As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Amit Patel.
Amit is the Founder and Managing Director of Mythos Group, a boutique management consulting firm that specializes in Strategy, Transformation (Digital/HR/Organizational), Leadership and Executive Coaching, and Talent Management. Prior to founding Mythos Group, Amit held senior management and executive positions with Scient, PeopleSoft (Oracle), Andersen Consulting (Accenture) and Coopers & Lybrand.
Amit is a thought leader, an innovative strategist, author and speaker, known for driving global transformation in the U.S., Asia, Australia, Canada and Europe. He co-authored the book, “Turning Ideas Into Impact: Insights from 16 Silicon Valley Consultants” and regularly writes articles and white papers to help other business leaders lead. He brings over 20 years of management consulting experience, including several years with the “Big 4.”
Amit is a trusted advisor to C-level executives and senior business leaders. He helps his clients articulate their strategic intent and co-create practical strategies for putting business plans into action. Amit takes pride in his ability to meet his clients where they are, exploit existing talents and technology, identify and develop new capabilities and remove barriers to enable his clients to achieve their goals efficiently.
Amit approaches his clients with curiosity and challenges existing norms to help envision the art of the possible. He has experience in helping his clients reinvent themselves to take on new challenges, reduce costs by identifying unnecessary practices, eliminating redundancies, and design and implement new organizational/operating models.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Like many people, my backstory isn’t a linear progression but rather one with a few twists and turns. Shortly after I immigrated to the U.S., I decided to pursue a career in computer science. After graduating from the University of Maryland, I joined a small software developing firm as a computer programmer. After a few years of programming, I realized that my true passions were strategic planning and organizational design and development, so I furthered my studies with a master’s in management from The Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School.
Subsequently, I enjoyed great success working for marquee management consulting firms before I opened my own boutique management consulting firm. The rest is history. Through Mythos Group, I’ve been honored to participate in the strategic planning and digital, HR, and organizational transformations of many high-profile clients. After all these years, it is still my passion.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’ve worked with numerous start-ups and Fortune 500 clients across various industries, but the most interesting experience of my career was working for the start-up, Scient, during the dot-com boom and bust. Scient was an internet consulting company based in San Francisco, and I had the opportunity to participate in their journey from start to finish. We went from a fledgling start-up to a dot-com darling, to a publicly-traded company with a market cap of 6 billion, to one of the many casualties of the dot-com implosion – all in a period of about five years.
Being able to participate in the full life cycle of a company, from the very beginning to the very end, was a unique and invaluable experience. It taught me the dynamics of a company at different stages, and it allowed me to understand not only the strategic challenges of each stage, but also the emotional challenges at each stage. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience where I got to work with venture capitalists like Sequoia and Benchmark, and
learn from legendary power brokers at the peak of Silicon Valley’s late-‘90s greatness.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
The World Health Organization (WHO) finally recognized burnout as an occupational health issue in 2019 and defined it as, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” I think the latter part of that definition is key. We will never totally eliminate stress in the workplace, but if we can successfully manage it, then we can avoid burnout.
Burnout isn’t a new phenomenon, but when I look at how most present-day workplaces operate, it’s clear that there are some structural elements that need to be addressed. Specifically, the pace of work has quickened. Never before have workers had such pressure to perform in so many different ways with such limited timelines and budgets.
There’s also quite a bit of ambiguity caused by the lack of well-defined job duties. I see time and time again that people are stressed because they’re not sure what they’re supposed to be doing, and they’re not sure how they’re performing. Plus, workers are now tethered to their jobs by email and smartphones so that they’re never really off work. The work-life balance has shifted dramatically.
The statistics I’ve seen show this shift. For instance, one set of data showed that 94% of service professionals in the U.S. report that they spend over 50 hours a week working. The percentage of Americans that consider themselves “workaholics” is 48%. But we know they don’t like being workaholics because 72% of workers say that they consider work-life balance when they’re searching for a job. I think these percentages give a good sense of why people have been quitting their jobs in record numbers during this pandemic.
Regaining that balance is really the key to avoiding burnout. Creating boundaries inside and outside of work is important. Having clearly defined duties and KPIs (key performance indicators) is important. It’s also important for my colleagues to seek out opportunities that are just as fulfilling and meaningful as they are competitive and profitable.
