Earlier this year, Amazon did something worth applauding. The trillion-dollar company introduced a new mental wellness benefit for its 950,000 employees, including warehouse workers.
The benefit, known as Resources for Living, provides employees and their family members with a certain number of free counseling sessions, crisis and suicide prevention support, and an app that includes mindfulness instruction and computerized cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Providing access to—and awareness around—mental health care is a critical responsibility for employers,” Beth Galetti, senior vice president of People eXperience and Technology for Amazon, said in a company announcement about the program. “This new offering will help us remove barriers and unnecessary stigma around getting help, to ensure our employees and their families feel safe and supported during this pandemic and beyond.”
On its own, Amazon’s move is important for the very reasons Galetti describes. Yet the company has also long denied accusations that its corporate and warehouse workplaces are the epitome of toxic: extractive, punitive, and sometimes discriminatory. Indeed, a few weeks after Resources for Living publicly launched, the New York Times ran a disturbing portrayal of life inside New York City’s fulfillment center JFK8, where pickers say they raced to pack online orders and struggled to interact with human supervisors when the company’s management app fails them.
It sounded like a worker’s nightmare: unrelenting demand, little to no control over scheduling and working conditions, and limited empathy from higher ups. People seek therapy for numerous reasons, including parenting challenges, mental illness, grief, and trauma. But for Amazon employees negatively affected by the company’s practices, it’s plausible they’re reaching out for help because their employer has designed a work environment rife with inescapable stressors, which can lead to anxiety, depression, or burnout, or compound the distress they’re already experiencing.
This is the crux of the broader and long overdue corporate awakening about the importance of employee mental health. American workplaces know they have a wellness problem, but most won’t do what’s required to fix it.
Instead of looking inward at emotionally bankrupt leadership philosophies, lackluster or nonexistent training for managers, and policies that emphasize productivity over physical safety and emotional well-being, companies bet on new or enhanced mental health benefits as the key to improving their employees’ mood and coping skills. Therapy and other wellness resources can be a valuable tool for surviving a challenging or toxic work environment, but what really needs to change is the workplace itself.
What’s happening behind closed doors?
Amazon is one of many companies that looked at the seemingly endless waves of stress, anxiety, and trauma unleashed by the pandemic and introduced new or expanded mental health and well-being benefits. In general, they’ve emerged as a prime perk, particularly for corporate employees.
Nike, for example, recently gave staff at its U.S. headquarters a paid week off prior to Labor Day, a gesture that one manager at the company described in a LinkedIn post as an opportunity to “unwind” and “destress.” In June, the dating app Bumble similarly gave its staff a weeklong vacation to help them recover from burnout. Last year, the software company Zendesk signed onto Modern Health, a popular platform that offers employees access to coaches, licensed therapists, and “self-service wellness kits.” As the pandemic unfolded, Google gave its employees more days off and a one-time $500 “wellbeing” bonus to spend on whatever helped them relax and reset, in addition to other resources, like video tutorials on how to be more resilient.
Such policy changes may lead to flattering press coverage and celebratory press releases, but they often put a temporary gloss on deeper cultural problems. Google employees, for example, have said it’s common for managers and human resources to respond to complaints of discrimination and harassment by urging the accuser to seek therapy or go on medical leave for mental health reasons without sufficiently investigating their claims. Google has denied that a pattern of offering counseling instead of probing complaints exists at the company.
“When you go to H.R. to seek help and you’re told, ‘Well have you considered counseling?’ that ultimately is communicating that you’re the problem,” a former Google manager who says she experienced harassment at the company told The New York Times. Google provided Mashable with a list of initiatives and policies meant to support employee mental health that were implemented during the pandemic. That included conversation guides and coaching through the company’s online learning and development platform to help managers have better one-on-one conversations with their direct reports about their well-being.
Three things employers could do differently right now
Time and again, Dr. Leslie Hammer, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences, sees the same formula used to solve the problem of employee well-being. Companies start with a Band-Aid approach, emphasizing the importance of exercise, eating well, and other lifestyle behaviors without stopping to evaluate how their policies contribute to poor health and job dissatisfaction.
“A lot of people are concerned that it’s kind of a blame-the worker-approach,” says Hammer, who has spent her career researching organizational change in the workplace and is co-director of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center.
“So it’s your job to fix your own well-being as opposed to the workplace taking the responsibility. The reason why workplaces do that is because it’s a lot easier. It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Ok, you know what, you go and work on your lifestyle changes and that will make you feel better and…that will make your psychological health better.'”
“A lot of people are concerned that it’s kind of a blame-the worker-approach.”
What Hammer’s work and other research shows, however, is that three key factors play a decisive and significant role in employee well-being: decreasing the demands of work, increasing employee control over where, how, and when they work, and improving social support.
