By Rachel Feintzeig 

Are you OK? Your co-worker wants to know.

Companies are training employees to recognize when colleagues might be having mental-health struggles and to serve as a listening ear if needed. Some companies, such as Alphabet Inc.'s Google, are turning to the Mental Health First Aid program, a sort of CPR protocol for emotions. Others, like American Express Co. and consulting and accounting firm Deloitte, are devising their own online courses and campaigns.

The goal: break through stigma, catch issues like depressive episodes early and keep workers happy and productive. Still, even executives acknowledge that not everyone wants their colleagues -- and potentially their human-resources department -- involved in their mental health.

Tending to employees' emotions has taken on extra urgency as the novel coronavirus spreads across the U.S., sowing fear and anxiety in its wake. Job security, pay, health and caregiving have been upended, and companies face a fresh challenge: rallying and keeping tabs on overwhelmed employees, often isolated at home.

"The mental toll of it is adding up," says Jaime-Alexis Fowler, the founder and executive director of Empower Work, a San Francisco-based confidential hotline for difficult job situations.

More workers have been reaching out for help in recent weeks, she says. Some talk of suffering from anxiety intense enough to make them nauseous. They fear getting sick at work, if their job is something they can't do from home, or if the boss won't let them log on remotely. Some fear exposing immunocompromised family members. Those who had been trying to get new jobs worry about the hiring landscape.

"A lot of times, employees just want to feel heard," Ms. Fowler says. "There's a huge opportunity for employers to be human and thoughtful and supportive."

Graphika, a social-media-analysis firm based in New York, recently introduced something called "Worry O'Clock," a twice-weekly video call where folks can log in and collectively "wring our hands," says Sarah Braver, vice president of people. The idea is to share issues in a supportive space designated for airing anxiety without fear of "killing the vibe" of other meetings, she says.

Companies have been paying more attention to how employees feel for a while. Younger workers, many of whom attended colleges with beefed-up counseling services, are already comfortable talking about things like therapy and workplace accommodations, and expect their employers' support. An always-on culture has left some employees prone to burnout, while a hot job market led many employers to show they cared.

The number of companies offering Mental Health First Aid training for their employees is already at 80 this year, compared with 58 for all of last year, according to the nonprofit National Council for Behavioral Health, which administers the program. The training explains signs and symptoms of such conditions as anxiety disorders and depression, noting examples like a punctual colleague who suddenly starts missing deadlines, or a meticulous worker whose reports are now littered with errors.

Trainees are taught to express their concern and to try to find out if the person has contemplated suicide. If the issue seems serious, they are advised to alert managers, human resources or designated peer-support contacts, says Tramaine EL-Amin, who helps create and conduct the training sessions, which last four or eight hours.

The coronavirus outbreak has prompted some companies to delay in-person training, says Betsy Schwartz, vice president of public education at the council, but the organization is working on shifting to online-video training. Meanwhile, nerves and stress are creeping into workdays as employees increasingly deal with such regular occurrences as working at home without child care, or even just experiencing the shock of seeing empty grocery-store shelves. Ms. Schwartz says individuals need to be extra compassionate and learn to use their support skills over the phone or in a video call.

"All of that is more important now than ever," says Ms. Schwartz. "At the time when we're all really vigilant about washing our hands constantly, we also need to be vigilant about taking care of ourselves emotionally."

At Google, employees can take Mental Health First Aid training or enroll in the company's "blue dot" program, where workers affix a blue sticker to their employee badge or laptop to show they are open to talking about mental health. They can also take a 45-minute "compassionate listening" course that certifies them as someone their colleagues can talk to about their problems.

"People are looking for empathy. They're looking to feel like they are being seen and heard in the moment," says Amy Costello, an employee who works on Google Cloud and runs the blue-dot program. She says colleagues reach out to her several times a week to talk about everything from conflict with their managers to issues with friends.

At marketing agency Rapp, seven employees in the U.K. offices serve as "mental health first aiders." The team offers an email address for questions and concerns during this period with everybody working from home.

"We want the mental-health first-aiders to help uncover, 'Is this something serious?' " says Leigh Ober, global chief talent officer at Rapp. "We don't want to brush it under the rug or ignore it. We want to be a part of helping you work through it."

Rapp solicited volunteers for the positions and says it selected people it deemed trustworthy, available and not prone to gossip.

When employees first transitioned to remote work, they were energized and mostly focused on logistical issues like whether their Wi-Fi was strong enough. Weeks in, it is now hitting some that this could be the new normal for a long stretch, says Ursula Marchese, head of talent for Rapp's U.K. operations.

Single people are starting to feel isolated, parents are overwhelmed, and many workers feel helpless and worried about older or immunocompromised family members, Ms. Marchese says, adding that she's concerned the Easter holiday might further exacerbate feelings of loneliness for those who can't travel to see family and friends.

"People are anxious. They don't know what to expect. They don't know what they should be feeling," she says.

Some workers would rather keep their problems to themselves, or fear overstepping when it comes to helping a colleague. At Deloitte, where nearly 2,000 employees have taken the online or in-person versions of a mental-health training that was first offered last May, some worry about the ramifications of intervening, says Jen Fisher, chief well-being officer.

The company recommends employees escalate more serious mental-health issues to its human-resources department. People don't want their direct bosses to know what they are struggling with, Ms. Fisher says, adding, "There's a fear they may be judged or it might impact their long-term career."

Employers can direct workers to keep an eye on colleagues without running afoul of the law, but it is easy to overstep, says Sharona Hoffman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University's School of Law. For example, if a boss tells a worker she knows a specific person is struggling with a mental illness and asks him to watch for signs, that could be a privacy violation.

"Does it shift from being a support system to being a system where everybody's talking about everybody?" Ms. Hoffman says. "If you tell someone you're feeling a little down today, you don't know if they are going to run to HR with that."

Another risk is that colleagues try to play doctor, says Jeffrey P. Kahn, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Mental Health First Aid leaders and corporate executives say they are not teaching workers to diagnose mental-health disorders. But Dr. Kahn fears the temptation for armchair psychiatry is still there. He also doubts nonprofessionals can effectively identify colleagues who are struggling with mental illness.

"Significant emotional problems are often hard to notice," he says. "People try to act professionally and hide their problems."

Still, companies are trying to get workers to open up. At American Express, signs around the office ask questions like, "Who can you talk to when you suddenly, feel all the feels?" and "Is it ok to NOT feel like the life of the party?" Thousands of workers have taken a 30-minute online training session about recognizing mental-health issues since the company made it available last year, says Charles Lattarulo, the executive who oversees the company's mental-health efforts.

Employees should be checking their colleagues' emotional temperatures frequently to spot signs of trouble, Mr. Lattarulo says, adding that early intervention is better for individuals and the company because it reduces relapse rates and absenteeism.

"If you see something, say something," he says. "Tell that person, 'You're safe here.' You support them."

Ms. Feintzeig is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. She can be reached at rachel.feintzeig@wsj.com.

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 02, 2020 08:25 ET (12:25 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
American Express (NYSE:AXP)
Historical Stock Chart
From May 2020 to Jun 2020 Click Here for more American Express Charts.
American Express (NYSE:AXP)
Historical Stock Chart
From Jun 2019 to Jun 2020 Click Here for more American Express Charts.