On today’s episode of the RecruitingDaily Podcast, William Tincup speaks to Shira from OneDigital about employee-backed mental health initiatives.

Some Conversation Highlights:

What are some of the examples of things that you’re seeing that are working for folks?

If you look just within the realm of mental health support, we have to look at employee mental health as being on the spectrum at any point in time, all of us. So some of us struggle just with the day to day challenge of coping with spilling our coffee all over our lap, or getting the kids to school in time. The day to day challenges. But when you experience those, a lot of times they can pile up and turn into a chronic issue. And those are folks that need an elevated level of support beyond just stress management or resiliency, or maybe mindfulness and meditation apps. Now you’re talking about folks that really could benefit from coaching or even virtual therapy. And then that top level is really the folks that may need an even more in depth level of support in terms of treatment.

So we see it across the spectrum specific to mental health. But then you look at what are all the things that cause all of us stress on a day to day basis? Sometimes they go beyond mental health, into things like worrying about finances and money or our job, or maybe our physical health. So a lot of times the best mental health solution may fall into another category of wellbeing. If that makes any sense for you.

Tune in for the full conversation.

Listening time: 31 minutes


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Shira Wilensky
National Practice Leader, Health & Wellbeing OneDigital

Shira brings over 16 years of experience in corporate wellness and healthcare, innovative and cost-saving strategies, and an infectious enthusiasm for wellbeing. Shira creates organizational strategies to manage healthcare costs, promote wellbeing and engagement, and ensure OneDigital clients maximize their workforce and organizational performance.

Music: This is Recruiting Daily’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 overcomplicated 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 gentlemen, this William Tincup and you are listening to the Recruiting Daily podcast. Today, we have Shira on from OneDigital and we have a wonderful topic in front of us. It’s employee backed mental health initiatives. Timing couldn’t have been better, especially with what’s going on in the world today and what we’ve been through over the last two years. So Shira, would you do us a favor and introduce both yourself and OneDigital?

Shira Wilensky: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. My name is Shira Wilensky. I am the national health and wellbeing practice leader with OneDigital and very excited to chat with you guys today. So OneDigital is a company that really helps companies power their people potential through HR consulting, employee benefits, wealth and retirement, property and casualty, all centered around really helping people optimize their workforce and do well as businesses by doing good for people.

William Tincup: I love that. So mental health, if you and I were talking about mental health and from a business context, two, let’s say three years ago, there was so much taboo around mental health. I think you’ve probably seen the same thing I have. It’s now to a point where people openly can talk about what they’re going through, which first of all, I hope we don’t go backwards. I hope we don’t after the pandemic is over, if and when there is such a time when the pandemic is over, I hope we don’t lose that.

Shira Wilensky: I think you’re exactly right. And the data showed us that we knew people were struggling and suffering. If we looked at medical claims and prescription data, but when we looked at things like utilization rates from an employee assistance program, that in most cases offers employees free counseling sessions, we saw utilization rates around 2 or 3%. And to your point, what we are seeing as a result of the pandemic is, not to say there still aren’t challenges related to stigma especially in certain industries, but people are not only asking for help, in a lot of cases they’re begging for support. So now is the time to really capitalize on that opportunity where all of a sudden it’s okay to ask for help, because I think we were all really struggling.

William Tincup: Oh yeah. In fact, if you weren’t struggling, I’m going to put a question mark next to that. When we talk about employee backed just for the audience, we’re talking about it from the perspective of the company actually in its approach to employees where we look at perks and benefits and things that we do and it’s a total compensation. We look at mental health as a way of providing different types of benefits for our employees. What are you seeing? What are some of the examples of things that you’re seeing that are working for folks?

Shira Wilensky: That’s a great question. So, a couple thoughts. If you look just within the realm of mental health support, we have to look at employees being on the spectrum at any point in time, all of us. So some of us struggle just with the day to day challenge of coping with spilling our coffee all over our lap, or getting the kids to school in time. The day to day challenges. But when you experience those, a lot of times they can pile up and turn into a chronic issue. And those are folks that need an elevated level of support beyond just stress management or resiliency, or maybe mindfulness and meditation apps. Now you’re talking about folks that really could benefit from coaching or even virtual therapy. And then that top level is really the folks that may need an even more in depth level of support in terms of treatment.

So we see it across the spectrum specific to mental health. But then you look at what are all the things that cause all of us stress on a day to day basis? Sometimes they go beyond mental health, into things like worrying about finances and money or our job, or maybe our physical health. So a lot of times the best mental health solution may fall into another category of wellbeing. If that makes any sense for you.

