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“Check in and ask how people are doing.” With Cara McNulty

It is important not to assume that people are ok. Check in and ask how people are doing. If you’re worried about a friend, coworker or loved one’s mental health, approach them in a non-accusatory and supportive way. Create an opportunity to listen and listen in a way that’s non-judgmental. It is also important to […]

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It is important not to assume that people are ok. Check in and ask how people are doing. If you’re worried about a friend, coworker or loved one’s mental health, approach them in a non-accusatory and supportive way. Create an opportunity to listen and listen in a way that’s non-judgmental. It is also important to be mindful of your reactions and respond in a thoughtful way.

As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Are Helping To Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Cara McNulty.

As an executive leader and population health scientist, Cara is driven by her passion for population health improvement. Throughout her career, Cara has had success improving population health and wellbeing outcomes that span the corporate, government and education sectors, integrating confirmed health science into practical and ethical business models that drive measurable outcomes. In her role as President of Aetna Behavioral Health, a leading provider of mental health and employee assistance program (EAP) solutions to members around the globe, Cara oversees a national team that spearheads the development of programs, products and capabilities designed to offer individuals easy access to quality, innovative treatments and meet people along their health care journey. Together with her team, Cara enhances the mental wellbeing and health outcomes of our members, caregivers and families through an easy and meaningful experience. Cara previously served as the North American leader of Integrated Wellbeing for Willis Towers Watson, where she advised clients on strategies focusing on employee engagement, clinical outcomes and productivity. Cara also led efforts to implement the health agenda at Target Corporation as the former head of Population Health, Team Member Wellbeing and Guest Wellness for Target Corporation. Prior to those roles, Cara led the design and implementation of Minnesota’s transformational population health care legislation, which to date is one of the largest financial allocations in the country for initiatives known to be reducing health disparities and chronic diseases.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Asan executive leader and population health scientist, I’m driven by my passion for improving and supporting the health and wellness of the body and mind. Throughout my career, I’ve seen the benefits of prioritizing the health and wellbeing of employees through integrating health science and practical ethical business models in corporations, government entities and education sectors.

I had always planned to go to school for pediatric medicine. I love children and have all my life.

As I began to advance in school, what came easiest to me and what I found most interesting and exciting was science. What I didn’t know at the time was the science I really found fascinating was related to the decisions humans make and the impacts that policies, systems and environments have on human health.

When I was 15, my father was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and spent many years in and out of the hospital for months at a time. My father participated in a unique drug trial, as he was one of four people at the time with this rare form of cancer. Over that time, I had the pleasure of watching his care team, especially his oncologist. I was inspired by the work of his care team, but kept asking questions like: ‘Was this a preventable leukemia? How could we improve the outcomes for other people who have this cancer and their chance of survival?’

One day, his oncologist asked me to sit on the bed next to my father, and he proceeded to share that he did not think I should go to medical school. Instead, he thought I should study population health medicine. I was devastated, yet intrigued. The oncologist explained that population health is improving the health of a defined population by focusing on wellness instead of sick care, using data more effectively to improve care, engaging patients in their care and coordinating care that was siloed and fragmented, into a seamless and thoughtful care experience.

After the shock wore off, I asked, “How do I do this type of study?” The oncologist grabbed a piece of paper, wrote down the top graduate and doctoral programs, handed me the paper and left the room. One week later, my father died, and today I have the greatest career that allows me to work to improve the health and wellbeing outcomes of many.

In my role as President of Aetna Behavioral Health, a leading provider of mental health and employee assistance program (EAP) solutions to members around the globe, I oversee a national team that spearheads the development of programs, products and capabilities designed to offer individuals easy access to quality, innovative treatments and meet people along their health care journey. Together, we enhance the mental wellbeing and health outcomes of our members, caregivers and families through an easy and meaningful experience.

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

Early in my career, I applied for a role that I was sure would be the perfect fit for my skills and expertise. I was so excited about the opportunity and had a fantastic experience working through the three-month process.

I was super excited when the hiring executive called me. I thought for sure she was going to offer me the job. Instead, she shared that although it was a tough choice, they were going to hire the other candidate. I was so disappointed and felt like the air had been sucked out of my lungs. As I tried to gather myself, I remembered a saying my father would often use: “When we know better, we can do better so ask for feedback.”

I cleared my throat and asked the hiring executive if she could give me one action or effort where I could have done a better job in the process. Without a moment’s hesitation, she answered, “Get yourself a really good mentor who you can trust to help you refine your style just a bit.” She then shared, “You come off so nice and friendly — we just weren’t sure you would be able to make tough decisions in a direct manner.” I thanked her for her time and direct feedback and hung up the phone.

