“Are you happy?” asks Dr. Niles Crane to Dr. Frasier Crane in the excellent season one finale of Frasier.
Yesterday, October 10, was World Mental Health Day. I’ve written before about how common depression is and the kind of economic burden depression puts on a workplace, but there’s so much more out there on the topic, as well as on so many other kinds of mental illness.
I’m also going to use this as an opportunity to write about my favorite sitcom again. Frasier is to mental illness as The Bachelor is to unrealistic expectations of love. That is, my main source of information on the topic. I remember growing up with Frasier and, without even realizing it at the time, being impressed with how well it delved into the depths of human emotion. Using a combination of pathos and humor, the sitcom dealt with the major highs and lows of human emotional existence.
Stick with me for a second and consider how certain key moments and relationships of the Frasier canon perfectly describe the basic human emotions: anger, fear, worry, joy, guilt/ jealousy and grief. Anger is where the show began; Marty moves in with Frasier after a bullet ends his detective career. Almost every moment of the pilot is motivated by anger. Father angry that he doesn’t have the dependence he had in the force; son angry that his father never seemed to love him enough. The show tackles fear and worry when Niles, against all odds, is admitted to the hospital for a major heart problem. Joy when Niles and Daphne finally get together. And jealously between siblings Niles and Frasier provides material for many, many great episodes.
And then there’s grief. An entire episode was dedicated to the five stages of grief. After Frasier loses his job at the radio station, he falls into a depression so bad that when his family comes home to find him cleaning the oven, they assume the worst. Frasier, of course, is in denial that he’s depressed. Luckily, his family and friends are his support system through it all until he eventually does get a job again.
The point of this all is to showcase A) what a great show this is, and yet somehow it did not make it into Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time list, and B) the importance of support for a person going through a mental health crisis. Just as the people in your personal life should be that support, the company you work for can be, too.
This is all a very long way to introduce a valuable conversation I had with Charles Lattarulo, director and creator of the Healthy Minds program at American Express. The program launched in the United States in 2012, and since then it has launched in most of American Express’ global offices. The aim of the program, Lattarulo said, is to be a “one-stop shop for mental health needs of employees.” This includes services available 24/7 to employees and their family members at no cost to them. People can see counselors or access EAP services. Then there are the other aspects and campaigns involved, which I’ll get to.
I spoke to Lattarulo about what makes a company mental health program successful, and he had more than a few suggestions based off the success of Healthy Minds.
First, give mental health the time and resources it needs. American Express hired Lattarulo specifically for the purpose of this program. It’s a full-time job, not a part-time effort.
Second, create a positive brand. For example, Healthy Minds has a brightly colored aesthetic and a slogan to go with it: “Find Your Bright Side.” It also has a very clear goal to offer these services and encourage employees to use them.
In order to address the perceived stigmas of mental illness that could keep people from tackling the problem themselves, the program includes campaigns to normalize mental health through education and action. The education aspect comes through a global campaign which teaches employees about mental illness, how common it is and how everyone’s life is touched by mental illness, whether it’s something an employee or one of their loved ones has experienced.
The action aspect comes though different campaigns that ask employees and leaders to do something. For example, in the “I Will Listen” campaign (Another Frasier connection: “I’m listening”), American Express team members created videos in which they pledged to support mental health at the company. Seeing team members and executives speak to the issues at hand is valuable to employees who may feel hesitant to speak up, which brings me to:
Third, get leadership engaged as well. Of course leadership is key in getting a strategy planned and implemented, but they should also be actively involved in the practice as well and show their support.
Finally, come up with a unique, engaging education opportunity. Healthy Minds, for example, used a stand-up comic. “The concept was to laugh with people with mental illness, not at them,” said Lattarulo.
“How do we reach our people in a way that isn’t so heavy, that helps them be open to learning about mental health issues?” he added. Comedy was something light and relatable used to normalize and humanize mental illness.
The connection between comedy and mental illness is strong. A few years ago I was covering the Madison’s Funniest Comic competition in Wisconsin. About 70 comics entered. Listening to all of their routines in the preliminary round, it was kind of amazing how many of them joked about depression or mental illness from their own personal experience. A solid portion of these comics, it seemed to me, were using comedy as a way to make sense of it all and the audience seemed to get it.
Which is why I thought Healthy Minds’ approach of using a stand-up comedian was appropriate. Using something relatable, like comedy, to make sense of the serious is pretty common in the entertainment sphere, so why not also in the workplace?
The Healthy Minds program is just one example of a company doing something to tackle the issue of mental health, and I would love to hear what other companies are doing. What else is important to create a successful program? What unique methods have you used to normalize mental illness, reduce stigma or educate employees?
So, it’s time to ask yourself: Is your workforce happy? Consider the real impact of mental illness on both your company and your employees.