That being said, employees should always be on the lookout for signs of burnout. According to the WHO, the signs of burnout include feeling depleted or exhausted, harboring negative feelings or cynicism about a job and experiencing reduced professional efficacy. Once those symptoms start to show themselves, they must be addressed in a timely and proactive way.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I wrote a series of articles about The Great Resignation not too long ago where I discussed this very topic. In their 2021 Global Culture Report, the O.C. Tanner Institute defined a “thriving” culture as one that possesses six essential elements: purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, well-being and leadership. When it comes to work culture, the ultimate question to ask yourself if you’re a business leader is, “Am I providing my employees with a thriving workplace culture?” If the answer is no, I suggest that we transform their workplace culture with those six essential elements in mind.
As I mentioned, it’s impossible to completely eliminate workplace stress, but when you have a thriving work culture, employees are better equipped and more willing to handle the stressors that come with their jobs. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for business leaders. The truth is that these six elements of a thriving workplace will look different depending on the organization, the workforce, and the industry. However, here’s a list of five actionable items that can help business leaders get started.
- Establish Core Values – The coronavirus pandemic has caused a majority of workers to reassess their lives, their livelihoods and their futures. Now more than ever, it’s important for people to find meaningfulness in their work. They want to experience a sense of purpose when they go to work every day, and the first step to providing a sense of purpose to employees is by establishing a set of Core Values. It is absolutely necessary in today’s labor market to define, follow and vocalize your organization’s values. If this concept is completely foreign to you, a good place to start is by creating a mission statement. Your mission statement should not only apply to your business, but it should also take into consideration your employees, your community and even the world at large.
- Set a Good Example – It doesn’t matter how lofty or well-meaning your company’s core values are, if leadership is not leading by example, it will negatively impact employee morale. Leadership needs to “walk the talk.” For example, say you’re trying to encourage a healthy work/life balance in your corporate culture. To do so, you’ve implemented a policy that workers no longer need to answer their phones or emails on weekends. If your managers are still sending messages to your team members on Saturdays and Sundays, then the policy means nothing. And even worse, a policy like this can cause more dissatisfaction and distrust among your employees than if the policy was never implemented in the first place. A workplace fails to thrive when leadership fails to lead by example.
- Understand Your Employees’ Experiences – At the moment, we are seeing a C-Suite disconnect of epic proportions in the workplace. Workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers because they feel ignored, underappreciated, overworked, underpaid, unhappy and just generally stressed out. Executives? Not so much. A recent Future Forum Pulse survey showed that overall job satisfaction for executives is 62% higher than non-executives. It would appear that most work cultures are set up to ensure the success of the top brass while paying little attention to the success of the average employee.
To bridge this gap, business leaders must listen to what their employees are saying. This can be hard for employers and employees alike. It’s hard for an employee to be honest about the things they don’t like about their job. They can be scared of retaliation and retribution. It’s also hard for leaders to hear what they might be doing wrong. In most cases, defensiveness and dismissiveness are the first lines of defense.
However, organizations must set up a safe space for this dialogue to take place whether it’s in person or through surveys or other intermediaries. Understanding your employees’ experiences comes from listening. When employees feel empowered to speak up, they feel appreciated. This appreciation is further shown when leaders make a commitment to not only listen, but to also act on their feedback for the ultimate good of the organization.
- Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) – Ted Colbert, an executive with Boeing, is famously quoted as saying, “The best workforce is a diverse workforce.” I couldn’t agree more. Diversity improves workplace culture by bringing a variety of different voices, viewpoints and skillsets to the table. This not only makes teams more dynamic and innovative, but it also sends the message that your organization is inclusive and values individual experience. When workers feel like they’re valued for who they are as an individual, their satisfaction with their workplace increases and as their satisfaction increases, they’re less likely to experience burnout.
In thriving work cultures with inclusive environments, employees feel valued which gives them reason to believe that they have opportunities within the organization for success. And a word of caution is prudent here, employees will know when you’re truly committed to an inclusive workplace or whether you’re just paying lip service to diversity efforts. Be authentic, empathetic, compassionate and committed.
- Mental Health Benefits – I recently wrote an article about the importance of having a conversation about mental health, and in doing research for it, I found that almost 20% of adults (nearly 50 million Americans) have experienced some type of mental illness – and that was in 2019 before the pandemic. We know that Covid-19 has increased the incidences of depression, anxiety and OCD. And we know that over the last 20 years, at least 65% of Americans have said that their jobs were the greatest source of stress in their lives.