William Tincup: It absolutely does. And, dumb question alert. Have you seen any of your clients extend this into the family? Because when I think about mental health, as you just talked about it, it can be insular and it can be just something that you’re dealing with, or it could be something that it’s attributed to something else, or there’s causal correlation, relationships between things. So I’m thinking about going through trauma you know, my wife goes through trauma, that’s now created some trauma for me. So, how do we treat that? Well, okay, well we can treat my side of it, which is fine, which is good. It’s definitely better than not. But do you see clients thinking about, and customers thinking about, okay, we need to think about the whole individual and think about all of the things that impact them?

Shira Wilensky: William, you really hit the nail there, because those of us that have been on the corporate wellness side for quite some time have been banging the door down to say, hey look, this is not just about managing the costs to your health plan. If you’re staying within this silo here, you have a huge missed opportunity, because what we’re really after is what are all of the ways that we can support our employees in bringing the best version of themselves to work every day? And what we used to say was, hey folks, don’t leave all of their emotional baggage and stress and distractions at the door when they come in to work every day. Now it’s coming into their living room in a lot of cases, or maybe their back porch to work remotely.

But we got a glimpse into what that really looks like that we are all people and anything that an employer can do to really support their people and help to alleviate stress, barriers to getting access to care, barriers to things that are really causing folks from being fully focused at work, you’re going to have a benefit as it relates to performance and productivity. So we have seen a lot of vendors that even price some of their services based on a per employee count, but it will include spouses, dependents or their whole family member or even support network.

William Tincup: What I love about that is, again, you can treat both the root cause, but you can also everyone that’s impacted. And again, you don’t go through any type of trauma by yourself, generally speaking. There’s a ripple effect. And so if you can treat that and what’s interesting is as you were talking, I was thinking about how we probably need to rebrand benefits and think about calling it something different, because I think you’re right. CFOs see the word benefits and they see cost and they don’t think of it in terms of benefits are really a gateway to retention and loyalty.

Shira Wilensky: That’s right.

William Tincup: And if done well.

Shira Wilensky: That’s exactly right. And we know that eight out of 10 employees that are satisfied with their benefits are also highly satisfied in their job. And I think that probably resonates with folks, especially these days when that is a top struggle for employers of all sizes. And in the past, we have seen corporate wellness initiatives really focused on larger employers. There’s there’s not a lot of options, there’s not a lot of solutions and a lot of key that have come down market. And a lot of that was because there was limited budget, limited resources. It was something nice to have, but not something that made it to the top of the priority list, particularly for small businesses. And that’s no longer the case. They are not immune to the great resignation or the big quit or whatever it is that you want to call it, but it has become a top priority for businesses of any size to focus on their people in order to sustain their business.

William Tincup: Yeah. It’s the old attitude. If you’re not focused on your people, someone else is. So, do it or don’t do it at your peril. Let’s get back to the employee backed mental health initiatives and think about the spectrum of table stakes. Things that you just got to period. Sorry, hard stop. You just have to be doing these things and then take us through all the way to where you see like the most innovative, like really, really cutting edge bleeding edge, things that are really, really cool.

Shira Wilensky: So I would say first and foremost is probably the most impactful and costs the least amount of money, which is to look at foundationally company policies, your environment and your culture and what does that mean? It means you can say, we care about you and we care about your mental health and your total wellbeing, but if employees don’t feel like they can take time away, if they feel like they have to stay connected to their emails 24/7, that that is the expectation, then the message doesn’t really resonate. So things like coming up with blocking out certain times of day where there are no internal meetings scheduled or having a policy that if it’s the weekend or the evening and Kate, unless it’s a true emergency, you’re not expected to respond to an email and in fact, from a leadership perspective, we encourage you not even to send it or delay sending that email so that you’re not messaging your employees or your coworkers when they’re trying to put their kids to sleep. So even though those are small things, they do send a big message.

There’s a great nonprofit called A World Without Suicide, that talks about crushing the stigma and things like giving mental health equal value as you do physical health. So if you have physical health related challenges, activities, initiatives, to be talking about mental health in the same way, to be cognizant of the voice that you use around mental health and language that ties back to having a stigma. All of these things can contribute. If you want to encourage employees to take advantage of existing resources to support mental health, knowing what those resources are, having managers comfortable talking about those resources, if they see employees that are struggling and suffering, make sure that they know what those resources are, how to approach people in a HIPAA compliant way of course, and encourage them to seek help. So that’s the fundamental foundational layer that really can, I think, have the greatest impact for an employer. Next of course-

William Tincup: Hold on before you-

Shira Wilensky: Go ahead.

