“Focus on your own self-care” with Amy O’Neill and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Remove cost barriers to access mental health services– we expanded our Employee Assistance Program free counseling sessions from 6 to 10 days per year, per issue. This is a really great program that provides access to certified mental health professionals for any life challenge employees may face in their lives. As a part of my […]

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Remove cost barriers to access mental health services– we expanded our Employee Assistance Program free counseling sessions from 6 to 10 days per year, per issue. This is a really great program that provides access to certified mental health professionals for any life challenge employees may face in their lives.

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 Amy O’Neill.

Amy O’Neill is Vice President & Director of Health and Well-Being Strategy at Liberty Mutual Insurance. She oversees the strategy, design and financial management of employee health benefits and well-being programs for nearly 100,000 employees, retirees and their family members. Prior to her career in HR, Amy spent over five years in the company’s government affairs group, while pursuing her law degree. Her background in health policy and consulting has enabled her to employ a strategic, pragmatic mindset in driving the company’s benefits forward to become top tier among large employers while delivering value to employees and to Liberty Mutual.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

I’ve had a somewhat non-linear path to my career in HR — my first job out of college was with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as a policy analyst focused on health, education and labor legislative issues. I loved the energy in Washington, seeing first-hand how legislation was developed, attending House and Senate hearings and learning from some of the brightest economists. I decided to pursue my Master’s in Public Administration from Syracuse University after my time at the CBO, where I received a great education in public policy. Having already experienced government work, I was hungry to work for the private sector and accepted an offer with Deloitte Consulting in their public-sector practice following grad school. This was a great learning experience where I was immersed into implementing a state welfare system for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and also led a project for DC’s Child and Family Services Agency. I missed the policy world, however, and joined Liberty in 2005 in the company’s government affairs group — my role was to ensure the company and our registered lobbyists were in compliance with state and federal campaign finance laws. I also oversaw our company’s Political Action Committee, drumming up employee support to promote a successful business environment. Having worked alongside many attorneys, I was inspired to pursue a law degree part-time while working for Liberty Mutual and decided to focus on health policy in law school. After passing the Bar exam, I was determined to work in the health care field and did a series of informational interviews within and outside of Liberty — fortuitously, after a meeting with our Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO) at the time, an opportunity was open in the company’s Benefits Department — I joined the team as a health and welfare consultant in 2011, and have never looked back — I love the combination of strategy, consulting and policy/regulatory work involved in working in Benefits. No day is the same as the next and I feel we make a small difference in people’s lives through programs and benefits that support personal well-being.

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

Rather than interesting, I will share two experiences in my early career that are relevant to this topic. While in D.C. working for the CBO, shortly after 9/11, our office building was the first to receive anthrax-laced mail and subsequently was shut down for three weeks. It was a crazy, stressful time to be in D.C. I remember returning to the office and a colleague handing me a prescription for an antibiotic in the event I came into contact with anthrax. Shortly thereafter, the “D.C. sniper” became active in the area of Arlington where I lived, targeting innocent people in retail store parking lots and gas stations where ten people were killed and three were injured. I remember it being such an anxiety-provoking time, and some of the first significant memories I have of losing sleep over worry and stress, which is something I have struggled with throughout my life.

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

I would say don’t forget to focus on your own self-care, don’t be afraid to ask for help when feeling overwhelmed, and take time for your own mental health hygiene. Take vacations and try not to check email while you are away, so that you can truly recharge and return to work more energized than before. Not using your vacation days should not be a “badge of honor;” it can really contribute to burnout and stress. I always remember this line a colleague used to say: “I work to live, not live to work” and try to abide by these words, especially in today’s work environment.

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

Be human and relatable and also give room for your teams to learn, grow and make their mark.

During this virtual time it can be challenging to foster team-building and relationships, so making time for regular “social hours” is a great way to decompress from work and share day to day life happenings. Promoting flexibility can go a long way as well — we are all juggling work/life responsibilities now more than ever — open lines of communication and letting your team know it is ok to step away, it’s ok adjust your hours to a schedule that works for you and your family, to bring more control to your life and alleviate stress.

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

Yes — “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” by George Eliot. I had a magnet with this quote in my workspace for years — I interpret this to mean that you should never have to feel complacent, or that you’ve accomplished all of your goals — there is always room to grow, space to reinvent yourself and create your own unique path that is professionally fulfilling and keeps you moving forward.