So, I found myself a mentor who was thoughtful, kind and utterly direct. I explained the feedback and I asked her for her help. Bottomline, she has been my mentor for 22 years, and I am still learning. She taught me that while being kind and thoughtful is my foundation, it doesn’t mean I am a pushover, passive aggressive or unable to make hard decisions. One year later, the executive who gave me the feedback called to tell me the person they hired didn’t work out. I shared with her the work I had been doing with my mentor and she offered me the job on the spot.

That feedback and experience has transformed me personally and professionally. Those who know me understand I am a kind person, who can make very tough decisions, have challenging conversations and lead without leaving a trail of dysfunction. This type of leadership is essential in developing cultures that are psychologically safe. Company cultures that allow employees to bring their full selves to the job are places people want to work. They are filled with creativity and have healthier employees, which results in a diverse and inclusive workforce.

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

First, make sure to take care of yourself. Focus on healthy eating, sleeping, and staying active. Make sure to encourage your colleagues to take care of themselves. Don’t be afraid to ask how you can help, or let others know that you need help.

Check in with a doctor, a counselor, or even family and friends to make sure you are doing well emotionally. If you are a manager, make sure your employees have someone to check in with. And if you are comfortable, make yourself available to them as that person.

Third, engage with others, and make sure to stay connected to your friends, family and colleagues. Managers should be open about their connections and encourage employees to do the same.

Find ways to relax, whether that’s gardening, dancing or cooking. Be open about your activities and ask your colleagues how they choose to relax. And don’t forget to encourage employees to unplug when not in the office.

Finally, it’s important to know the signs of emotional suffering, so if you see them in a colleague, you can reach out and offer support. This is especially important for managers, so you can help your colleagues. You should also understand how your employees would prefer to receive support, if necessary.

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

As leaders, we must work to create and drive a supportive, inclusive and accepting culture. One way to do so is by leading with transparency and sharing humanity so that others feel comfortable doing the same. Particularly during these unprecedented times, we are all undergoing unusual amounts of stress and anxiety. As an example of transparency and humanity, leaders could share with their employees that they, too, are struggling with the many worries in our current world, and that they often take time to focus on their mental wellbeing or that they also seek mental health support.

Employees are a company’s number one asset and employees who feel valued and cared for by their company will feel more connected to their jobs. Helping employees maintain their mental health is key to providing holistic support to employees. As leaders, we must go above and beyond to help meet employee needs.

This includes anything from offering employees paid time off, inclusion initiatives and comprehensive benefits that include mental health coverage and employee assistance programs (EAPs). These programs can help provide employees with resources to maintain their wellbeing and can assist with personal or work-related needs. As leaders, we must offer EAPs that include counselors that truly understand the different culture norms that play into the ways people approach receiving help. Advanced EAP programs can even reduce health disparities by addressing social determinants of health. This helps the employee work through the root cause of an issue and helps to address it right away. These issues can range from financial difficulties to family support and a range of other topics.

There are often misconceptions about the confidentiality of EAPs because they are provided in the workplace. As leaders, we must emphasize the benefits of EAPs and help to dispel any of the misconceptions around it, emphasizing confidentiality.

EAPs can also help employees navigate the care system and get them connected to the care they need. Happy and healthy workers are more productive, have lower medical costs and are better able to focus on their jobs. Not only is driving holistic wellness and mental health support the right thing to do, it’s also good for business. Mental health has a powerful impact on the workplace, including a $300 billion cost to employers for stress-related health care and missed work (Holistic Brain Research Institute).

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

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

I am a strong believer in women supporting women and building cultures of psychological safety. I had been offered a job early in my career that was a very big step for me both professionally and personally. I did not have the confidence in myself that I could handle the pressures of the role, and I worried that I would fail.

I shared these concerns with my mentor (who was a woman) and she taught me all about what it means to support other women along this journey. My mentor shared this Eleanor Roosevelt quote and said, “If you don’t take risks you will never know what it’s like to face your fears.”

I took the job. I ended up making some big mistakes — and had some amazing successes — but most importantly, I learned that I could handle more than I ever imagined. In this discovery, I also learned that taking risks alone isn’t enough. I had to learn to be kind to myself when I failed. I have held many roles since that initial leap. Approaching each role with a combination of taking risks and being kind to myself has been the key to building my own confidence and providing mentorship to other women.