With so many people affected by mental illness, it is crucial for workers to have access to mental health care. In 2008, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was passed which requires group insurance plans to offer coverage for substance use disorders and mental illness. However, even after all of these years, true mental health parity has not been achieved and patients are still being denied the mental health care that they need. If they have not done so already, business leaders should make sure that the mental health benefits offered to their employees are robust. After all, mental health is just as important as physical health when it comes to the overall well-being of workers. And as we all know, the well-being of your workforce is necessary for a thriving workplace culture.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
During the pandemic, a quote by Alexander Graham Bell has been top-of-mind. He said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” As it relates to mental health in the workplace, there are so many ways that organizations can make structural changes that prevent the occurrence of stress, burnout and toxic work cultures. It’s so much better to transform your organization with an eye toward prevention rather than scrambling to fix something that’s already broken.
My all-time favorite quote, though, is from Walt Disney. He said, “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.” I believe this of myself and I believe this of my clients. It’s so critical to dream big and remain visionary when it comes to organizational strategy, innovation and problem-solving.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
Absolutely. When it comes to taking care of the mental health of employees, some organizations have been real standouts. These companies have shown that taking care of the health of your employees in general, and their mental health in particular, not only leads to better health outcomes for your employees, but it also leads to better health outcomes for your business. Below are a handful of companies that are succeeding at this task, and their businesses are thriving because of it.
- Unilever – One of the best examples of a company with successful mental health and wellness initiatives is Unilever. Over the past 20 years, this multi-national 150,000+ company has achieved a corporate culture that champions mental illness prevention. To support their employees, they have a global Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides 24/7/365 support by phone, text or chat. They also have a Mental Health Champions network that lets workers engage in peer-to-peer mental health conversations.
During Covid-19, this investment has paid off. Through the pandemic, Unilever’s employee engagement actually increased with 8 out of 10 employees reporting that they have been able to remain optimistic in their work and personal lives and 82% of employees surveyed agreed that Unilever genuinely cares about their well-being. When workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers, this speaks volumes for Unilever’s corporate culture.
- Microsoft – With close to 200,000 employees worldwide, Microsoft is one of the biggest employers in the world. To take care of those employees, Microsoft launched a program called Microsoft CARES. Microsoft CARES is an employee assistance program that was designed to offer employees resources for stress management, parenting, caregiving, marital support, grief counseling, behavioral and emotional support and professional referrals.
Like Unilever, Microsoft’s initiative comes with 24/7 live support for employees in crisis. It also offers in-person counseling at their Living Well Health Center. Additional coaching and seminars are available, and they have doctors available for a range of health services, including primary care, vision, rehabilitation and wellness. Costs are kept low, and copays are transparent so that there are no nasty billing surprises.
- Calm – Calm is a software company based in San Francisco, California who’s mostly known for their meditation app although their services also include guided meditations, narrated Sleep Stories and videos that promote health and meditation. When it comes to their employees, this company is a good example of one that practices what it preaches. For their employees, they offer guided meditations and breathing exercises, music and nature sounds to promote focus and relaxation, and options for workers’ families including bedtime stories for adults and children. They also employ data analytics to measure the impact of their mental health tools on the overall health and well-being of their employees.
On Calm’s Careers Page, they spell out their vision of a thriving workplace to prospective employees. They let it be known that they are a fully remote workplace, for PTO they have a “take what you need” policy, they cover 100% of health, dental and vision and provide monthly stipends for fitness and wellness classes. In fact, they encourage you to do a 30-second breathing exercise to calm yourself before you apply for a job with them because as they put it, “Job searching can be stressful.”
- Johnson & Johnson – Many companies, including Johnson & Johnson, are creating ERGs or Employee Resource Groups. While these groups can be dedicated to a number of different topics, Johnson & Johnson’s Mental Health Diplomats ERG is a place that encourages employees to gather to share their stories of mental health challenges and triumphs. These ERGs focus as a safe space where employees can find support and information. Any employer can benefit from setting up these ERGs for their employees. Just by creating the space, employees feel better about seeking out support and sharing their own stories.
ERGs are not new, but a 2021 Employee Experience Benchmarking report shows that 40% of companies now have ERGs in place, which is a 9% increase from 2020. Even if ERGs are not specifically dedicated to mental health and wellness, just their presence tends to increase well-being by focusing on traditionally marginalized topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, race and people with disabilities. According to one report, 90% of Fortune 500 companies have active ERGs. This percentage falls to 10% with small companies, so there’s definitely room to improve there.
- LinkedIn – A study done by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization recently reported the following findings, “Long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000.” People are literally dying from working too much. That’s why I was so happy to hear that LinkedIn gave their employees a “RestUp!” week, an extra paid week off in April of 2021, to recharge their workforce after the strain of Covid-19.
