How can we improve mental health in the workplace?

“Nobody is the same as they were two and a half years ago,” said Adeola Sonaike, chief operating officer, Baker Street Behavioral Health, discussing mental health in the workplace as part of a panel presented by NJBIZ. Sonaike noted that when people lose loved ones and face such meaningful life experiences, they change. And she believes the experience prompted a lot of self-reflection.

“The pandemic has forced us to stop at times and really look at what’s really going on around us,” she explained. “And I think we’re seeing the consequences of that now. We must not forget that the people who work with us and for us are human beings and have a very human side.”

The moment was particularly poignant in a discussion moderated by NJBIZ Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Kanige. In addition to Sonaike, panellists included: Kelly Ann Bird, Director, Employment & Labor Law Group, Gibbons PC; Gary Small, chief of behavioral medicine, Hackensack Meridian Health; and Deborah Visconi, President and CEO, Bergen New Bridge Medical Center.

“Everyone has suffered some form of trauma in the last two and a half years,” Visconi said. “And there are many people who think about what is important to them in their lives. I don’t like to call it the great resignation, but it’s really more like the great reflection. I think the world only reflects what is important to them. What is your priority and how does my workplace fit in with that?”

Clockwise from left: Deborah Visconi, President and CEO of Bergen New Bridge Medical Center;  Gibbons PC director Kelly Ann Bird;  NJBIZ Editor Jeffrey Kanige;  Hackensack Meridian Health Behavioral Health Senior Physician Dr.  Gary Small;  and Adeola Sonaike, COO of Baker Street Behavioral Health, to participate in a discussion on mental health in the workplace on July 26, 2022.

Clockwise from left: Deborah Visconi, President and CEO of Bergen New Bridge Medical Center; Gibbons PC director Kelly Ann Bird; NJBIZ Editor Jeffrey Kanige; Hackensack Meridian Health Behavioral Health Senior Physician Dr. Gary Small; and Adeola Sonaike, COO of Baker Street Behavioral Health, to participate in a discussion on mental health in the workplace on July 26, 2022. – NJBIZ

“We’ve always had stress at work. Before the pandemic, I saw a survey where 40% of employees said they were very or extremely stressed about their jobs,” Small said. “And I think the pandemic will make it even worse.”

The panel covered a wide range of topics including how employers can help break down the stigma surrounding and seeking mental health, the most important and useful services or benefits employers can offer such as productivity and efficiency with burnout or breakdown in can be reconciled, and the advantages and disadvantages of hybrid and remote work.

“I do believe hybrid work is here to stay,” Bird said. “I think the workforce is demanding it now.”

While Bird believes employers need to adapt to changing trends to attract and retain talent, she also said the problem is worsening as more of her clients create more formal hybrid work schedules. “As we move further and further away from these stay-at-home orders, it really is time to review where and how we work and create a plan,” Bird said.

However, she added that this requires communication and setting expectations. Employees also like some structure. “I can tell you that not having a schedule is more stressful for a lot of employees,” she said.

Replay: Mental Health in the Workplace, an NJBIZ panel discussion

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As Kanige explored the issue of hybrid work with the panel, he asked if these new trends had resulted in some useful changes and if the COVID protocols had solved some issues that have long plagued many workplaces.

“Let me start by saying this has been a terrible, terrible pandemic. The people have suffered enormously. There’s no doubt about it,” Small said. “But there are some silver linings.”

He cited the advent of telemedicine and telepsychotherapy as examples of these positive aspects, along with some benefits of hybrid working.

“I think there are some benefits to the workplace,” Small said. “People who have been able to take advantage of that have the extra time they don’t have to commute. You can exercise more, try to focus on a healthier diet, and learn some stress management strategies.”

Bird said another silver lining is that the extreme pandemic conditions have forced employers and workers to learn more about each other’s lives outside of the workplace.

“We really got to know each other better as people and not just as employees, colleagues, employer-employee relationships,” she explained. “We need to know where you’re from? Who are you taking care of? What place do you live in? And it made employees feel more comfortable saying, “I need,” or “There’s a barrier,” because there’s a more personal connection.”

