Paula Allen is the global leader of research and total well-being and a senior vice president at LifeWorks. In this role, she manages the research agenda for LifeWorks, which includes primary research, exploratory data science, research collaborations, and meta-analyses. Given her focus on industry-leading research, Paula also leads LifeWorks' thought leadership and is co-chair of the organization's product and innovation strategy. Paula is a member of the Women's College Hospital's Board of Directors, a member of the Virtual Learning Advisory Board consulting on the public sector's post-secondary online learning strategy, a member of the International Women's Forum, a Civic Action Diversity Fellow mentor, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Club of Toronto. Previously, she was co-chair of Civic Action's Champions Council on workplace mental health and a member of the Income Security Working Group providing advice to the Ontario Government on issues relating to disability and income support.
On today’s episode of the RecruitingDaily Podcast, William Tincup speaks with Paula Allen from LifeWorks about what is a negative mental health score.
Some Conversation Highlights:
First and foremost, we’re experts in health, and in particular, mental health. And we do have a significant employee assistance program. And just so everybody knows what that means, it offers voluntary, confidential counseling services and support in a number of different areas at no cost to employees and their families. So it’s sponsored by organizations. There’s a way that you can access it telephonically through technology, and 24/7, 365 days a year, we just help you with life’s problems.
What did you see kind of pre pandemic and then what do you see now?
I think pre pandemic, as important as mental health has always been, we took it for granted, which is not a good thing. We really took our mental health for granted and only thought about it when you or somebody close to you or when you were hearing a stats around people who are in deep crisis. It’s not just about being in crisis. Mental health is everything.
It’s something that you need to invest in. It’s about the edge and angst that you have at different points in time. It’s about the factors that affect your relationships and experience of life. And what happened, I think, during the pandemic is we were really knocked off balance, and we could no longer take many things for granted, including our mental health. So I really don’t like the way that happened. I really don’t like the fact that our mental health was impacted so negatively, but I do like the fact that fewer of us are taking it for granted now because it is something that we need to focus on and be open about, which leads us to our mental health score.
Tune in for the full conversation.
Listening time: 29 minutes
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Music: This is RecruitingDaily’s Recruiting Live Podcast, where we look at the strategies behind the world’s best talent acquisition teams. We talk recruiting, sourcing, and talent acquisition. Each week we take one over complicated topic and break it down so that your three-year-old can understand it. Make sense? Are you ready to take your game to the next level? You’re at the right spot. You’re now entering the mind of a hustler. Here’s your host, William Tincup.
William Tincup: Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup, and you are listening to the RecruitingDaily Podcast. Today we have Paula on from LifeWorks where you’re talking about what is a negative mental health score. Can’t wait to learn from Paula, and so we’re just going to jump right into it. Paula, would you do us a favor, the audience a favor, and introduce both yourself and LifeWorks?
Paula Allen: Yeah, very, very happy to. As said, I’m Paula Allen and I’m the global leader of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks. So what I do for a living is I basically make sure that as many people as possible know what’s going on and have evidence on what they should do about it. And the area that I focus on is the wellbeing of employees, so what makes people happy? What makes them healthy? What makes them productive? And that of course, leads me to focus significantly on mental health, because it’s the core of everything. And the organization I for, LifeWorks, supports individuals and businesses in 180 different countries. We are Canadian based, but have a really big footprint in the US, UK, Australia, as well as all the countries that I had mentioned. And we provide services to employees and their families: counseling, coaching help when they’re off work, financial support, all the things that help people’s lives get better and therefore help businesses get better.
William Tincup: And so LifeWorks, if I remember correctly, it’s software, but it has a EAP kind on a component where people can have access to the things that they need to have access to. Is that right?
Paula Allen: Yes. First and foremost, we’re experts in health, and in particular, mental health. And we do have a significant employee assistance program. And just so everybody knows what that means, it offers voluntary, confidential counseling services and support in a number of different areas at no cost to employees and their families. So it’s sponsored by organizations. There’s a way that you can access it telephonically through technology, and 24/7, 365 days a year, we just help you with life’s problems.
