“To listen and continually probe.” With Greg DeLapp

To listen and continually probe. These are unprecedented times with new challenges and no playbook to guide us through. In order to be successful, we need to make adjustments on the fly and work to continuously improve, which all comes back to listening to and asking questions of everyone at all levels of the organization. […]

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To listen and continually probe. These are unprecedented times with new challenges and no playbook to guide us through. In order to be successful, we need to make adjustments on the fly and work to continuously improve, which all comes back to listening to and asking questions of everyone at all levels of the organization. Then it’s about processing what you’ve heard and learned, and dropping anchor in the direction you should take based on that.

As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg DeLapp.

Greg DeLapp is currently the Chief Executive Officer of EAPA, the global professional membership association for those working in or in support of Employee Assistance. He had previously served 10+ years on the EAPA Board of Directors in numerous roles, including President. Greg has lectured and provided training for EA and HR groups across the US, Europe, and Asia. From 1981‐ 2015, Greg managed Employee Assistance and various HR functions across the $2B global specialty steel and engineered materials manufacturer Carpenter Technology Corporation (NYSE:CRS), Reading, PA. Active on many community boards in Pennsylvania, and with disability inclusion, and addictions related services; he is also a longstanding member of SHRM.

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

I was one month into my job with the internal EAP of a specialty steel company, and was making the rounds to introduce myself to all the managers and employees, when I was asked to speak to a superintendent at the mill about handling an “employee situation.” The superintendent had worked in the steel industry for years and years, and had a reputation for being ornery, so I knew this was going to require some delicacy.

Without taking the stogie from his mouth, he listened politely as I laid out how we’d go about handling this particular employee. After I finished he goes, “are you done?” Whereupon he leans forward, takes the stogie from his mouth, and says, “Greg, I’m not his (expletive) mother, I have no intention of doing any of this.. But if you want him to be in your office at 9 AM tomorrow, he will be there.”

He was basically telling me I can do what I need to do, but he’ll do what he needs — or wants — to do, and that’s just the way it’s going to be. I stood up, we shook hands, and eventually he handled the situation in his own way, which got the desired result, even if I would have handled it differently. It was a good lesson: you don’t always have to agree on the approach, so long as you get a positive result.

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

I can’t fathom that someone in this field hasn’t considered throwing in the towel at least once in their careers, as dealing with people’s crises day after day — which is what we do — can be emotionally taxing.

Practitioners need to understand that the problems people are grappling with have preceded their involvement with you, in most cases by many years. There is no such thing as a one and done intervention. It takes planning, patience and a lot of finessing to move someone from thinking that there might be a problem to seeking help.

You also have to understand that while you come to this work with an overarching mission, there is no one approach. Each employee and situation is different, requiring a tailored, carefully thought out approach.

You need to take the long view and heart in the small improvements and small victories, which can accumulate and have a significant impact on changing lives — which is what got us into this line of work in the first place!

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

To listen and continually probe. These are unprecedented times with new challenges and no playbook to guide us through. In order to be successful, we need to make adjustments on the fly and work to continuously improve, which all comes back to listening to and asking questions of everyone at all levels of the organization. Then it’s about processing what you’ve heard and learned, and dropping anchor in the direction you should take based on that.

But it all starts with being a good listener. People will tell you ultimately what they need, what they want. As a leader, you sometimes have to sit back and listen, and realize you don’t always have the answers — even if you’re sure you have the answers. You have to be ok with losing face when it will advance the cause. Listen to what others have to say, as a workforce culture isn’t something imposed from on high, but is a set of lived principles that leaders use to guide and reinforce optimal performance.

Also, while every workplace has a formal structure, most have informal leaders. You need to find out who they are and make them your allies, as they have a great deal of influence and have a significant role in making or breaking what you’re looking to accomplish.

I would also add that you’ve got to infuse the culture with celebration, recognition and some level of fun — these days companies recognize the value of being viewed as a “great company to work for” and its role in attracting top people and increasing productivity…it also makes the workplace more inviting and spirited, and who wouldn’t want that?

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

I was about a month into a new job when I learned the company was starting a two-year process where they’d be eliminating over 400 people. As a new hire I became concerned and asked my boss “do I have a reason to be concerned?” Peering over the glasses poised at the tip of his nose, he simply said, “do your job…seats change all the time, you’ll be fine.” Over the years this has been my guiding principle in the face of change large and small — just keep your head down, do your job, accept that change is a way of life, you’ll be fine.

Another line that has stayed with me throughout my career, which is from the AA Big Book, is “the good thing about self evident truth is that it’s self evident.”

