Allison Walsh of Advanced Recovery Systems: “Educate your employees”

Educate your employees: We’ve been conducting research over the past year around employer-provided mental health resources and one thing that consistently showed up in results is that there’s a gap in employee awareness of available mental health resources. This was especially true of non-management employees. As a part of my series about the “5 Ways […]

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Educate your employees: We’ve been conducting research over the past year around employer-provided mental health resources and one thing that consistently showed up in results is that there’s a gap in employee awareness of available mental health resources. This was especially true of non-management employees.

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 Allison Walsh.

Allison is a speaker, author, founder and president of a 501c3 non-profit organization, and marketing expert. She currently serves as the VicePresident of Business Development and Branding for Advanced Recovery Systems and The Recovery Village, a cutting-edge behavioral health care company based in Central Florida. Previously, Allison held several executive and leadership roles in McKenna Walsh Consulting and Professional Management, andUF Health Florida Recovery Center at Orlando Health. Allison has served on multiple local and national nonprofit boards and task forces including the National Eating Disorders Association, Eating Disorders Network of Central Florida, Project Opioid, and Orange County’s Heroin Task ForceTreatment Committee. She is the founder of Helping Other People Eat (H.O.P.E.), a non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of eating disorders.Allison is an author, podcast host, and former Miss Florida. She has been featured in national media outlets and publications including FOXNews, Huff Post Live, and programs by Lifetime, PBS and NBC. Further, her work in the eating disorders field has been highlighted in nonfiction memoirs such as Diane Keaton’s Then Again and Johanna Kandel’s Life Beyond Your Eating Disorder.

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?

My journey in behavioral health started when I was 18 years old. I struggled with bulimia and anorexia while in high school and made it my mission early in recovery to prevent others from going through what I did, and help those that were currently struggling. I started a 501c3 nonprofit organization, Helping Other People Eat (H.O.P.E.), and traveled around Florida and across the country as an eating disorder and mental health advocate. Our H.O.P.E. team created educational resources and campaigns to increase awareness within schools and communities nationwide. I eventually went to law school to become an attorney who would focus on insurance litigation. I had seen so many people who were incredibly sick, being denied coverage and I wanted to do something about it. While in law school, I was approached by UF Shands to see if anyone on my board of directors was looking for a job. The position was marketing and business development for a new eating disorder program that Dr. Kevin Wandler would be starting, and an outpatient addiction treatment program in Orlando. Dr. Wandler was a legend in the eating disorder world and I was fascinated that a position like this existed. I took the job during my third year of law school and never looked back. A year later, we were both intrigued by the opportunity to be a part of a behavioral health start-up in Central Florida, and we became employee numbers 1 & 2. It’s been an amazing journey and I am so grateful to be a part of growing Advanced Recovery Systems to what it is today. We currently operate 9 programs in 6 states, and are close to 1,000 team members strong. Saving lives is our mission and I love working alongside forward-thinking founders who are fiercely committed to providing exceptional care for our clients.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In 2016, we were in the process of partnering with the International Association of Fire Fighters to build a center specifically for their members to receive mental health and addiction treatment. Everything about this center and relationship was incredible. First, we were honored to be the provider of choice to serve those who selflessly risk their lives each and every day to help others. Second, we announced the new center in front of tens of thousands of firefighters at one of the most impressive national conferences I’ve ever attended. Finally, the opening day of the center is one I will never forget. Hundreds of firefighters from across the nation flew in to visit the center, which was the first of its kind in North America, and the event was truly incredible, filled with dignitaries and special guests. Since then, we’ve treated over 1,700 IAFF members at the Center of Excellence and look forward to expanding our offerings in the near future.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Pace yourself. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed by the need, which is constantly growing, but you have to take care of yourself if you want to take care of others. For me, having a consistent daily routine that ensures self-care is taking place has made a huge difference. I also encourage that everyone has someone they can talk to as well. The reality is, the individuals we treat have gone through a lot, and in some cases experienced very tragic and difficult situations. At times it can be a lot to absorb and it’s important that we take care of ourselves and process what we need to so we can continue to be of service to others.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Listen to your people and be as transparent as possible. Nothing is worse than not feeling heard or appreciated in the workplace, so make sure you are regularly having conversations with your team members and focus on listening to what they are sharing with you. As appropriate, share news and insights about where the company is headed and get them excited about being a part of the team and process.

Invest in your team, and then invest some more! I can fully attest that the ROI is huge, and their gratitude will motivate them to show up fully and contribute their best work. We’ve brought in amazing trainers, consultants and coaches, and also invested in ongoing education for our team members. Please note though, investing in your team doesn’t always have to come with an actual price tag. Mentorship, cross-training, and skill-building are also very beneficial to your culture and team building.

