“Focus on Boosting and Maintaining Employee Resilience” With Jim Mortensen

Focus on Boosting and Maintaining Employee Resilience — Throughout the pandemic and civil unrest of 2020, we have made behavioral health a priority by offering time for our employees and their family members to connect anonymously with our own counselors trained in disruptive event management. Additionally, we leveraged one of our counselors to provide a “Resilience […]

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Focus on Boosting and Maintaining Employee Resilience — Throughout the pandemic and civil unrest of 2020, we have made behavioral health a priority by offering time for our employees and their family members to connect anonymously with our own counselors trained in disruptive event management. Additionally, we leveraged one of our counselors to provide a “Resilience Workshop” for all employees which focused on strategies to boost resilience during the pandemic.

As a part of my series about “How Business Leaders Are Helping To Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Mortensen, president of R3 Continuum.

Jim Mortensen, president of R3 Continuum (R3c), is responsible for all facets of the business, including: Sales, Marketing, Quality, Clinical Behavioral and Medical Services, Business Development, HR and Client Services. Jim joined R3c in Feb. 2013. Prior to joining R3c, Jim was a vice president at Benesyst where he was responsible for Client Relationships, Product Development and Operations. Jim has an extensive background in the Health Care and Financial Services industries, including time spent at Ameriprise and UnitedHealth Group. He has a passion for leading growing organizations to provide outstanding service. In addition to his experience in product development and operations, Jim has an MBA in Finance and is both a Certified Public Accountant (inactive) and a Certified Internal Auditor.

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?

I view my career as a testament to transferable skills. My education is in accounting and finance, so I started my career using my budgeting and expense allocation abilities running all of IT purchasing for a company, which simultaneously allowed me to learn negotiations and vendor management. I parlayed those skills to land a role in product development, leading an initiative requiring ongoing negotiation with external partners and vendors. The effort was hugely successful, so I was fortunate to move into a client service role servicing the product we’d developed.

At that point, I had experience in finance, product development, and client service — three areas that must to work together to optimize a lot of projects, but typically don’t understand one another. My deep experience in all three meant I could serve as a “translator” between the groups to build rapid consensus.

Ultimately, this allowed me to move into executive-level positions in small to mid-sized companies. My passion has been and continues to be helping people and groups experiencing some form of disruption or transformation. Working in these circumstances tends to present a multitude of leadership challenges, some of which include helping people understand and embrace the strategic WHY and HOW of change, building trust and engagement, and cultivating collaboration and innovation.

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

The most interesting and challenging time in my career has been these last seven months or so at R3 Continuum, a workplace behavioral health company. R3 Continuum cultivates and protects the behavioral and physical wellbeing of employees in a complex and often dangerous world. One of our core services is to provide onsite counselors to help employees through disruptive and potentially traumatic events. These range from events that impact one department in one company, to large-scale events like September 11, hurricanes, mass shootings, etc.

In late March, we transitioned from almost 100% of our employees working in our offices to 100% working from home in just 36 hours without interrupting our service delivery. And in April, we had our busiest month on record, largely based on providing 24/7 onsite support to companies whose employees were providing critical support to the country. It was valuable and rewarding work, and our employees worked long and hard remotely to support these emotional wellbeing needs.

As we all know, this has been an almost unprecedented time of challenge for business leaders everywhere, including me. All leaders have been challenged to manage our own reactions to the pandemic, enormous business challenges, and remain visible and available to our employees. I have never been so intensely called on to consistently operate as my best self as I have in 2020. Mark Cuban said the decisions and actions that businesses are making during this time will define their brand for decades. I agree and expand that to include how both customers and employees will feel about companies for years to come.

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

First and foremost, avoiding burnout requires understanding your personal triggers and having the self-awareness to recognize when they’re being activated. For me, I think of burnout as something that happens when my stress levels exceed my resilience and coping mechanisms — eroding both my performance and overall emotional state.

A mentor early in my career said that no job or situation is inherently stressful, but it’s our reaction to it that causes stress. That resonates for me. For example, my wife is a middle school counselor (and an exceptionally good one). I guarantee you that her job would max out my stress levels nearly every day — but it doesn’t feel stressful to her. Conversely, she would find my job very stressful, so we have each found the jobs that fit our own personality and stress reactions.

For me, what most often trips my stress triggers at work is when the company is not performing well. Knowing that I pay more attention to how I am managing my stress during times of challenging results.

Bottom line: self-awareness and self-reflection is key.