William Tincup: I love that. So wellbeing, having a conversation in, let’s say in ’19 about wellbeing or even mental health, was it still with wellbeing first? Wellbeing, there was definitely conversations, obviously, you know this, but I don’t feel like mental health was really that… I don’t know if it was talked about as much as it is today, not pre pandemic, because we’re still technically in the pandemic, but it seems that it’s easier to talk about mental health now in just a normal conversation, just a normal business conversation with a peer. You’re talking about stress, talking about mental health, talking about issues that you’re going through, things like that. It just seems easier. First of all, that just might be me. So what do you see? What did you see kind of pre pandemic and then what do you see now?
Paula Allen: Yeah, I think you’re you’re right. I think pre pandemic, as important as mental health has always been, we took it for granted, which is not a good thing. We really took our mental health for granted and only thought about it when you or somebody close to you or when you were hearing a stats around people who are in deep crisis. It’s not just about being in crisis. Mental health is everything.
It’s something that you need to invest in. It’s about the edge and angst that you have at different points in time. It’s about the factors that affect your relationships and experience of life. And what happened, I think, during the pandemic is we were really knocked off balance, and we could no longer take many things for granted, including our mental health. So I really don’t like the way that happened. I really don’t like the fact that our mental health was impacted so negatively, but I do like the fact that fewer of us are taking it for granted now because it is something that we need to focus on and be open about.
William Tincup: So where do companies… How do they have these conversations? So you’re in this business, you also research this. How do you, if you’re on the HR side and then on the leadership side, so some of this has become board initiatives and the C-suite initiatives, right?
Paula Allen: Right.
William Tincup: And if not, they should be, so we’ll just start with that. Where do they start? How do they unpack this, if they haven’t been a company that has talked about it or maybe even supported it, what’s your advice on them getting started?
Paula Allen: Well, I think you are right that it has become more of an agenda at the senior leadership level. And again, this was something that happened as a result of the pandemic. Everyone was knocked a little bit off balance. It didn’t matter whether you had a C in your title or not. So the empathy from an individual level really became a lot easier, and businesses and organizations and the people who run them started to really realize, again, what we always should have known, which is you don’t have a business without your people. You do not have any possibility of success unless your people are in a great place. And that became really at the forefront of everyone’s awareness when we realized that people were not necessarily in a good place right now.
So what we started to see, and I received calls from CEOs, I was invited to meetings, including board meetings, to talk about, “Help us understand this and what to do about it. Let’s have a dialogue. Let’s support people with services.” And that really was an important tipping point for a lot of organizations. Not all, mind you, but we had organizations have all employee calls, all hands calls, shared by the CEO, where mental health was the primary topic, and that would’ve never happened before the pandemic or happened very rarely. But just having that open acknowledgement that this is a difficult time, we have to support each other. The organization really wants to make sure it supports people in the right way and help us understand what that looks like. So that really wrapped around the world twice in terms of its importance, and many other things after the dialogue followed from that. But that was really a starting point in terms of opening up the right kind of conversation. And again, it started at the board level. It started at the CEO level, not in all organizations, but in many.
William Tincup: I love that. Again, don’t love how, just like you said, I thought it was really appropriate, don’t like how we got here. Glad we’re here.
Paula Allen: Yes, exactly.
William Tincup: Okay. So now let’s get into the mental health score and how one goes about creating that, and also, topically, the negative mental health score. So how do you walk people through kind of getting kind of a baseline of what they’re dealing with and then how they deal with a negative mental health score?
Paula Allen: Well, this is very interesting, because we actually started with the whole idea of needing a mental health index three years before this pandemic hit.
William Tincup: Wow.