Taking a “mental health day” has often been seen as a joke, but with the increased stress caused by the pandemic, no one’s laughing anymore. In fact, more and more companies are mandating paid time off to let their workers rest. Bumble, Hootsuite, Fidelity Investments and Marriott have all given their employees paid time off for workers to rest, recuperate and de-stress. Having these paid breaks is a great way to shore up your workforce’s mental health to decrease burnout and increase morale, and it also shows your employees that you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is in terms of mental health and wellness.
I really like all of these examples, and I suggest them to clients when appropriate. However, each company is different. When we consult with business leaders, we initially take inventory of the existing support structures that organizations have in place and then we identify opportunities. To do this, we have to first understand the company culture, the employee experience and the unique industry-related or job-related stressors and pain points present. Each client is unique, but there are some broad suggestions we can make that are generally helpful and cost-conscious.
Some of our most common suggestions include promoting a culture of listening, using emotional intelligence and making sure employees take breaks. We also encourage people to get out of the office and bond on a personal level. If your budget allows, organizing offsite retreats to do something fun like golfing or skiing, gives the employees something to look forward to and serves as a reward for their hard work.
Fostering a healthy lifestyle with outdoor recreation opportunities, creating a system of rewards and recognition, defining boundaries so employees don’t feel overwhelmed, engaging in philanthropy and creating an environment of inclusiveness and acceptance – these are all things that can help your team unwind and de-stress, which is ultimately beneficial to their mental health. It also promotes a work culture of teamwork and fosters camaraderie.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
The most important thing that we can do as business leaders is to start the conversation about mental health and wellness. We need to actively work to decrease the stigma attached to mental illness and we need to create opportunities for employers and employees to safely talk about their own mental health struggles. When we do have people who are brave enough to share, then we must reward them and validate them in order to show others that they shouldn’t fear retribution for being open about their own mental health.
Anything that promotes a conversation about mental health is worthwhile. Designing specific activities like a nature walk around your business’s campus where the topic of discussion could be ways each person likes to relax. For the musicians in your office, you could host an open mic night or a jam session. Maybe take an all-company assembly day to bring in a special guest speaker to discuss mental health and wellness strategies. In that same vein, you can also bring in yogis or meditation experts to lead workers in breathing and mindfulness exercises. Literally, anything you can do to explore the topic of mental health will raise awareness and let your workers know that you take their mental health seriously.
From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious or having other mental health issues? Can you explain?
Chances are overwhelming that you know someone in your everyday life who is suffering from a mental health issue. In fact, it’s estimated that 1 in 4 adults suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder in any given year. If you think that sounds high, it’s probably because those who suffer from mental illness generally don’t talk about it. There is still a great stigma in our society around mental health, and it compounds the problem for patients who feel like they’re doomed to suffer alone.
If you know or suspect someone is struggling with mental health issues, the best thing you can do is ask them. A simple, “Are you OK?” can be enough to open a dialogue. If someone does confide in you about their mental health struggles, the best thing you can do is to listen. Don’t try to cheer them up or minimize their feelings. Don’t try to give them a bunch of empty platitudes. Don’t try to solve their problems, and don’t tell them that you know how they feel if you truly don’t.
In addition to listening, people who are suffering from a variety of mental illnesses can have trouble completing everyday tasks like doing the laundry, cooking or paying bills. If this seems to be the case, then pick up their dry cleaning or arrange for a meal to be delivered. Just checking in on them with a phone call or text can help. Little things can make a big difference to someone who thinks they’re all alone.
If you or someone you know has expressed thoughts of self-harm or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). They’re available 24/7. On July 16, 2022, this number will change to 988 to make it even easier to remember. Until then, program the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline into your phone in case you ever need it. Another wonderful resource is MentalHealth.gov’s Let’s talk about it page. They offer plenty of ways that you can help support a friend or family member who’s battling with mental health problems.
I may sound like a broken record, but as a society, we need to talk about mental health. The more times that this conversation enters the mainstream, the more open our society will become. This is the key to breaking down the stigma that still exists around mental illness. This interview we’re doing right now is a step in the right direction. Anything that can help illuminate the challenges of mental illness, anything that can bring awareness and anything that lets people know that there’s no shame in getting help – these are the things we need to be doing to redefine the narrative on mental illness on a personal level and on an organizational level. Talking openly about mental illness and mental health needs to become the “norm” so that individuals no longer have to suffer in silence.
