By Guru Gowrappan, as told to Clarice Metzger
Welcome to A Closer Look, an editorial series that highlights leaders who are driving innovation in their approach to diversity, equity, inclusion, and well-being in the workplace. Salesforce and Thrive Global, with support from KPMG, have now partnered to make change: to bring about positive mental health conversations in the Black community, to share strategies for seeking help, and to prioritize mental well-being.
Guru Gowrappan is the CEO of Verizon Media, where he’s made fostering employee mental well-being a key part of his job description. “As a leader, I can’t honestly do my job to the best of my ability without making mental health a priority,” he tells Thrive. Gowrappan grew up in Asia, where he saw friends and family struggle with mental well-being, but feel too “embarrassed to ask for help.” Now he’s motivated to eliminate that stigma and help people see that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength — both on the individual level, and within a massive business like the one at which he’s at the helm.
Here, Gowrappan shares how employee well-being should be addressed in the workplace, why diversity, equity, and inclusion is essential for a company’s bottom line, and how leaders can take small steps to honor the intersectionality between mental well-being and DE&I at work.
Thrive Global: What does your day-to-day look like as the CEO of Verizon Media Group, and which parts of your day are you most excited by?
Guru Gowrappan: One of the things I love most about my job is that no day looks the same. I’ll go from a product jam with our e-commerce team, to getting a demo of our latest XR integration, to a brainstorm with my leadership team. Regardless of what I am doing and who I am working with, everything comes back to our mission, purpose, and stakeholders: our employees, customers, society, and shareholders. And I’m so inspired by our employees — we call each other “builders” every single day. We’re curious, we’re passionate, and we’re a community. That community support is vital, and having a workplace where all employees feel supported, seen, and heard is core to my mission as CEO.
TG: How do you think mental health should be addressed in the workplace?
GG: Supporting mental health and well-being at work is not a “nice to have” or an “extra” — it is essential, and it is the right business choice. The cost of ignoring mental health in the workplace can dramatically impact many aspects of the organization, from output to working relationships to overall culture. If we can help people see employee well-being as a clear business imperative, we can support the well-being of our stakeholders and create a culture of health and productivity.
TG: Where are you succeeding in terms of promoting mental well-being within Verizon Media — and where are your areas of improvement?
GG: We’re seeing high employee engagement across mental health resources we provide, like with Made Academy, our mandatory mental health program we introduced to employees in 2020. Following the training, 91% of our employees reported having a greater appreciation for the importance of discussing mental health at work, 90% have an increased understanding of the harm caused by mental health stigmas, and 86% now feel better equipped to recognize mental health red flags. We also offer employees featured newsletters, guided meditations, free 24/7 and confidential crisis and counseling support, as well as psychiatric services and emotional wellness support for employees and families.
Leadership has walked the walk, too. Last year, our executives participated in an interactive workshop to dig into mental health at the leadership level, and we hosted a workshop for our Vice Presidents to ensure they have the resources and tools to manage the needs of their teams during such an intense time. But there is always room to learn and grow, and I know that despite starting this journey several years ago, there is so much work that still needs to be done. This year we’re expanding programming on intersectionality and mental health, introducing additional learning opportunities, and developing a framework and scalable best practices for destigmatizing and supporting mental health at work.
TG: Do you think there’s a connection between an organization’s approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion and the mental health of the employees who work within that organization?
GG: An organization’s approach to supporting diversity and inclusion should be the same as their approach to supporting mental health. These should not be siloed areas; our values, race, language, culture, lived experiences — it all impacts how we understand and handle mental health. We know employees from diverse backgrounds can already face stressors in the workplace, from microaggressions to a lack of representation, and these issues are magnified now. Data shows that recent unrest has taken a disproportionate mental toll on BIPOC communities, and that BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by the number of coronavirus cases and deaths. There’s also the mental health effects of xenophobia on the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, who have experienced a surge in hate crimes since the pandemic began. Underrepresented employees need to be supported now more than ever. As leaders, we should openly address the historic disparities in mental health care, and offer employees inclusive and accessible resources.
TG: What’s at risk for a company’s underrepresented employees if the company doesn’t have effective DE&I policies?
GG: Effective diversity, equity, and inclusion policies are key to business — they are good for the bottom line and they are the right thing to do. As leaders we must recognize the superpower of a work culture that celebrates diversity, embraces inclusion, amplifies belonging, and drives innovation. At Verizon Media, we value all voices and aspire to serve the world in all its diversity.
TG: What’s one small way that leaders can better address the intersectionality between mental health and diversity, equity, and inclusion today?
GG: For starters, leaders need to address that intersectionality itself. You can create safe spaces by hosting open conversations on the experiences of marginalized communities and how different cultures perceive mental health. You don’t have to be an expert in that community, but you can find that expertise in the form of hosting trainings and town halls that have diverse external guests and experts, and offering resources for the wide spectrum that is mental health.