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

There are no real secrets here, and it’s not complicated. You need to create a clear, shared vision of what your company stands for (your “Why” in the words of Simon Sinek), you need to communicate clearly and transparently, and you need to jealously guard and protect your culture against those who do not embrace and honor it — which includes not hiring an ego-driven high flyer and even terminating a high performer if they are not able to fit into the culture.

While it’s simple, it’s not easy. You have to be really grounded in what you stand for and demonstrate it when it really counts.

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

One I use somewhat frequently is: “When I am presented an either/or, I almost always find that the correct answer is neither or both.” I believe this viewpoint encourages people, including myself, to move out of a strict, binary thought process of right/wrong, yes/no in favor of thinking creatively. It inspires us to challenge our underlying assumptions and look for ways we can keep expanding and improving the options we consider.

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 employees mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

Behavioral health/wellbeing of employees constitutes the core of the services our company provides, but the key for us is to avoid the “shoemaker’s children” syndrome. Therefore, we make a proactive, concerted effort to cultivate, protect, and optimize the behavioral health and wellbeing of our people. And while we have extensive expertise in this area in-house, we often leverage our global network of contract clinicians to provide support to our employees to ensure privacy and maintenance of boundaries when it comes to individual issues. The following are some of the programs and steps we have taken to promote behavioral health/wellbeing among our employees — both pre-COVID and in response to COVID:

Disruptive Event Management — This is typically an onsite response to any type of event that creates disruption to employees. It involves a specially-trained behavioral health clinician, who via group and individual meetings, helps employees manage their reactions to disruption/distress and tap into their own resiliency to effectively recover from the incident. These are typically provided through an employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) service (most EAPs use R3 Continuum for these cases — we do roughly 1,500 responses every month).

We used this service internally when sadly, one Monday morning, I was informed that an R3 Continuum employee had been killed in a car crash over the weekend. I gathered my employees together to announce the tragic loss of a beloved co-worker and friend; and we immediately brought a counselor onsite who encouraged people to share their reactions to the news, as well as stories about the young man who had been killed. The counselor met with large and small groups, and importantly, worked one-on-one with the individuals who shared a close relationship with the deceased to ensure they had additional support. Throughout the journey, the counselor helped people honor and “normalize” their reactions, understand loss and relocate their innate resilience. Throughout, I was kept apprised of how people were doing and what they needed in terms of support and communication. I was also fortunate that our staff includes the world’s top expert in these situations — he generously advised me on what to expect.

The Happiness Practice — This is a program that teaches individuals five principles that drive happiness. By learning and following this practice, people increase their happiness and the byproducts of resilience, innovation, and sustainability. It also reduces stress, burnout, and turnover — and measures those aspects to demonstrate the impact on the individuals and organization. We provided this program to all employees who chose to participate, and most did. Our numbers showed the impressive results achieved, both individually and organizationally; and I received a lot of ad hoc feedback from people who felt personally transformed by the practice and really appreciated the company spending time and money on their development and wellbeing.

Focus on Boosting and Maintaining Employee Resilience — Throughout the pandemic and civil unrest of 2020, we have made behavioral health a priority by offering time for our employees and their family members to connect anonymously with our own counselors trained in disruptive event management. Additionally, we leveraged one of our counselors to provide a “Resilience Workshop” for all employees which focused on strategies to boost resilience during the pandemic.

Transparency, Authenticity, and Honesty — Our organization is operated based on transparency, authenticity and honesty. They are the core to our culture. Throughout COVID and still to this day we hold regular town hall meetings that provide our staff the ability to stay abreast of business levels, pandemic news to be aware of, and other resiliency-focused communications. During these town hall meetings and after we welcome questions of any kind. Employees are encouraged to ask what is on their mind. We want them to feel that work is a safe space to share their concerns and any other feelings they may have.

Individualized Support — It’s important to remember that everyone’s situation is unique, and R3 Continuum has prioritized meeting our employees where they’re at. While some of the initiatives I mentioned earlier are extended to everyone in the company, we have worked hard to identify other subsets of our team members who might need specialized support. For example, we know that some of our employees working remotely have children at home. To address some of the specific challenges, from a behavioral health standpoint and otherwise, we’ve started a group to gather insights and input on how we can best support working parents and caregivers. We’ve also coordinated virtual activities to help entertain our employees’ kids.

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?

