Learnings from a Healthcare CHRO: Normalizing Mental Health in the Workplace

Cardinal Health manufacturing employee in a warehouse

As chief human resources officer at Cardinal Health, Ola Snow has had an extensive career in human capital management. She is particularly passionate about employee wellness, which is a mandate and mission at Cardinal Health. This conversation follows an earlier one and dives deeper into Cardinal Health’s culture and its support for employee mental health.

Bright Horizons: 

You have a huge range of employees in your workforce. How do you go about creating employee well-being?

Ola Snow:  

Our approach to wellness is to meet people where they are in their lives’ continuum. While there are differences in our workforce, the areas of physical well-being, personal and mental health well-being, and financial well-being resonate with all our employees. 

Whether it's providing affordable child care, helping with elder care, or finding a pathway to college for employees -- we provide benefits and services that help employees navigate areas of difficulty and stress.

BH: 

Can you talk about the evolution of how Cardinal Health stepped up to address mental health and stress?

OS:  

We started a journey around mental health long before the pandemic. We saw a need to address priority health conditions within our employee population that had been increasing since 2017. In studying the data, we recognized that there was a healthcare crisis relating to mental health. 

In 2018, we initiated our Mind Matters Program. Our primary goal was to provide resources to support employees in need. Our secondary goal was to create an open and supportive culture of mental health, to remove the stigma of asking for help, especially in the workplace. 

We started by talking about what our global Employee Assistance Program (EAP) services could provide. But when the pandemic occurred, Mind Matters took on a life of its own. Like most employees in healthcare, our workers were suffering from burnout and stress. They were taking on new roles as teachers for their children and facing so much uncertainty because of the pandemic.

When we saw stress levels and burnout rising, we began to leverage a comprehensive listening strategy. We did that across the board with operational employees, professional employees, and leadership. We conducted about 75 focus groups, which led us to really understand the challenges employees were facing. 

Early in the pandemic, we increased the number of one-on-one counseling sessions that employees and their household members could access through our EAP. Nearly 11% took advantage of these counseling sessions, an increase of 2.5% over the previous year; those accessing more than one counseling session more than doubled in 2021 over the previous year.
We also gave employees free access to Headspace, a meditation app. We quadrupled the number of licenses during that time.

We worked with our DE&I team and all of our employee resource groups to generate in-group discussions. Mental health manifests differently for women and men, for African Americans, for military veterans, for LGBTQ+, and so on. We worked independently but collectively on the mental health message. And that continues today. 

BH: 

Could you describe the tangible things that came out of the meetings you held?

OS: 

One of the key things that came out of our sessions was what we call the "Midweek Moment." That is a time on Wednesday afternoons when we schedule no meetings. That gives our employees a chance to think about their well-being, take a yoga class or a walk around the block. It’s time to catch up and focus on yourself. Do what you want with that time, but don’t schedule a meeting. As the pandemic began to subside, it became voluntary, but my team and many of the business leaders maintain that Midweek Moment. 

BH: 

What indicators are you seeing at Cardinal Health of acceptance of mental health, of “normalization?”

OS:

We launched a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course through our learning system. In its first year, more than 100 Cardinal Health employees volunteered to be certified in MHFA. It’s helping managers and employees feel comfortable talking openly – and safely -- about mental health. It’s enabled managers to better recognize the signs of stress and engage with employees about it.

Also, the quarterly talks I began doing on mental health have taken on a life of their own. Business units themselves are now having panels on mental health. Originally sponsored by the organization, it's now growing organically. 

I also talk to our interns every year. This year we had over 100 interns throughout our organization. We polled them in our meeting about what they expected from their next employer. Nearly 80% responded, “I want to go to a place where I can talk about mental health.” 

One intern cited her experience. She said that talking in front of large groups gave her anxiety. Because her manager was knowledgeable about mental health, he was able to help her. They came up with a different way for her to get information out. Her experience showed her it was okay to talk about her anxiety and that she could still fulfill the needs of the team without having to stand up in front of 200 people. 

These are all signs that mental health acceptance is becoming part of our culture, that it's okay to not be okay, that here it’s okay to ask for help.

BH:

You really are creating a place where people can be vulnerable and feel supported. Your employees know you care.

OS:  

Our company is built on authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability. And I’ve experienced this myself.

Over the last two and a half years, I’ve interviewed on 100 podcasts. Three or four months into the pandemic, the pandemic response team came to me and said, "We want you to talk about what you're worried about." 

At the time, I was making decisions every day for approximately 48,000 people that were life or death in some cases -- this was before a vaccine. It was really stressful. 

I was worried about the safety of employees who were coming to work every day. I was worried about office workers who were having to work and take care of their families. I worried about my kids that were losing out on a wonderful college experience. I was even worried about what color my hair was then. I worried about everything.

Well, I did an interview and opened up about my experiences. I teared up a few times. I was just totally vulnerable, but I think I received the most emails in my career asking: "How are you?" 

I’ve come to learn that vulnerability builds trust with employees. It starts with making sure your employees know that you care about them and that you’re going to do everything you can to care for them. 

It's so important that companies step up to support their employees. Whether that's providing them an environment where it's okay to not be okay or where they can feel safe coming out as an LGBTQ+ employee. It really matters to employees to know that they don't have to be somebody else at work, they can just be themselves, and they can thrive. If we do that, employees can bring their best and we're going to be our best. That to me is so important. My key role is to bring that message to our organization.

 
Cardinal Health manufacturing employee in a warehouse

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