This might seem intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to spell it out. Can you help articulate a few ways how workplaces will benefit when they pay attention to an employee’s mental health?
Workplaces benefit when their employees are well – physically and mentally. When employees aren’t well, their productivity, communication and decision-making suffer. They become unengaged with their work because their mental illness is taking up all of their brain space. They may not be able to physically execute the tasks required by their job, and they may not even feel well enough to show up.
According to data from the American Psychiatric Association, employees with depression that’s not treated experience a 35% reduction in productivity which contributes to a $210.5 billion economic loss a year. That is no small number, and it’s from just one type of mental illness. The economic loss from reduced productivity, turnover, absenteeism and medical costs is very real and very high. It’s in the best interests of every single person at every level of an organization to invest in mental health wellness – for the good of the team members and their families as well as for the good of the organization’s bottom line.
Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental well-being? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?
I’m a firm believer in doing whatever activities bring you a sense of calm and peace. I do practice meditation. I find that just closing my eyes or breathing deeply for five to ten minutes can make a big difference in my stress levels. For me, meditation is a way to drown out external noise, to focus on the present and to gain clarity on what’s important. I find that this helps on both a personal and a professional level by enabling me to be more objective and pragmatic and less reactionary. It gives me patience and allows me to avoid knee-jerk reactions in favor of a more careful and considerate approach.
I also enjoy playing music and sports, both of which serve the same purpose as mediation. However, what works for me, may not work for you. Yoga, martial arts, deep breathing, mindfulness, exercising, singing, gardening, knitting – these are all ways for people to nurture their mental, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being. Even meditation is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Many people swear by the power of Transcendental Meditation® while others have great success with apps like Headspace. And many, like me, just like to close their eyes and breathe deeply for a few minutes.
I work in the communications industry, so I’m particularly interested in this question. As you know, there are a variety of communication tools such as video conferencing, phone, text, and push-to-talk. What changes or improvements would you suggest for these technologies to help foster better mental health?
I have been delighted to see the proliferation of online therapy services such as Talkspace and NOCD that utilize video conferencing for therapy sessions and apps for additional communication and support. With the rapid digitalization of health care that we’ve experienced as a result of the pandemic, it’s easier and more convenient than ever for patients to find a therapist that’s a good fit and meet with them in the comfort of their own home at the time of their choosing. Many of these online services also accept insurance and have lower costs than traditional therapy.
I think the emergence of these mental health apps is a good thing as long as they are used as tools to facilitate human connection and human interaction. The best online therapy services and apps allow you to choose from a wide variety of therapists to find your best fit. They also contain a large pool of patients so that you can find a support group of people with similar needs. And finally, many of the good ones offer metrics so that you can track your progress and stay accountable to yourself and your goals for treatment.
If you read any of my other articles, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of implementing artificial intelligence (AI) in business strategy, but I think AI falls short with this. When it comes to those suffering from mental illness, a software simply can’t capture the personal nature and nuance that’s necessary. And since new mental health apps are hitting the market every day, it’s important to do your research. The American Psychiatric Association has an APP Advisor which is a great tool to help you make the very best decisions about which mental health apps are right for you. You can also check the Better Business Bureau® to see if the app you’re considering is in good standing.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My father was a professor. He loved teaching, and he would routinely take disadvantaged students from his village and mentor them. Some of these students were very smart, but were financially impoverished. I believe that the mentorship and the efforts my dad made to alleviate their financial challenges made a huge difference in their lives. I believe it helped them to envision and ultimately pursue a better life, a life they might not have known existed if it weren’t for my dad. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so bullish on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. There are so many voices out there that are not being heard either because they’re shut out completely or they’re simply not encouraged.
My movement would involve setting up a philanthropic foundation that supports DEI. Through widespread community outreach, we would support disenfranchised youth who were smart, driven and motivated, but who experienced socioeconomic barriers to realizing their dreams and true potential. By leveraging a network of business leaders, my philanthropic organization would provide the tools, resources and networking opportunities to those who would not have them otherwise. In addition to the various methods of support, my ultimate goal would be to instill an unwavering self-belief that they belong and that they can succeed.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
I invite your readers to go online to the Mythos Group website to learn more about me and the services my firm provides. On our Insights page, you’ll find a wealth of information, including articles, white papers, e-books, interviews, presentations and webinars, or check out our blog posts for timely discussions on what’s happening in the business world. You can also connect with me directly on LinkedIn.
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Thank you! It was my pleasure as always.