I believe that in order to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees requires three things:

  1. Leaders need to be aware of the size and scope of the mental health issue for their employees
  2. Leaders need to understand the impact of the mental health issue on their business results
  3. Leaders need to know what they can do to positively impact the mental health of their employees

I think at this stage of the pandemic, there is broad understanding and awareness that mental health is a pervasive issue for employees. It is now considered a parallel pandemic — compared to one year ago, levels of anxiety in the US have tripled and depression has nearly quadrupled. So, for most leaders, step number one has been achieved.

In terms of the impact of this on the business — while pre-pandemic there was a broad trend of forward-looking, supportive companies looking to enhance the wellbeing of their employees, in the time of COVID, wellbeing is on hold to an extent. What we now believe is that employees need to feel physically and emotionally safe. In terms of business impact — until employees feel safe, they will not be productive. Leaders need to understand that the current emotional/mental health issues for their employees are no longer just creating some attendance issues — they are an existential threat to their company — if you don’t address the emotional needs of your employees, your company will not survive this pandemic.

What to do about it is the hardest of the three steps. What I recommend is that companies reach out to experts and partner with them to identify those employees at greatest need of help and get them the appropriate help. That has become vastly more difficult/complex in the time of COVID and the related dramatic increase in remote work. Prior to this, a lot of the more troubling mental health issues were identified by coworkers and leaders when the impacted employee was in the office, and that doesn’t exist for many people now. In addition, high unemployment causes those who are struggling to attempt to hide their issues.

Identifying those with the highest need is a necessary first step — but it is nowhere near enough at this time of widespread mental health issues. It’s vital to develop a holistic approach that assumes people are struggling and proactively reaches out with support. Services accessible to employees who request help are great, those need to be augmented with proactive reach-outs that identify and support those who will not reach out on their own.

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’d like to point out that I am not a clinician, however, I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by a lot of exceptionally talented clinicians and I can share some of what I’ve learned from working with them.

The first thing an individual must do if they want to effectively support those around them is to be aware of and address their own mental health issues. You don’t have to be “fully mentally healthy” (whatever that is) to be of help to others, but you can’t be oblivious to your own issues. Healthy doses of humility, self-awareness, and vulnerability are necessary first steps in helping others.

With that in place, I would largely suggest that you ask people what they need, listen to what they say, and believe them. Unless the individual has serious mental health issues, they’ll likely know what they are needing at the time. If they don’t know what they need, or they do have serious mental health issues, then it’s likely beyond what most of us are capable of dealing with. That’s the time to encourage or facilitate the help of a mental health professional.

As a community and society we need to continue to de-stigmatize mental health issues. We don’t shame people with a fever — why shame someone with depression? We should teach our kids and everyone else that when you get a physical sickness, you go to the doctor. When you have a mental health issue, you go to a mental health clinician — it’s what healthy people do.

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?

Habits keep us healthy on all levels. It’s important to remember that wellbeing encompasses more than just one element — it’s emotional, behavioral, physical, social, financial, and spiritual. Identifying what, specifically, keeps you optimized in each area is very personal. For me, I try to practice a lot of self-awareness so I can tune into myself and others to make necessary adjustments, moment by moment. I also love my time with family and friends (although that’s tricky right now), as well as my time alone (I’m an introvert so that’s how I recharge). Balancing social and alone time is really important, and not exactly easy, to be honest. Exercise and healthy eating are essential, and I think it’s helpful to find ways to move and eat that are enjoyable to you — because most of us cannot sustain something we don’t enjoy on some level.

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?

Here are the things that I find help me the most:

  • Mindful breathing — particularly helpful to me when I am about to enter a stressful situation
  • Taking a ride on my electric bike
  • Massage — some of my best ideas/problem solving come to me while relaxing during a massage. It’s been rough not being able to get these during COVID
  • Relaxing in the pool or a hot bath and reading

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

Good to Great by Jim Collins — I was particularly struck by the approach to getting the right people into the right seat BEFORE you do anything else. I had always approached it as build your strategy, then get the right people in the right spots. He argues that won’t work at all, and that getting people in the right seats first makes everything else easier.

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 don’t believe I would start my own movement — I would instead figure out how to broaden and grow the “Start with Why” movement that Simon Sinek created. The first time I watched his Ted Talk on this I finally understood the key motivation underlying my career — I had always felt it but never had the model/structure to explain it. His observation that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” and his teachings of the profound changes that come with “starting with Why” both speak to me and bring passion to my work — and I believe they do for others as well. Think of what we could accomplish in this world if we all started with “Why”.

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