Another principle that has guided me through my career is something my father used to tell me. He was a very successful and inventive marketer, and he used to say that “people remember the exception.” What he meant is that it’s often the unexpected, thoughtful gesture — it could simply be a handwritten note or extending a hand to someone you disagreed with — that makes people take notice.

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 that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are well known for providing mental health counseling services and other work/ life-related support, but one of the most utilized benefits and well-kept secrets is their financial counseling component.

More than twice as many companies offer workplace financial wellness programs to employees today compared to just four years ago, according to new research from Bank of America (53% vs. 24% in 2015). Employees who have access to financial wellness programs tend to be healthier than those who don’t, according to a Prudential study . They’re more productive, less susceptible to illness, less burdened by stress and better able to tackle new challenges/opportunities.

Despite their growing popularity, there are still a number of misconceptions surrounding financial wellness, beginning with the confusion between financial planning and financial wellness. Financial planning is a function of financial literacy — the ablity to manage one’s resources, expenses and income on a monthly basis, and being able to plan for longer term goals. Financial wellness incorporates financial literacy, but also addresses how to change bad (financial) habits to positive behaviors that reinforce core financial principles: spend less than you earn, save for future spending, only borrow what you can afford, grow your money, boost your earning capacity. Financial wellness requiresa more holistic view of oneself: for instance, before taking on a mortgage, knowing what your needs are, what your priorities are, whether you have the capacity to take on the obligation and understand how it will affect your other obligations and goals (such as retirement).

Financial wellness is also fundamentally about mitigating the anxiety, depression, trauma and substance abuse that can be caused by bad financial habits and behaviors. Financial instability can also affect treatment, making it less likely to reach out for help or adhere to prescribed treatments, creating a negative feedback loop that can further increase anxiety, depression and substance abuse (Prause, Dooley, & Huh, 2009).

Here are two detailed examples of financial wellness support provided by an organization’s EAP:

1.) Employees entitled to 2 cash advances against future pay of up to $300 each occasion, in a given calendar year. Repayment of the advance is $150 from each of the next two pays. Problem — Payroll reports that most employees accessing the cash advance process self-disclose that they have significant financial problems and/or are living pay-to-pay when income should indicate otherwise. Payroll concerned they may be making the employee problems worse by providing the advance and being short $150 for each of the next two pays.

Payroll and EA study records for such requests over the previous three year period: a) overwhelmingly, employees do not and have not ever requested a cash advance, b) of the 190+/year who do, the first cash advance request is made within the first two weeks of January, and the second advance by end of February/early March (essentially, back-to-back requests, c) many employees return during the year to the make the case for a 3rd advance, even though not allowed by policy.

Recommendation made by EA that: a) first cash advance per past practice, b) second cash advance request needs the sign off of Employee Assistance for approval, c) on approval by EA, the cash advance may be for more than $300 and include lower repayments over a longer period of time, d) announcing the changes to cash advance process went company-wide along with brief overview of financial problems employees/families may be facing and availability of EA and resources through EA made known.

Net result: a) slight drop in first of year cash advance requests, b) nearly 60% drop in second requests requiring sign-off of EA, and c) no later in year requests of Payroll seeking a 3rd advance, but d) increase in number of employee seeking EA contact with finances being the initial reason for contact. After two calendar years with a steady decline in numbers of cash advance requests, policy change to state that there are no cash advances without Payroll and EA sign-off. That announcement was coupled with extensive mailing to home, posting through plant/office, and e-mails sent to employees about financial issues and the role of EA.

2.) Payroll reports to VP-Finance that a senior employee had defaulted at one-year post payment due on a $48,000 swing-loan from the company to assist with down payment on employee’s house when moving from out-of-state to the home state for company HQ. VP-Finance wants employee terminated for breach of contract. VP-Law wants other action taken but wants immediate repayment of the loan. CEO contacts EA and asks to join in on the exchange.

EA counsels all parties that promotion, relocation, swing loan, current performance (excellent), and group leadership were not put in place for the purpose of termination over a money issue. There is a problem here! What senior manager just decides to not pay the company back $48,000 a year after it is due, and say nothing?

Mandated referral made to EA for assessment and referral, if indicated. Plan developed by EA and employee, approved by CEO/LAW/Finance, for repayment: waive company match to 401k, waive receipt of annual performance bonus, stop company pass-through pay deductions (United Way, etc.) until $48,000 paid down, involvement with EA, and COE (Condition of Employment) put in place to cover failure to comply / failure to adhere to remediation plan. EA met with employee and spouse, referral made based on marital issues (spouse did not want to move, was not happy in new locale, did not find an equivalent position in her field in the new locale, etc.). Employee, Payroll, EA met to complete all paperwork to allow for these various deductions and payment waivers.