William Tincup: Yeah, because you hit on something that I found fascinating. Physical health, mental health, the physical health, there’s some stigmas there too. There’s some things we don’t talk as much about there, but there are some stories. There’s some storytelling that gets… Either externally or internally there’s storytelling that’s really positive around changes that were made and lives that were transformed, et cetera. But we haven’t really activated mental health in the same way of telling those stories, Hey, I was going through depression, I went through a really tough divorce, got diagnosed. Didn’t really know what to do with it. This is what happened. And then I sought out therapy, used REAP, and now that I have my diagnosis, I’m on meds and everything’s fine. Like that’s just a simple story, but I think some of this, because it lives in the shadows, we don’t tell the stories. And I think that leads back to another issue that you brought up. It’s like, you can have mental health benefits and you can even communicate the benefits, but if people don’t use them, it’s not a benefit.

Shira Wilensky: That’s right.

William Tincup: Right? So I love your analogy of physical health and mental health. I hope people as they listen to this, I hope they really take that home. All right, you were taking us on a journey and I stopped you. Go ahead.

Shira Wilensky: No, no, no. I like to make lots of stuff up on my journeys as well. So, but a couple of things. It is, we have about 12,000 lives with Teledoc, which is a virtual telemedicine company that offers as a whole slew of services. And interestingly, over the last year we saw the same utilization rate for their virtual mental health services, as we did for general medical care, which is huge. That is just not something that we have seen in the past. So it is interesting to look at the data and to see that the people really are taking advantage of those types of services.

But to hone in on a point that you caught there, William, I would say that when you look at the priorities, having that fundamental layer is so important because it’s like everything else in our society, you almost would rather be able to write a check for it and fix it. You’d almost rather be able to just take your prescription, get a pill and make it go away. And a lot of times, especially during COVID where you had folks that were saying, okay, forget the strategic plan, we have to do something. We want to respond. We want to react. We want to do something.

Now it’s become, okay, are we doing the right thing? Which is important, because when it comes to looking at the value of your investment and really making sure that you are moving the needle, it is more than just looking at what are the resources, what vendor solutions are we putting in place? But in fact, how are we connecting employees to these resources in a meaningful way? And-

William Tincup: Is that-

Shira Wilensky: Sometimes that’s…Go ahead.

William Tincup: No, you’re fine. Is that a communications issue? Because when you said that I was thinking, well, we can audit consumption so we can see it from a certain perspective. But that might not tell the whole story. It might only tell a part of the story like, well, maybe we just didn’t do a great job of communicating the benefit.

Shira Wilensky: I think on a lot of cases that is true. Maybe take it one step further and say engagement and communications. So let’s just compare to the financial piece for example, if you ask employers, do you have a financial wellbeing strategy in place or resources? And they say, oh yeah, we’ve got a 401k, great move on. Well, what does your workforce look like? What are your demographics? If you have a younger workforce, maybe 401k isn’t what is meaningful and relevant to them, maybe it’s paying back student loans, maybe it’s budgeting, maybe it’s getting out of debt.

So it’s not just enough to be able to say we have this generic solution, but are you offering the solutions that your employees want and value? And then if you are looking from a business perspective at how can we better attract and retain employees, what does the folks that you’re after, what do they want in value? And so it is certainly not always a simple task, but sometimes it is better communicating and then in other cases, it’s also the convenience of it. And are you communicating to your workforce in a way that’s meaningful to them?

So when you think about modalities are you still mailing home postcards, as opposed to maybe sending push notifications through an app? A lot of cases now you see employers have so many tools and resources that employees don’t even know what they already have. And that’s a great opportunity to get more value out of your current investment.

William Tincup: Which again gets back to the communication and the engagement. And I think if we’ve done this for a long time, especially just on a just straight physical health benefits, it’s kind of a one and done communication. We go through that open enrollment period. We get everyone signed up, we communicate what’s there and then okay, in a year from now, we’ll do the same thing or change it a bit. And I think that the audience, our candidates and employees have changed, and in a good way, and actually probably a great way, in their expectations of us.

And so that engagement piece that you brought up, that’s relentless to get them to actually consume, or at least be mindful that they have the opportunity. You can’t force anybody, nor should you know. Physical or mental or even wellness, any of these things, financial, you shouldn’t force anybody to do anything. However, if they don’t know that you have it, then that’s a failure.

Shira Wilensky: That’s right. And we talk a lot about the relationship between employee engagement and total wellbeing. And what we saw during the pandemic was the highest level of employee engagement we’ve ever seen. Now don’t get too excited because it would be like getting a C minus on your test and saying, Woohoo, I passed.

William Tincup: Yeah. You’re [Thomas Midget 00:21:15], great.

Shira Wilensky: But in reality, that highest level of engagement was only 36%, which we’ve got lots of room for improvement. But despite the highest level of engagement we saw, do we think that employees were super well over the past couple years? I know I wasn’t. And so we recognized that relationship. Employees were engaged because they were on the edge of their seat waiting to hear about the sustainability of their employer, the livelihood for themselves related to their job. Were they going to be going into the office? Were they going to be wearing a mask? What was the next step? So they were very, very engaged, but struggling and suffering across the whole spectrum of total wellbeing.