Set and accomplish goals together. Make sure your team members know what the goals are for the company and that they understand how their contribution makes a difference. It’s easy, especially in large organizations, for people to lose sight of how their individual impact connects with the end result. Setting goals together that allow them to realize how important they are to the bigger picture not only validates why they are there, but it also builds a great team culture as everyone works towards accomplishing goals together. We do full quarterly goal sessions with each of our teams, and then meet monthly to review where everyone is in relation to the quarterly goals. Breaking them down into 90-day sprints builds excitement and the monthly check-ins keep everyone on the team accountable. We also make sure to celebrate wins weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually, which everyone loves!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“The whole point of being alive is to evolve into the person you were intended to be” — Oprah Winfrey

I love this quote because it encourages you to approach life with a growth mindset, and yet it’s a gentler approach to tackling that transformation than the hustle culture which can often permeate our lives. Early on in my career, I had these crazy unrealistic standards I set for myself that literally couldn’t be accomplished without extensive experience or training. I was young and not formally trained for the position I was in, and I’m fairly certain imposter syndrome was raging, which caused me a lot of stress. The moment I read this quote something clicked with me. I gave myself some grace and focused on changing my perspective to support my growth, rather than hinder it. I then baked in “be 1% better today than yesterday” into my mentality and it made a massive difference. My team has adopted the same philosophy and I’d be lying if I didn’t say my heart swells every time I hear them talk about how the 1% mentality has shifted their approach to not just their career, but life. Small, consistent, daily progress adds up to significant results, and eventually, the evolution that you’re seeking will result.

Q: 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?

A: We know there are a few ways that businesses most commonly try to support or improve their employees’ mental health.

  1. EAPs: EAPs are probably the most common resources offered to employees and are really efficient for businesses, primarily because they can offer different kinds of services under one umbrella. For example, EAPs can connect employees to mental health services, child care providers and even legal services by being a one-stop-shop for employees. It can also be a “set it and forget it” approach, which can undermine its overall effectiveness. Many times, EAPs can’t help employees who are in crisis find help they need immediately. Sometimes, even when they are able to refer them to a provider, it’s weeks later or it’s not the specific kind of help the employee would most benefit from. This is where initiatives like employee satisfaction surveys can help management understand if these EAP-provided resources are adequately serving their employees’ needs and if not, where they might need to make adjustments.
  2. Apps: This is probably more of an emerging solution. Over the last year, partially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers started offering discounted or free access to popular apps like Calm, Whil, TalkSpace and others to put mental health resources directly into the hands of their employees. This is a great approach because it offers employees any time, anywhere access to resources that help them manage their stress, get better sleep, process their emotions and just dedicate time to their self-care. Apps can offer a suite of solutions — from education to assessments to journaling to teletherapy — all in one place, which is important because not every strategy is important to or effective for every individual. As this option becomes more popular, one thing employers should keep in mind when evaluating whether or not to offer an app is understanding the types of content provided and where it’s coming from. For example, our app Nobu was created under the supervision of mental health professionals to ensure high-quality, evidence-based content and access to licensed therapists.
  3. Mental health days: Whether offering as part of an overall bank of paid time off or having designated time off for mental health reasons, mental health days are another option for employers to explore. When employees are empowered to take time off to address mental health symptoms, the same way they can take time off to address their physical health, they’re less likely to be distracted or “presentee” at work, which increases the risk for workplace accidents and lowers overall productivity.
  4. Educate your employees: We’ve been conducting research over the past year around employer-provided mental health resources and one thing that consistently showed up in results is that there’s a gap in employee awareness of available mental health resources. This was especially true of non-management employees. Make sure your team members know exactly what your company provides and how to access those resources. This is a simple and free strategy that any manager can implement right away.
  5. Talk about mental health at work: This doesn’t mean your frontline managers have to become therapists! When managers and leaders create space for employees to talk about mental health, it creates a more positive, productive work environment. It could look like sharing a mental health tip in a team meeting or being supportive if an employee brings up a mental health concern or wants to take time off to address a mental health condition. It means creating a culture where employees aren’t fearful of being judged or punished for having and addressing their mental health.

Overall, companies are going to see more success when your program is a true good faith effort and genuine desire to help, not just checking the box and moving on. Regularly checking in on your team’s mental health and getting their feedback on what works for them and what doesn’t are key to truly support and optimize your team’s mental health.

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?