No connections?

And while the panel largely agreed that remote and hybrid work have benefits, they also highlighted some of the downsides and pitfalls of the arrangement. Kanige noted that the biggest shift for businesses now is the emergence of remote work and its proliferation.

“But does this also have other issues related to isolation and not really being connected to the world at large?” Kanige asked.

“It’s important to establish a kind of circadian rhythm where you’re not stuck in your pajamas all day,” says Small. “Despite the advantages of the hybrid workplace, we are social animals. There is something to be said about meeting in person. i see it now And those personal connections are far more powerful, both on a personal and professional level.”

Sonaike said Baker Street does regular check-ins with staff as they would with patients.

“It’s important to us that when we’re on the hybrid spectrum and more distant than personal, we make sure we provide the resources our people need to thrive in a hybrid work environment,” she said. “And then we can’t assume what those things are. We have to ask.”

Visconi said the convenience, efficiency and cost savings of hybrid work are positives, but believes employers need to keep an eye on the limits. “This lack of boundaries and being at home all the time but working and the fear that creates,” Visconi said. “Also the connection to other colleagues in the workplace. You really can’t underestimate how important it is for people to have those types of connections and boundaries and really feel connected to a bigger part of their work and purpose.”

Help is out there

Mental health symbol Puzzle and head brain concept as a human face profile made from crumpled white paper with a jigsaw piece cut out on a rustic old double spread spread horizontal wooden background.


Bird said there’s a lot that goes into a hybrid work plan and has been working with her clients on this topic for more than two years. But she doesn’t believe the plan has to be just what’s good for the company and managers. “We can also incorporate what works for the employees and gives them that balance, that ability to be at home with their families,” Bird said. “Do some exercise, maybe run outside and catch the sun while it’s there. This is good for everyone.”

“We have to prioritize their families and their lives and do whatever it takes to make sure they’re really happy,” Sonaike said.

“As a large mental health provider, we are always aware of and in tune with the mental health and well-being of our employees,” Visconi said

Visconi mentioned that she often holds face-to-face meetings with her employees and issues a weekly letter from her office. “And just to show them that I really care about them, those weren’t empty words,” she explained.

Bird also noted how important this type of company culture, team building and communication can be in making employees feel good.

“Our employees are people,” said Bird. “This weekly or daily letter, this corporate culture, this open door, we don’t pay anything extra for that. But it’s so important to establish that this is a workplace that cares about you.”

Kanige said these anecdotes about company culture raised an interesting question as he moved on to the rest of the panel. “How far does that get you?” he asked. “Is that the most important thing, creating this kind of culture?”

“I think it’s very important,” Small said.

He added that despite workers being physically isolated, the experience of the pandemic and all of its impact has created a kind of community that is dealing with the collective pain. He also believes employers need to offer more employee mental health support programs, and cites one such initiative at Hackensack Meridian Health, which includes peer-to-peer counseling and support groups.

“And it really makes people feel like it’s okay to have mental health issues,” Small explained. “It kind of reduces the stigma of behavioral health issues. And I think that’s another silver lining to the pandemic.”

Sonaike said companies need to have a blended approach that offers anonymous care for an employee in need, along with the culture component that builds morale and ensures employees don’t burn out.

“I think employers need to do even just some due diligence and prioritize and make it easier for workers,” she said. “There’s a saying we have in healthcare that’s about you making the healthy choice, the easy choice. And we need to apply the same model not only to healthy eating and lifestyles, but to our mental health as well.”

Panelists said that an employee’s immediate manager knows that person best, so they are best qualified to determine if an employee is burned out, struggling, or even dealing with addiction.

“You know the habits of the employees. They know the result of their work,” said Visconi. “We spend a lot of time educating people on what’s the best thing to do and how to help an employee when a manager sees something that worries them.”

And the panel agreed that another by-product of the pandemic, which can undoubtedly be seen as a silver lining, is increased mental health dialogue.

“I think we’ve had a general public conversation about accepting mental health services and seeking help,” Sonaike said. “There are these mass media campaigns saying it’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to talk to someone.”

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