And so what we figured out is, okay, engagement is one thing, but it’s not enough. If what we’re ultimately after is having our employees thrive as humans, then we have to address both. So you can have a great communication strategy, a great message, we know that especially the millennials and the Gen Z, they want to feel valued, they want to feel cared for. So you can say it a hundred times, but boy, you better show it. And so what does that mean? That means, say it, but then also have the support, the tools and the resources. So it does go both ways. You can have a ton of tools and resources without really hitting home the message and it’s a missed opportunity.

William Tincup: We nibbled around the edge of this, but I’ll tell you just a personal story from my background, is the moment that our company opened up the employee portal, the benefits portal to our partners and spouses, wives, husbands, whatever was the very moment that we got more engagement as a family. Because my wife would go, I’m, probably like a lot of guys, clueless and so my wife would actually go in there and go, oh you know we have access to this, and access to this, and access to this, and access to this. I’m like, I have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s cool. Good. Okay, I guess. What do we do with it?

Do you see the communication layer and engagement layer, do you see firms extending that out to that circle of folks that surround that? Because when you talk about thrive, first of all, I love that the whole you thrive. But I also think there’s behind that, is a group of people, it’s family, it’s friends, it’s a bunch of different things. Do you see companies expanding their things, thoughts, out to thinking about that circle?

Shira Wilensky: I would say some, probably not enough. A lot of it has to do with the company culture. If it’s a family centric company culture, a family owned company, or an employer that is just the nature of what they do, that they’re already in a position where they’re really nourishing employees to connect to a sense of purpose, bigger than just coming to work every day, you see that in a way that maybe they offer extended family care benefits, those types of things. I don’t think everybody’s there yet, but when you look at the psychology behind behavior change and having a support system and having a network and all of the things that contribute to the best case scenario of success, that would be the ideal. But it doesn’t always happen overnight. Like I said, we’re still getting employers to think past just these programs are targeting employees on the health plan, to this is beneficial to all of your employees. And then beyond that, supporting that network, is certainly a best case scenario.

Where we see it typically is, we have seen some of the wellness vendors offer the platform to include spouses where it used to just be employees only. We do look at communication strategies that in some cases it does make sense to mail things home, because there is a chance the spouse will see it in those circumstances. So, I think it does depend on the culture, but certainly something that everybody could strive for.

William Tincup: Last question, and it’s probably more as it relates to financial than anything else, is making the business case for mental health. I know you get asked this question a gillion times a day, but basically when you’re interacting with the CHRO or even folks that are in comp and benefits, eventually you’re going to at one point talk to a CFO, and eventually there will be a discussion, whether or not we like it or not, there’ll be a discussion around ROI. What’s your best advice for folks that are going through that, for mental health in particular?

Shira Wilensky: So a couple thoughts. I will say in general, we are having a lot less of an emphasis on ROI when it comes to investing in health and wellbeing related solutions than in the past.

William Tincup: Thank God.

Shira Wilensky: We have had employers that are saying, it’s because it’s the right thing to do, or because we realize that for the sustainability of our business, we have to have people that are able to show up and work every day. So that is certainly a plus. But in terms of opportunities to measure hard dollars savings, best case scenario is to make sure that we have the data available. And that comes in the form of either through the medical carrier or the pharmacy vendor, where you’re able to look at what are the current costs related to exacerbated mental health conditions, or unmanaged mental health conditions? What are the costs associated with the drugs used to manage these conditions or outpatient therapy or inpatient? There are hard dollar savings associated with those things.

And so just like we would talk about an unmanaged diabetic for example, we know the costs associated with a foot amputation, or going on dialysis, or ending up in the emergency room. And so I do try to push folks to think in the context of the value on their investment, but we can absolutely look at a reduction in catastrophic claims. We can look at a reduction in pharmacy spend, reduction in inpatient or outpatient treatment related to mental health. That would be a result of folks getting ongoing support and being better managed and not moving up to that next level of severity. So that would be probably the best opportunity to look at it from the metrics. And of course there’s plenty of statistics and data out there that have calculated the cost associated with absenteeism or turnover. It obviously results from folks that are truly struggling and stuff.

William Tincup: That’s right. That’s right. With using data, you touched on a lot of the things that are easily, I mean, you can easily run the math, but engagement and morale and retention or attrition and productivity, like, okay. And again, getting back to your point, and it’s the right thing to do. There. Put a number on that.

Shira, this has been absolutely fantastic. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Shira Wilensky: I wish you had asked me about a topic I was more passionate about, jeez.

William Tincup: Next time we’ll talk about Legos.

Shira Wilensky: This has been a great opportunity. Thank you.

William Tincup: Absolutely. And thanks for everyone listening to the Recruiting Daily podcast. Until next time.

The RecruitingDaily Podcast

William Tincup

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.


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