These findings might suggest that each employee should dictate the terms of their employment to guarantee their well-being, but Hammer draws a different conclusion. The workplace, she says, must be designed to reduce hazards to workers’ emotional and mental health the same way that we protect them from physical safety hazards. In other words, employers should grasp that it’s paramount to offer jobs with a reasonable workload, give employees fair control over their working conditions and schedule, and train managers to respond to employees with empathy and flexibility. Hammer has found that social support from supervisors, managers, and leaders, in particular, is linked to engagement, job satisfaction, turnover, and other outcomes that are directly tied to individual well-being.
Hammer has conducted research in diverse settings like information technology workplaces, grocery stores, nursing homes, and the military. Often, she and her colleagues teach supervisors an approach she pioneered known as family-supportive supervisor behaviors. These strategies hinge on empathy skills that increase emotional support, logistical resources for flexible schedules, and creative management tactics that focus on adapting to challenges, like the temporary or long-term absence of an employee.
Supervisor role modeling is a vital part of this training. A manager’s behavior sets the tone for everyone else, but often employees in those roles don’t receive substantive or relevant training for how to manage people. Instead, they interact with staff based on what they experienced in the past or their personal communication style, which might be adversarial, dismissive, demanding, or inflexible. Faced with unrealistic expectations from their own managers, supervisors might take out their frustration or feelings of helplessness on their direct reports. So much of employee well-being depends on a company’s culture, its business model, and whether supervisors and managers are supportive. Therapy for an individual employee can help them better cope, but it can’t fix any of those things if they’re broken.
After COVID-19, we’re going to need more than therapy
Hammer’s team is also exploring the importance of “sleep leadership.” When executive and senior leaders, along with middle managers, demonstrate the value of sleep health by doing things like talking about how seriously they take sleep, modeling a healthy work schedule, being receptive to employees’ scheduling requests, and encouraging them to catch up on lost sleep after a period of high demand it can improve employee sleep, according to Hammer’s research.
Hammer says that business tactics like highly-controlled performance scheduling and productivity monitoring are simply not compatible with employee well-being or healthy sleep.
“The practices of such tight control over workers’ schedules and behaviors lead to higher levels of employee stress and strain through excessive pressures to perform and the inability of workers to adjust work schedules as needed to accommodate non-work life and responsibilities such as parent or child care,” Hammer wrote in a follow-up email.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos appeared to recognize the seriousness of worker complaints in his annual letter to shareholders, published in April following a failed unionizing drive at an Alabama fulfillment warehouse.
“I think we need to do a better job for our employees,” wrote Bezos, who described the company’s productivity goals as not unreasonable but “achievable.”
When asked about whether Amazon offers managers and its executive team training in skills like family-supportive supervisor behaviors and sleep leadership, the company told Mashable that all managers participate in onboarding and development. Training programs focus on creating high-performing and inclusive teams, making “high-velocity” decisions, coaching employees, and developing talent. While the company said there is training related to empathy and wellness, it provided no further details.
What it means to start at the top
In the first month of the pandemic, the video conferencing company Zoom went from 10 million daily meeting participants to 300 million. Amidst the unprecedented growth and pressure to connect hundreds of millions of people in quarantine or lockdown, Zoom’s chief people officer Lynne Oldham says the company’s CEO, Eric Yuan, asked her a question: How can we help our employees?
To learn more about employees’ needs, Oldham and her staff held focus groups with managers and their teams, with a specific focus on caregiving obligations. Facilitators led conversations that Oldham says brought both tears and laughter. What she and her team drew from these discussions was the overriding importance of empathy in communicating with and supporting employees.
The company then launched an internally-designed empathy training called Connecting Through Conversations specifically to help managers listen and respond to pandemic-related concerns. Though it wasn’t mandatory, human resources nudged managers who hadn’t taken advantage of it. Oldham says the company also wanted non-managers to know they “had a safe space to talk about what their challenges were.”
At the same time, Zoom rushed to hire and onboard workers to meet demand and alleviate the pressure rapid growth put on existing employees. Prior to the pandemic, the company had already provided its employees with Lyra, a platform that connects people with licensed therapists, as well as a meditation and goal-setting app. During the pandemic, it added access to TaskHuman, a wellness coaching app where users can connect to professionals who can help them practice self-care and stress reduction.
Zoom, which already provides training programs called “Managing Happy” and “Leading Happy,” focuses on drawing a direct line between how one’s behavior affects someone else, whether that’s a co-worker or customer.
“We talk about delivering happiness, and delivering happiness to our customers but also to our employees,” says Oldham. “We developed our internal programs along those lines.”
Former and current Zoom employees know best how much the company lives up to its own gospel, but there’s a lesson in its approach to well-being: Efforts to improve it must start with leadership and workplace culture, rather than tacking on new benefits that put the onus on the employees themselves. Otherwise, policy changes have the effect of wellness washing — or dressing up — a culture that may,…