Paula Allen: At least, I had no idea that this was going to hit. And again, the reason was that, even before the pandemic, forever more, mental health is the core of everything. We have a people-powered economy right now. It’s all about innovation, creativity, customer service, collaboration. All of these things are the things that make a difference. Everybody has access to technology and supply chain. It’s really that, that makes the difference between the leaders and the laggards. So from a business point of view, this is something very important, very real. From a personal point of view, it’s something very, very important and very real, but we really didn’t have a good measure, and I’m not talking about a public health measure that includes the entire population, but a measure for the businesses could use, because we’re looking at the working population. And also we needed something real time and sensitive enough that it would tell us whether we’re on the right track, we’re trending towards risk, and really what makes a difference.
So all of those reasons well predated the pandemic, but for sure became more important during the pandemic. So the way we set it up is we were doing our research and collecting benchmark data between 2017 and 2019, the end of 2019. So we knew what the mental health of the working population was during that time. And we said, “Okay, we’re going to make this ground zero. We’re going to set it to zero. And then we’re going to track to see whether we’re improving.” Hopefully we would be improving, as stigma becomes less of an issue, as services become more readily available. Hopefully we’re going to see some increases and give some positive measures as to why that was happening.
But of course, the pandemic hit in the first quarter of 2020, and that was the same time we launched. So what we saw was a massive decline from our benchmark period. So remember that benchmark, that pre 2020 period, 2017 to ’19, that was zero. Any negative score reflects a decline and any positive score would’ve been an improvement relative to that period. So the negative score just says that we’re still much, much, much more compromised than we what we were in 2019.
William Tincup: So now some of this is knowing and understanding where you are. Then what do you do with the data? Right? So once a company knows what they have and where they’re at is, how do they navigate kind of getting to a better score?
Paula Allen: Well, our index has three components to it. One is the index that tells you plus or minus X, so whether things are getting by or worse in terms of the whole population. And organizations can come to us, and then we would benchmark against that so they know exactly how their people are relative to the whole population. The second part is what we call a mental stress index. And that tells us whether stress level is going up or going down over time, which is predictive of changes. But it’s that third section of our report that really digs deep into the question that you’re asking. So we try to understand what’s going on at a deeper level. So this is where we are realizing, for example, that the angst that people are feeling right now with respect to their work specifically is significant.
There’s a higher portion of the population now saying that work is harmful to their mental health, compared to prior to the pandemic. And that’s a big deal, right? So it’s not that a whole bunch has changed and your work is stable, there’s all that in the way that you could describe it. But however you’re working, it’s changed. If you’re frontline, if you’re working in a coffee shop or a hospital, or anything where you’re dealing with customers, our whole population is on edge right now. How you work is different. Your concern about how you work is different, and the consumers that you’re dealing with are much more likely, because of the strain that we’ve been under for quite some time, to be angry or cynical or difficult. And you’re bearing the brunt of that.
If you’re working from home, and many of us still are working from home much of the time, your world has become a lot smaller. You don’t have the variety in the day that you did before. You don’t have those things that we used to take for granted: the smile, the joke, the things that kind of feed us in terms of the inadvertent or accidental social support that you get when you leave your home and you’re dealing with a group of other people who have the [inaudible 00: 14: 31]. We’re more isolated right now, in terms of our work situations, and that’s actually creating a fair bit of tension.
William Tincup: Yeah. I’ve gotten that actually with a lot of folks that I’ve talked to. It’s like, there’s an anxiety with the return to office and there’s an anxiety with being remote forever. There’s anxiety everywhere, I guess, is the point. But it’s also, I think some of it is just the fear of the unknown. We still don’t know how this is all going to play out you and it’s all guesses. But I love, A, that we’re talking about, and I love that now there’s at least a way to score this. Where do you see 2022 taking us as it relates to kind of a mental health score? Where do you feel like it needs to be evolved? And what kind of research do you look forward to doing in 2022?
Paula Allen: Well, just like any recovery curve, it’s never carved in stone. There’s models that you can do based on previous things that say you’re going to be in a crash situation when a crisis happens, you’re going to have an adrenaline rush at a certain point when you’re trying to deal with it, and you’re going to feel emotionally exhausted, and then you recover. But there’s so many things that can get in the way of that. And I think what’s important for us is to really understand that our lives are different now. Our lives are really quite disrupted, and we have to kind of play the ball where it lay.
