Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Why Employee Mental Health Is A Priority At GDIT

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but employee well being is a top priority every month at global tech company and defense contractor General Dynamics Information Technology. The business unit of General Dynamics Corporation has had a comprehensive program to focus on mental wellness since 2021, and has received praise from both employees and mental health organizations. I talked to GDIT President Amy Gilliland about the program, and why mental health is an important workplace issue.

This conversation has been edited for length, clarity and continuity. An excerpt was included in Sunday’s Forbes CEO newsletter.

Note to readers: This interview mentions suicide and other reasons for mental distress.

Why did you start focusing on mental health at GDIT?

Gilliland: It was really experience. Being the president of a company that has 28,000 employees, it’s really just a sub-sector of the broader population. Our employees are all over the world. In the midst of Covid [pandemic shutdowns], this was August 2021, I became very aware, from conversations and interactions both in my personal life and at work, that mental health issues were more prevalent than I had remembered them in this position. I was at a local lake for a long weekend, and one of my reports called me to say that somebody that was quite prevalent at GDIT had committed suicide. In that moment, I decided that GDIT needed to play a role in this, and that we would make a commitment to taking on this subject and trying to help employees and their families.

I think we all know how stressed everybody was at that moment. Our kids were learning from home, or were recovering from learning from home. People had lost people in their lives. Support networks had failed. And the economy: inflation was rising. And we had the George Floyd incident. There was a lot of disruption and turmoil, and it was all coming together at a time also when people did not have access to the resources, or there weren’t enough resources to tackle that. I just was committed to doing something.

I came back and talked to my brilliant team here, and put together this campaign, which we termed “How Are You, Really?” Oftentimes in the office, at the watercooler, you ask somebody, “How are you?” and then I just keep walking down the hall, saying, “Oh, I’m living the dream,” roll your eyes, right? But this is encouraging employees to ask—and to really care about what the response is.

I started this job in September of 2017. [There is] not anything that I’ve done in my job that I have seen more well and widely received than the “How Are You, Really?” campaign. Everywhere I go, somebody talks about it.

What does this campaign entail?

As I delved into this area, the statistics were proving that this was going to be a problem that would long outlive the pandemic. This is a pandemic of itself, and we’re going to see the repercussions of this for some time. Interestingly, the Health and Human Services Department put out their 2024 Suicide [Prevention] Strategy, and it basically said that this is a 10-year whole of society strategy. It’s going to take everyone to go after.

We created the campaign and said that this wasn’t going to be a one-month “Let me send out a message to employees as president and say, ‘Hey, you guys really need to check in on each other.’” That we were going to be really committed to this for some time, because I do have a long-term view of this problem, and I think it is something that we have to focus on for some time to come.

We did establish a lot of resources. A website, [which is] actually external also, where you have easily accessible videos, links to articles about mental health, links to where you can go get help internally [with] the resources that we’re offering. Links for managers on talking points, how they can engage their employees.

We realized that being a leader post-Covid is different than being a leader pre-Covid. You have generational changes in the workforce. You have different work postures, in terms of working from home. The mission that we serve is very dynamic, and given the geopolitical things that are going on, there’s a lot at work here. We are putting all of our people managers through training, and one of the parts of that training is how you have hard conversations, particularly around things like mental health. We have set an expectation for our leaders that part of their job is to make their employees successful, and part of that is being willing to engage in conversations about mental health, were they to think that something was going on. That really starts with “How Are You, Really?” kinds of conversations. It may not be the first time, or the second time, or the third time, but ultimately, you can make an employee feel like it’s okay to not be okay.

We’ve had lots of speaker events. We’ve had experts come in and talk about everything from stress and anxiety management to suicide prevention. That can be very nuanced to different parts of our employee base. For instance, our veterans’ suicide issues and how you might prevent suicide are different from our early career employees. This year, a study came out that said that for the first time, younger generations and younger employees are having more mental health struggles than older employees. Suicide is more prevalent, and they’re feeling isolated and depressed. We hosted, with our employee resource group for our early career employees, a segment at lunch about depression and anxiety and the realities of it. It is one of our best-attended ever in terms of internal [events].