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 you have taken to help improve or optimize your employee’s mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

I’m really proud of several initiatives we’ve launched this year to help support the mental health of not just our own employees, but that of our members and the communities we serve.

Earlier this year, we quickly realized that a mental health crisis was going to be the ‘second curve’ of COVID-19. We launched a campaign to help flatten it, including opening up our Resources for Living phone line, which includes in-the-moment counseling and other support, to anyone across the country, whether or not they are an Aetna member.

The rate of suicide is now at its highest level since 1941, and suicide is the second leading cause of death of those between the ages of 10 to 24 (CDC). We are playing an active role to emphasize that as employers, health care providers and community members, we all have a collective responsibility to do more to intervene at times most vulnerable for those at-risk of suicide.

Due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, we’ve emphasized other avenues to stay connected and build mental health resilience. For example, we brought 7 Cups to our employees, which provides free, on-demand emotional health support services through a community of trained volunteer listeners.

There have been two ‘silver linings’ of COVID-19 from a mental health perspective that we’ve been able to build on.

First, there is a national conversation happening around mental health. This has been a tremendous opportunity for us to break the stigma — emphasizing that it’s OK to not be OK, to share how you feel and to help people understand that resources are available. We’re continuing to make resources available to all who need it.

Second, both members and providers are seeing the value in digital tools and telemedicine to access mental health care. As a result, we’re continuing to make these tools available to members so they can access care in a convenient manner.

What you are doing is wonderful, but sadly it is not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

It is critically important that mental health support becomes the norm. Particularly right now, the statistics show us that there is a growing mental health crisis in our country. A recent study published by TELUS International found that 80 percent of workers would consider quitting their current position for a job that focused more on employees’ mental health. The study also found that 75 percent of U.S. workers have struggled at work due to recent events.

As employers, making mental health a priority is no longer an option. Employees are demanding these benefits and they are crucial to a company’s bottom line. As leaders within the space, we must continue to use our collective voices to speak out about its importance, emphasize not only that mental health resources are available, but also detail how they can help, and lead by example to set the bar higher for others to follow suit.

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?

I have found stigma to be one of the biggest factors limiting mental health care. As a first step, we, as a society, must make mental health part of our daily conversations.

It is important not to assume that people are ok. Check in and ask how people are doing. If you’re worried about a friend, coworker or loved one’s mental health, approach them in a non-accusatory and supportive way. Create an opportunity to listen and listen in a way that’s non-judgmental. It is also important to be mindful of your reactions and respond in a thoughtful way.

For individuals, let’s remember that being strong also means not hesitating to ask for help. We’re all under pressure right now as we try to adapt to our temporary “new normal.” If you’re feeling blue or upset, reach out to a friend, family member or professional for help during these difficult times. Help will only make you stronger. Ignoring it won’t.

There are many resources available to help support individuals with their mental wellbeing, especially in the time of COVID-19.

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?

It’s important to develop healthy habits that reduce stress. Examples include healthy eating, regular sleep and exercise. I would also recommend reducing screen time. Focus on what you can control and emphasize activities that help you stay positive and distracted, such as watching a movie, starting a new book or practicing yoga.

Particularly right now, it is important to stay informed about COVID-19, but don’t let it dominate your time. That can be overwhelming. Keep to a normal routine as much as possible. Rely on resources that you can trust, such as the World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control. Social media, on the other hand, can just lead to more questions.

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?

Focusing on gratitude has empowered my own mental wellbeing as well as the mental wellbeing of those around me. It has helped me to focus on the big and small things that I can control, while working to let go of the rest.

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

Dare to Lead by Brene Brown. This book helped me to get out of my own way and bring strong leadership skills to the work I do. I had the opportunity to see Brene Brown speak at a leadership event. She was amazing and thoughtful, vulnerable, and humble. She closed the session by saying, “If you want to create a business that thrives and is overflowing with innovation, begin by creating cultures where people feel they can be brave, be themselves and bring their best!”

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.

We should incentivize people to make health decisions by allowing them to do things on behalf of others. By getting a flu shot, your action will trigger a free flu shot for someone in need. By getting a mammogram, your action will provide a mammogram for an uninsured woman in your community. This same theory can be applied to mental health care. When we align actions to human kindness, we have no problem getting people to take care of themselves by taking care of others. Believe me, this works. I have been doing this in various populations for years. I like to refer to it as the “get one, give one” method of kindness. People want to do good.

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

I often post articles on my LinkedIn account.

Additionally, visit CVSHealth.com/secondcurve for the latest mental wellbeing content from our organization.

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