So even what you said before about people being anxious going into an office, but they’re feeling isolated at home. We have to rethink about how we look at both things, because I don’t think that our digital worlds are going to go away, but everything right now feels difficult. Everything right now is really separating us as human beings, and that’s the biggest risk. If I were to say the one thing that would make a difference between whether we see improvement in 2022 or we see a continued decline in 2022, is that we need to sort of refocus on social connections. We need to refocus on having that sense of belonging in a kind of a larger group.
The isolation that has creeped into our lives didn’t start with the pandemic. It started to creep into our lives well before the pandemic and it was impacting our mental health before the pandemic. It’s just really accelerated right now, and it could accelerate in a pretty significant way. You can’t deal with day to day stresses, you can’t be mentally healthy if you don’t feel a sense of connection to other people, period. That’s the clearest thing. There’s no researcher who would be able to tell you anything different. And we’re losing that at work, and we’re losing that personally. And that’s what makes me the most concerned.
William Tincup: So leaders that want to either start conversations or elevate their conversations with employees around mental health, again, we are in a better place, but it’s still somewhat taboo. There’s still going to be at least taboo edges of mental health. What is your playbook or what advice do you give to leaders to… If they haven’t started the conversation, of course, start. But let’s just say they want to elevate their game and get better at having conversations with employees, and be more supportive and more inclusive of folks in whatever they’re going through. What advice do you have for them?
Paula Allen: I think it’d be helpful for people to think about it in terms of a two pronged strategy. There are people there working for you right now who are working every day and doing a good job, and making sure that they’re reliable, and they’re struggling. They’re dealing with things that are fairly significant. And we don’t want anybody to deal with more burden than they need to, because it just gets worse over time, and it’s not good for anybody. So I think part of it is realizing the fact, and we’ve seen it in our data, that the proportion of the working population that’s suffering from mental health issues and high risk of mental health issues has doubled since the pandemic, more than doubled, actually, from 14 to 34% of us.
So the knowledge around how to step in when you see a behavior change, somebody is in angst, or they bring something to you is really important. You want to show empathy on that one-on-one basis. You want to show that you care about that person. You don’t want to necessarily pretend that you’re a counselor, because it could be as dangerous as me pretending I’m a heart surgeon. It’s just not my area of competence, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t be human. And also leveraging the resources, such as employee assistance program, and reminding people of that and making a referral so people can get the help they need. So that’s one prong, right? And I think managers benefit from training that organizations have been giving them so they can have these conversations.
The other prong is really just about the environment itself, right? It’s about how to foster wellbeing. So those social connections, making people feel valued, helping people feel psychologically safe. So if you say something or if you’re working through something, you don’t feel it’s going to be career limiting, that you have to hide who you are and what you’re thinking. Showing people that respect for who they are, it’s so important. And people feeling, again, safe, valued, and supported, which are really some of the key elements of that sense of belonging that seems to be lacking right now.
So when we have that, the social support that I said is so important, people start to experience that. And I don’t think we should ever, and again, I fear that we’re getting there, but I don’t think we should ever have a focus in workplaces where we think of objective efficiency more than we think of human beings, because that comes around and bites you in the back. It truly does. When people don’t have a sense of belonging, their productivity goes down, so your efficiency goes away anyway. So no matter how you look at it, empathetically or with numbers, it doesn’t work.
William Tincup: Right. So as you’ve studied this mental health, and wellbeing in particular, has it hit anybody disproportionately, any group disproportionately, through COVID?