We’re continuing to evolve what we’re offering because the situation is evolving. This year, we are focusing on encouraging people to find a community at GDIT. If you’re a technologist and you want to go hang out with your cloud engineers, here’s a community for you. If you are an early career employee, then here is the early career employee resource group. One of the realities of the world that we live in now, in the aftermath of Covid, is that people are more isolated than they were before. That isolation is impacting people in pronounced and profound ways, in ways that sometimes they don’t even realize. That community, from a business perspective, is important to collaboration and innovation and retention. But for our employees, I believe that it is very important to feeling part of something and to easing some of that loneliness that we see is so pervasive in the workforce.

What has employee reaction been to the program?

It’s been fabulous. I spend a lot of time traveling to go see customers and employees all over the world. Our employees are everywhere: Iraq, in Kuwait and Qatar and Abu Dhabi. I just got back from Hawaii, Korea and Japan. I was in a trailer, which is the workspace for our employees in Kuwait, and in the very back corner, I walked up to an employee and said, “How are you, really?” He looked at me and said, “I’m pretty good for a guy who almost died last month.”

The employees send me emails. We had an employee bravely post on LinkedIn that she wanted to take her life, but that she had a conversation with her manager, because she felt like she could, and we put her in touch with resources that helped her to not do that.

About 30% of my population are veterans; 14,000 to 15,000 of my 20,000 employees have security clearances. In both of those demographics of employee, there is a built-in aversion to talking about mental health. In the military, you just trudge on. Keep calm and carry on. In the military, you don’t talk about these sorts of things. Those with security clearances feel like they might lose their clearance if the approvers think that they have a mental health challenge, which is not true. We have also brought our internal conversation externally to try and disabuse people of these stigmas, or false beliefs that they’re going to lose their clearance. Really, it’s in .00001% of cases. Actually, those that approve security clearances want people to step forward because they need help.

Employees have thanked me for making mental health a business imperative, because that allows them to have their voice.

The other way you can measure the impact or how it’s been received is in terms of retention. Our attrition is down nicely. Is that only because of the “How Are You, Really?” campaign? No, but I think it’s illustrative of the kind of culture that we’re trying to build here.

What would you say to a business executive who says mental health is important, but it’s a personal issue that doesn’t belong in the workplace?

I think that that era is bygone. It is proven that when employees can bring their whole selves to work and they feel supported by their employer, they perform well and the business performs well. And the inverse is true. I’m not saying that we have to solve mental health problems here. But going back to what I was highlighting before, this is a whole of society problem. I think businesses need to make a decision that they can be part of addressing that problem. We can’t ignore it, because employees spend eight, 10, 12 hours a day at work. Work can be perceived as a place that adds anxiety, difficulty, nervousness. That it could exacerbate one of these problems. We’re trying to create a place where yes, we expect and hold people accountable for performance. But the thing is, when they feel like their leaders care about them, they’re even more committed, and they come to work healthy—mentally and in their body as well.

What advice would you give to an executive who is interested in starting a similar program at their workplace?

They can call us. We’d be happy to share our resources. We have an external website that talks about resources that are out there. There’s plenty of organizations that support this also. The [National Alliance on Mental Illness] has resources. We built this organically, so we worked our way through it.

I think an important thing to do is to listen to employees, because employees really helped us build a meaningful program here.

I would also tell them that this does not have to cost a lot of money. We’ve introduced flexibility in places where we can be flexible, and that helps employees. If we have somebody that needs to take a step away, we’ve come up with ways to allow them to step away and they don’t have to quit.

The other advice that I would give is that leaders have to own this, too. Your leaders have to go along this journey because they will be critical to demonstrating the kinds of behaviors that need to be pushed down through the organization, for employees to feel like this is more than just another initiative that goes out there.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. An online chat is also available.

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