A: A great place to start is the data. And there’s so much of it! As I mentioned, we’ve been conducting research throughout the pandemic, as have many others, and the results consistently paint a picture of a stressed, anxious and unsure workforce. Our survey found that 75% of workers experienced adverse mental health symptoms over the prior six months. Just over half had been diagnosed with and/or treated for a mental health condition. Our teams are our greatest resource and if they’re struggling with their own mental health, on top of everyday life challenges like parenting the kids and caring for their family and friends, they’re not bringing their best selves into the workplace. The data supports this as well: 78% of employees miss work due to mental health concerns. Over 80% of employees treated for mental illness reported improved levels of work efficacy and satisfaction. Happy, healthy employees are productive team members and leaders within your organization. If you aren’t already convinced that good mental health and wellness is an integral part of your company culture and your bottom line, I would start there and you’ll quickly become convinced there’s more you could be doing and not just because it’s the right thing to do — and it certainly is — but because it’s the right thing to do for the health and productivity of your team and your company.

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 and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

A: I think one positive aspect that came out of the pandemic was the increase in dialogue around mental health, including in the media, in our communities and even on an interpersonal level. For a long time, those of us in the mental health space have been working to break the stigma and normalize conversations about mental health and especially mental health disorders, and I think that’s starting to happen. Continuing to talk to those in our lives, whether that be our friends and family or our colleagues and team members, about mental health is an important strategy to help support each other. If we can talk openly, without shame or fear, it just paves the way for more people to get help and support when they need it, instead of waiting to seek help only after the issue has escalated to a moment of crisis. This is something that we can all do, right now, in our daily lives. It costs nothing and pays dividends.

The other piece of that is educating ourselves about mental health and wellness. When we better understand mental health, we can better identify our own coping behaviors, whether or not they’re healthy and know when to seek professional help. Fortunately, today there are so many opportunities to find mental health education, whether that be through social media or on the web. Our site, for instance, not only offers information about mental health disorders that has been reviewed by a medical professional for accuracy and reliability, we also offer a library of recorded webinars that present information on a variety of mental health topics, all delivered by a licensed professional. When you’re out there seeking educational resources, be sure that you’re getting from a reputable source and the information being shared is medically accurate.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

A: I think first things first, you have to understand your own patterns and behaviors. You need to take an honest look at your mental health and figure out what’s a healthy strategy for you and what isn’t. Once you know what you want to work on, you can start to look for solutions for those things. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. Some strategies are going to work better for some people and for certain habits. We know that we need to check in on our mental health, but perhaps a daily check-in works for me, where others prefer a weekly one. Setting the time aside to do that self assessment is an important and probably near universal first step to building healthy habits that will ultimately replace less healthy or less productive behaviors that you would like to change.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

It’s amazing how impactful intentional breathwork can be. I’ve noticed considerable improvements during stressful moments when I take the time to take deep breaths and pay attention to inhaling and exhaling. Journaling is also incredibly helpful. I always have a notepad with me, whether I am working from home or on the road. It helps me get what’s in my mind, onto paper, which not only helps to quiet my mind, but I find comfort in knowing I’ve written it down.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

High-Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard kick-started not only my commitment to taking better care of myself, but it also prompted a deep dive into leadership and personal development books and courses. I love to learn and I am fascinated by high performers and impactful leaders that have incredible records of success. Brendon studied hundreds of leaders over the course of a decade and then highlighted the 6 core areas they all possessed in his book. I loved that I could do an assessment and benchmark where I compared to others, and also gain specific insight into where I needed to do the work. That assessment called out that I wasn’t doing enough to take care of my physical health, so I changed my approach and daily routine. Fast forward 3 years later and I am still doing it every day. I feel so much better, stronger and healthier, and am really grateful that Brendon opened my eyes to what else I could do to live my best life.

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. 🙂

I want to get everyone engaged in taking care of their own mental health before it becomes an issue. Preventative care makes a difference and knowing who and what to turn to will change your life. Mental health impacts every aspect of our lives and oftentimes has a direct correlation to what’s going on with our physical health as well. When you’re committed to your own mental wellness, you create habits that help you manage and monitor your needs. Let’s face it — we’ve all been through a lot, especially over the last 18 months. It’s so important to not only address any significant issues but to also make sure you’re doing enough to take care of yourself on a day-to-day basis. This could be as simple as engaging in mental wellness techniques, incorporating exercise into your routine or finding a counselor to help you manage and process what’s causing you to feel less than ideal. No matter where you are on your mental wellness journey, know that there are incredible resources, apps, techniques and people here to support you!

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

I show up daily on Instagram @allisonwalshconsulting and promise to fill up your feed with positivity and inspiration. You can also listen to the Dear Mind, You Matter podcast which is launching in July or download our mental wellness app, Nobu, on July 5th!

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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