Wellness In The Workplace Series:
Mental health is out in the open, and it is not just limited to gymnast Simone Biles and tennis pro Naomi Osaka. The global pandemic has resulted in a more open discussion of isolation, burnout, anxiety, and depression in the workplace. Employers have responded by engaging in a national dialogue on mental health and creating programs to address these issues. While many of the programs were designed to navigate the pandemic, quite a few will become a key part of an organization's talent acquisition and employee retention strategy. In this series, we examine how business leaders in different industries are addressing mental health.
We continue our series with Marjorie Josaphat, Senior Director of Human Resources at The Milken Institute, one of the world's most prestigious think tanks. This not-for-profit, non-partisan organization with offices in Washington DC, New York, Santa Monica, London, and Singapore, helps people build meaningful lives in which they can experience health and well-being, pursue effective education and gainful employment, and access the resources required to create ever-expanding opportunities for themselves and their broader communities.
Everyone has heard of the Milken Institute, and Michael Milken is recognized worldwide as a visionary and philanthropist. Can you give us a sense of the scope of the Milken Institute?
The Milken Institute engages in research, events, and programs to find solutions to seemingly unsolvable challenges. Much of our policy and programmatic work is conducted through our seven centers that include: the Asia Center, Center for Regional Economics, Center for Financial Markets, Center for Future of Aging, Center for Public Health, and Center for Strategic Philanthropy, [as well as] FasterCures, which clears roadblocks that prevent medical breakthroughs from reaching patients sooner.
During the height of the pandemic, FasterCures was very involved in tracking the progress of developing a vaccine. Our Center for Public Health has been a thought leader during the COVID pandemic. Initially, we provided a consolidated view of how food system stakeholders responded to the pandemic to ensure that people had access to nourishing food. Just recently, the Center for Public Health hosted a panel of business leaders discussing mental health in the workplace.
The Milken Institute is known for our major conferences of leading educators, government leaders, researchers, and innovators. The Global Conference is our largest and is held in person every year for 4000–5000 people. It is such a great place to learn. There are different sessions addressing economic, environmental, health, and educational issues, to name a few, led by some of the greatest minds in the world. It is wonderful to have our Global Conference in October. It will be our first in-person since our virtual one last year.
What pandemic-related mental health issues have you observed in the workforce?
There are increases in stress, depression, and loneliness. Many single people were unable to socialize at all because of the quarantine. I noticed relationship issues between partners and roommates not used to being together all day, every day. Parents would have to multitask work and childcare, and it wasn't unusual to see a child interrupt a Zoom meeting, but people understood.
What can employers do to encourage mental well-being to help improve employee resiliency and remain competitive in the marketplace?
Employers are providing more employee engagement activities via Zoom and online. Employers have organized volunteer activities, giving people an opportunity to give back and feel [like] part of a community. Many parents whose children are part of the school lunch program were worried about feeding their children. The teachers, counselors, and parents volunteered to pass out food. For many students, this was their only meal for the day. People also volunteered to assist with the COVID testing and vaccination process.
People are quitting their jobs at record levels in the market and don't want to come to the office five days a week. Employers are looking for ways to incentivize employees to stay and attract talent. It's not just about the salary. People want to know what else you offer or the plan for returning to the office. They want to hear that they don't have to come into the office every day.
Employers will have a hard time incentivizing people to work in the office five days a week. We are opting for a hybrid schedule, three days on and two remotely. These schedules will become more common because people don't see the need to come back into the office five days a week to be productive.
What cultural shifts do you see among employers regarding mental well-being since the beginning of the pandemic?
Since we started working remotely, many people have changed their living situations. Some employees moved back home to be close to friends and family. There has been a shift towards multigenerational housing. Parents are also moving to rural areas where it is more economical than the city.
People who could not be with their loved ones when they passed away in the hospital were impacted. Those who still have their parents or grandparents have chosen to move closer to them. For younger people living alone, it is also an economical choice to move in with family.
What actions has the Milken Institute taken to help employees?
We fast-tracked an intranet with activities, books you can read together, child care resources, online museums, pods for socializing, watch parties, and virtual talent shows. These were fun ways people could still come together as a community that wasn't work-related.
We partnered with Psych Hub and started Wellness Wednesdays, where each week we featured a different discussion on mental health. We gifted the Calm app and LinkedIn Learning subscriptions, which was a big hit with our employees. Three days a week, we had virtual workout groups. We sent reminders to our team and encouraged them to use our employee assistance program if they needed it.
Our president hosted virtual Coffee Chats in groups of 15 people just to check in to see how everyone was doing and give status updates about the Institute. People would talk about work, what they saw in the media, mental health, working from home, and returning to the office. In the beginning, many people wanted to come back to the office and it's interesting to see how it evolved.
The Milken Institute has offices in Singapore and London. How are colleagues abroad responding to the creative slate of programs that you and your team have developed?
Thanks to the power of the intranet, our colleagues both abroad and stateside can participate in many of our programs. For example, we started a Mr. Rogers Call – Get to Know Your Neighbor (Colleague) Program. Each month we pair up staff from the various office locations to coordinate a 30-minute meeting via Teams or a phone call and have a non-work related conversation. We have received great feedback from staff; they are enjoying the conversations and have expressed interest in having more activities like this one.
How do you see mental health programs developed during the pandemic impacting recruiting and retention?
The pandemic has magnified the mental health effects of isolation, anxiety, and depression. Our primary goal in HR has always been to foster a respectful, safe, and productive workplace. Now, post-pandemic, we are shifting our focus to create an environment where diversity, inclusivity, transparency, flexibility, and clear lines of communication—in terms of expectations—are at the forefront of our work. We believe that these are key elements for retention and attracting talent.