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?

  1. Remove cost barriers to access mental health services– we expanded our Employee Assistance Program free counseling sessions from 6 to 10 days per year, per issue. This is a really great program that provides access to certified mental health professionals for any life challenge employees may face in their lives.
  2. Expand virtual — we have really worked to emphasize and promote virtual behavioral health visits through our relationship with United Health Care. Recently, we offered a $100 incentive for employees who used at least one virtual visit during the year. Virtual care is often lower cost and a more easily accessible avenue of care, especially for mental health services
  3. Offer programs that target a specific need — we recently introduced Sleepio, a digital sleep management program. Recognizing that sleep issues impact so many Americans and is closely correlated with incidence of depression and anxiety, this is a great way to help maintain healthy sleep habits.
  4. Focus on stress management and resiliency — through our partnership with meQuilibrium, we have raised awareness of individual “stress triggers” and offer tools to work through and overcome day-to-day stressors
  5. Normalize the conversation around mental health — this October our CHRO is delivering a message around the importance of mental health and will re-promote Angst, a documentary about anxiety in teens, which is applicable to anyone who has experienced anxiety in their life. Our CEO will also be speaking about this topic in the coming months. In light of the environment we find ourselves in –a global pandemic, racial injustices, work/life lines being blurred — stress and anxiety is at an all-time high; we need to open the conversation around this topic and let our employees know it is ok to ask for help, and that they are not alone in their feelings of depression, anxiety or any other mental health struggle.

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?

Using employee stories and testimonials can be very powerful, combined with leadership support to reinforce that we are all human, with physical and mental struggles alike, and that we have resources to help employees manage through these struggles.

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 think listening and acknowledging someone else’s challenges, without judgment, can be very helpful. While we may not always be able to relate to what someone is going through, to be there to listen and offer support can be just as meaningful. As a society, we need to make it easier for people to access mental health care. Mental Health Parity was passed in 1996 (and was one of the first health care topics I was introduced to at the CBO) and we can’t forget the intent of this legislation to provide equal treatment of mental health and medical care benefits. As a society, we have a lot of work to do to normalize or de-stigmatize the conversation around mental health and acknowledge that everyone faces mental health challenges on some level at any point in their life and we need to make it easy for people to get help.

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?

I think recognizing when you are faced with a particular stress trigger, and adjusting the way you respond or react, can be a good habit to get into. We aren’t always going to handle every challenge with calm and positivity but taking a moment to recognize the cause of your stress and changing the way you react or manage your stress can help. Also, the importance of getting a good night’s sleep can’t be overlooked when it comes to mental well-being — I know that I am more easily stressed and irritable when I don’t sleep well, so trying to keep to a schedule that allows you to get a good night’s sleep can only improve your mental well-being.

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?

Yes. Since Covid hit, I’ve been using an app called Headspace — it’s filled with quick and easy-to-access mindfulness exercises, sleep podcasts, etc. They also offer age-based mindfulness exercises for children, which I have used with my 6 and 3-year-olds when they have had trouble falling asleep. I also use meQuilibrium and have found their self-assessment to be very helpful in identifying my stress triggers and choose digestible exercises that have allowed me to “center” in a calm moment.

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

I recently read the memoir, Educated, by Tara Westover, which tells her story of growing up in a survivalist Mormon family in the Northwest. I was so moved and inspired by Tara’s tenacity in overcoming what seemed to be insurmountable challenges including abuse from her own family members, to eventually pursue her Ph.D. at Cambridge and ultimately achieve independence of thought. I’m also currently reading The Price We Pay: What Broke American Health Care — and How to Fix It — this is a fascinating read of how the U.S. health care system is fraught with misaligned incentives, causing so much waste and unnecessary care. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the behind the scenes practices in our fragmented health system.

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. 🙂

In the context of mental health, it would be most amazing to see every urgent care center in the country have a dedicated behavioral health specialist, to help community members gain easy access to quality, mental health care. I truly believe that mental health should be treated like any other physical health “condition” and it should be just as easy to be treated for anxiety or depression as it is to be treated for a sore throat.

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

Most of Liberty Mutual’s benefit program descriptions can be found on our public site: www.benefitsatliberty.com — check it out!

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

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