After years of misdiagnosed symptoms, Meredith Arthur–successful marketing professional and parent–finally received a diagnosis: Generalized Anxiety Disorder. She searched for the term online, only to find picture after picture of women cowering in corners, covered in dark shadows. “But this isn’t me!” she thought, “I don’t identify with this at all.” Seeking to shift the stereotype, she started to build on online community for overthinkers, writing about anxiety to connect with others who felt similarly.
Meanwhile, following a series of stressful startup roles, Meredith landed at Trulia, part of Zillow Group. She joined Zillow Group’s Affinity Network (employee resource group) as a site lead for the San Francisco office, becoming an advocate for mental health services and positive framing. Later that year, Meredith helped change the group’s name to ADAPT (“Able and Differing Abilities Partnering Together”) and supported its first company-wide lunch and learn on mental health.
Looking back, Meredith says, it was the stigma around mental health that prevented her from recognizing her symptoms and getting the right diagnosis and treatment. “Being involved in the ADAPT Network has been a place where I can be seen at work. It feels great to be accepted in that way.”
Most of us are familiar with employee resource groups as they relate to women or minority groups in companies. But increasingly, as demand for mental health support at work grows, leading companies are responding to employees by forming mental health employee resource groups (ERGs).
Our team at Mind Share Partners spoke with several companies (including Google, Johnson & Johnson, RetailMeNot, Verizon Media Group, and Zillow Group) about why they have mental health ERGs and what benefits their teams have seen from it. Here’s what we found.
Mental health ERGs serve a distinct purpose from disability or wellness ERGs.
Often, mental health is lumped without distinction within a disability or health-related ERG. In our conversations with these companies, however, we heard again and again that employees are not satisfied with that pairing.
Many common characteristics of disability groups simply do not apply to people managing mental health challenges. For example, unlike many disabilities—though not all—most mental health conditions are not permanent. Mental health is a spectrum people often move across during their lifetimes. It isn’t always a long-term diagnosis or identity. Also, most mental health conditions are invisible. Symptoms do not always show up at work, especially if someone is overcompensating for how they feel.
Additionally, the stigma around mental health conditions is unique from physical health conditions—consider that 62% of sick days can be attributed to mental health, and 80% of people will not seek treatment out of shame. Mental health ERGs, then, must be both aimed at a general population (inclusive of allies, such as in Zillow Group’s ADAPT Network), such that participating does not “out” someone as having a mental health condition. (Since companies are prohibited from creating a situation that forces people to disclose a mental health condition, this framing is also compliant with privacy laws.)
But what about including mental health as part of wellness? Recent trends in workplace wellness have brought stress and burnout higher on the priority list, and for good reason. However, neglecting to name mental health conditions as part of a spectrum can actually further increase the stigma of having a condition and alienate people from participating or receiving support. Using “mental health” language openly can help normalize the conversation and reduce stigma in the workplace.
Mental health ERGs create psychological safety and reduce stigma throughout a company.
Research shows the most effective ways for reducing mental health-related stigma include social contact, peer support, and education. A mental health ERG is an ideal vehicle to promote all three within an organization. When employees know others who have experienced a mental health condition, have a place to go for support, and are armed with knowledge, they are set-up to feel psychologically safe at work—a key to high performance and employee engagement.
Social Contact at Google: Google recently held its second annual, employee-run “Mental Health @ Google” conference, which brought together hundreds of Googlers to discuss topics ranging from mental health benefits to anxiety in the workplace. Google also runs a “blue dot” initiative, in which employees can be certified as “listeners.” A blue dot on their employee tag tells others that they are a safe person to talk to if they need a listening ear (whether for mental health or otherwise).
Peer Support at Verizon Media Group: Minds of All Kinds—the company’s neurodiversity ERG— provides a global network of support to employees in 26 cities around the world. The meetings connect people with their peers, and is a safe space for employees to share their experiences, talk about pressing and prevalent issues, and offer support to one other.
Not everyone may decide to actively engage in mental health programs at work. Even if an employee doesn’t participate in the ERG, however, simply noting the activities and conversations around mental health can begin to normalize mental health at work.
Employees are craving the conversation about mental health.
Whether it’s named or not, mental health is significantly affecting every workplace. It is the “elephant in the room” that is creating a disconnect between how people are experiencing work and how workplaces are responding. When a company decides to open the conversation, we hear story after story of how the floodgates of response open.
For those in RetailMeNot’s ERG, RMN Rx, monthly meetings can feel “like a refuge” for participants. At Johnson & Johnson, the Mental Health Diplomats group grew from 100 to almost 1,000 people in just over a year, becoming one of the fastest growing ERGs the company has ever had.
Check out this resource for taking action.
Implementing a mental health ERG requires careful consideration of audience, mission, legal regulations, and activities—not to mention coming up with a name. If you are interested in launching a mental health ERG at your company, or for more company case studies, check out this Mind Share Partners toolkit on forming a mental health ERG.