforce. I think that would be amazing.
That would be cool. I think you’ve hit it right on the head of that stress is the key to everything, that if we can find ways to reduce that stress in families and financial situations at work, and even in the products that we produce as companies. Like, is what we were producing, specifically as technology companies, is what we’re producing adding more stress? Are we contributing to this idea that somebody out there is always doing better and more work? Or are we constantly pinging people with distractions and notifications with our technology? Or does our technology actually help people de stress and just kind of focus in on that work?
And driving that connection. I really, really believe in that human… There’s lots of talk about how everything is moving to artificial intelligence, but that human connection and empathy piece, it’s just so important. So, really, teaching employees, managers, everyone to have that real empathy and connection, I think it can only help to improve everything we just spoke about.
Yeah. You just sparked a question for me. Do you imagine that it’s possible for an artificial intelligence to be able to spot mental health issues in an employee better than a human could? Not a great human, but like…
That’s a great question. I don’t know. You know what? Possibly. But yeah, that’s a great question. I just think maybe it could spot some of the triggers, potentially. But I just worry about the fact that everything’s going to automation. As humans, we still need that connection to other people.
But I can totally see something like Slack puts up something that says, “It sounds like you could use a day off or it sounds like you should check out these resources,” based on the algorithm of everything that I’m typing into it, right?
Yeah. You know what? I don’t think anything’s impossible. And I think that honestly, prevention is where we want to get to. Learning to spot the signs, the triggers and preventing them, that can only be helpful.
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s where we are. I think we’re just now finally dealing with the issues and starting to address them, let alone starting to look at prevention, but at least we’re recognizing, “Hey, this is an issue as companies…” and maybe it is our fault. I don’t know. It might be but at least our responsibility to respond to that and say, “These people are here with us, and we need to take care of them for that.” So, this is the starting point. Let’s see where we go from here, right?
Great. Cheryl, it’s been great to talk to you about this issue. I really learned a lot from it. And I’m excited what you guys are doing at BlueCat and I hope that other companies can take it seriously too and can all move towards a better future. So, thanks a lot for coming on and sharing your insights.
Thank you so much, Neil.
Cheryl leads BlueCat’s overall people strategy focusing on attracting, retaining, and inspiring top talent. Cheryl joins BlueCat from Achievers (later acquired by Blackhawk Networks) where she was Vice President of Employee Success. Prior to Achievers, Cheryl held an HR leader role at Eloqua (later acquired by Oracle). Cheryl established and served as chair of the Executive HR Roundtable for AceTech, a not for profit organization dedicated to helping Ontario’s technology-based companies become more competitive by providing programs and opportunities to guide and develop CEO’s and senior executives. Cheryl earned her Honor’s Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Guelph and a postgraduate certificate in Human Resource Management from Seneca College.