Paula Allen: Yeah, for sure. Any kind of crisis separates those who are on the tip of vulnerability and makes them much more vulnerable, and puts them in a crisis in a spectacular way, unfortunately. And what we’ve seen is that one of the drivers of people’s mental health has been financial risk, and those groups that didn’t have a good financial base were feeling much more vulnerable, particularly at the very beginning. So women, visible minorities in some sectors, that was a real hard hit and showed up in the sense of mental health. The other groups that were very hard hit include younger adults, so post-secondary students, people early in their career, because the disruption really took away all the supports during this difficult time. And it’s difficult because it’s a life transition, but your friends, the recognition that you would get when you first start work, just that sense of, again, belonging, it’s harder when you’re building that as a young adult in this environment right now.
The other two groups, very interestingly, is that we saw parents really hard hit, in dealing with everything that they’re dealing with, plus needing to take care of the issues of another human being, or more than one another human being. And managers, we saw were very hard hit, for similar reasons to parents, but it’s not for children, it’s taking care of a business and their team. So that levels of responsibility, the more responsibility you had, the more vulnerable you became.
William Tincup: Wow. It also tracks with the layoffs and furloughs. We saw at the end of ’20 that disproportionately hit female, but also hit women of color. So you saw all those reports in January and February, it’s like, how did we not know that this was disproportionately hitting this group? How did we not have this insight? And so of course, it created lots of conversations there, and we could explore that for a whole podcast.
Last thing I wanted to get your take on is the more we talk about wellness, wellbeing, financial wellness, mental health, all of these very important things, how does it shift kind of what employees expect out of us? What should employees expect from the company as it relates to wellbeing?
Paula Allen: Well, I think what happened was we all stopped taking our mental health as for granted as we did. Right?
William Tincup: Understatement, yes.
Paula Allen: Understatement. And when you don’t take something for granted, it becomes in the forefront of your mind, it guides your decisions. So we are starting to see this great resignation where people are making choices because they’re not feeling that sense of belonging, connection, support, feeling valued. Those are the reasons, not more money or anything of that sort. People are making decisions based on what they think is best for their wellbeing. So I think it really is a call to action for employers to say, “Well, if I’m going to really be an employer of choice, if I’m going to retain the people that I need, I have to kind of step up my game a little bit.” It’s no longer something that is 14th on the list of criteria. It’s number one in many cases.
So what employees are asking for is tangible evidence that you value me. Are there services that are going to support me in my mental wellbeing if I run into a crisis? Are those supports services good, comprehensive, not going to cause me financial strain? Is your management going to make sure that the environment is positive so I can actually work to my full potential? I don’t have to feel scared. I don’t have to feel belittled. I don’t have to feel unsafe. That’s where that manager training kind of comes in. Is the leadership of the organization, so just moving up to the CEO and the board level, is the leadership of the organization aware that my wellbeing is important to your business success, so they’re going to make it a priority and set a culture as well as an investment plan to make that happen? So people might not be using the same words as I am, but they are using words to specifically ask around what kind of environment the workplace is in, that the workplace offers, and what kind of support the workplace offers.
William Tincup: I’ve seen that on the recruiting side when people apply to jobs, they’re looking at job descriptions and on career pages to see language that speaks to these things. And if it’s not there, they just assume that you don’t care.
Paula Allen: That is the critical point. You don’t have to be doing things that are negative. The absence of positive is enough for people to walk away.
William Tincup: People have no idea how much talent they’re losing because they’re not communicating, first of all, if they have things, programmatically, if they have things in place. And by not communicating, people are just, they’ll just bypass. They’ll just go on to the next thing, because they assume that you just don’t get it, and you’re not going to value. And they’re not willing… In previous generations, we were willing to push the boulder up the hill. And then we’ll take it out of generations, people are less willing to push a boulder up the hill when it comes to, “Do you value me or not?” You either do or you don’t. And it’s not just a paycheck. So I could talk to you all day, Paula, but thank you so much for coming on the RecruitingDaily Podcast. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed that. I know the audience has as well.
Paula Allen: Oh, thank you so much for having this topic. I think it’s pretty important. And it was a pleasure speaking with you.
William Tincup: And it was as well with you. And thanks for everyone listening to the RecruitingDaily Podcast. Until next time.
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William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.