Swing loan paperwork used thereafter includes advisory to seek contact with EA in the event of relocating employee experiencing personal, marital/family, financial or other issues. Employee continued to excel with the employer, and regarded as valued contributor right through early retirement from the company die to health concerns.

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

Despite increased risk factors due to the pandemic, according to a recent report from Mercer, EAP utilization has dipped — though research suggests that organizations reap at least a 2:1 return on investment in improved productivity, decreased absenteeism and presenteeism and reduced claims.

We all know what it’s like to be distracted by a nagging concern, whether it be financial, health-related or family-based. And we’ve all experienced how hard it is to concentrate when we bring these issues to work, as few of us have the ability to turn these thoughts off when we begin the workday. There is no training program, no enrichment program, no benefit enhancement that gets them reengaged until you can deal with the problem they are wrestling with. Tending to the mental health of your employees is the best way to get them fully engaged at work.

One of the traditional barriers for seeking help is the perceived stigma around mental health. Providing transparent, clear communications and, as I mentioned before, active listening, is critical in lowering this barrier. The pandemic has brought mental health needs to light, as people from all walks of life, including celebrities and name-brand business leaders have been more public about their struggles. This is a step in the right direction, but organization’s need to demonstrate their commitment to an open culture around mental health, beginning with leadership being supportive and transparent. Lowering the stigma will encourage more people who need help to proactively seek it.

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 would start with understanding how important it is to dispense with the notion that being “normal” is being stress-free. Stress is a natural byproduct of our daily work and non-work lives, and it’s healthy to acknowledge this reality. Every day brings new challenges and at times we may not feel we’re up for the task in front of us. Most of us have the resilience and resourcefulness to meet these challenges, but when the doubt and anxiety becomes chronic with no relief in sight, and it interferes with our ability to perform at normal levels, that’s when something has to be done. The employer has a central role in moving the individual from that state to a position where they are better able to handle the stress that impedes them from their best work. Employers should understand that our lives are not so compartmentalized that their employees can simply leave their problems at home. That’s not how the real world works.

What people tend to need more than direct intervention is support, which can be offered in many ways, starting with listening and providing feedback, especially if asked. If you listen closely enough, you’ll realize that people will tell you what they need. It may be subtle, but an attentive manager should be able to pick up the signals. I must add that it’s perfectly ok to offer advice, which many managers hesitate to do — again, people will usually tell you what they need, and what they are often looking for is advice from people they respect. I should add that offering advice doesn’t mean passing judgement, as it’s the fear of being judged that leads to or reinforces the stigma around seeking mental health support, which will only serve to perpetuate the unresolved problem.

Changing counter-productive habits to productive ones plays a huge role in mental wellness. Strategies to change behaviors are critical, but as important are methods for maintaining these habits over time, as it’s easy to lapse into familiar patterns without consistent reinforcement and reminders. Particularly important is understanding that small gains and small victories add up — replacing bad with good habits is all about the “long game.”

While you are ultimately responsible for your happiness and outlook on life, it’s also important to surround yourself with supportive people with positive outlooks. I’ve also found that getting a daily thought or encouragement is very grounding — some may view these as trite or corny, but I sometimes find wisdom and helpful perspective in their simplicity.

I would urge people to seek out evidence-based electronic tools and portals that are available, as many offer self-guided help that put you on the right track, and give you easy access to professional support if needed.

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?

I don’t have a technique per se, but I take regular “meditative” walks where I’m attentive to the surrounding sights and sounds. It’s a great way of taking a break and relieving stress, which allows me to return to the office refreshed and better able to focus on the work at hand. I would say that it’s more a matter of giving me a better perspective on things than it is a mindfulness technique as generally understood and practiced.

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

I generally gravitate toward historical fiction, but if I were to cite a single book that made a lasting impression it would be The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer. It’s a “counter factual” history that imagines Custer didn’t die at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but was found close to death on the battlefield and brought to trial. It’s not the battle per se or Custer himself that I found so fascinating, but rather an interesting dissection of his tactics, what went wrong and the psychology behind it. I suppose you can argue that it’s not unlike what I’ve done in my employee assistance work, which may be one reason it’s resonated so deeply with me.

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. 🙂

While it’s not a movement necessarily and it’s not something I started, the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) is a perfect vehicle to do the most good for the greatest number of people. The organization was formed to make American business and labor aware of the correlation of employee well-being and productivity, and the role that EAPs play in helping organizations maintain business continuity.

EAPA supports employee assistance professional around the world in their work to remove the impediments for people to do their best work and be their best selves, a mission it’s been my privilege to be part of. I’m particularly proud to be working with all our members in sending a very important message during these challenging times: we’re all in this together, and with empathy and shared sacrifice, we will come out of this stronger, smarter and better than ever before.

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