Industry Watch

Battling the blues

New solutions to keep mental health from chiseling into peak performance and productivity

By Kevyn Burger
Tuesday, October 20, 2015

For more than two decades, television meteorologist Ken Barlow has prepared Minnesotans for heat waves, snow dumps and tornadoes, first as a meteorologist at KARE and now as the morning weatherman on KSTP.

A familiar and reassuring figure, Barlow’s skill allows him to forecast the weather. But beneath his cheery presence, Barlow battled internal storms that were anything but predictable.

“There were days when I came in and put my head on my desk until I went on the air,” Barlow, 53, recalls. “I had to crank it up and smile for three minutes, but every second killed me.”

Sometimes his lethargy gave way to bursts of energy that left his co-workers confused.

“I thought maybe I had a brain tumor, to be like this,” he says.

Searching for answers, Barlow visited multiple doctors and at first was told he had nothing wrong, then was alternately diagnosed with allergies, insomnia and vertigo.

In 2007, he collapsed. He was working at a Boston television station at the time, and told his boss he was suffering from exhaustion. But during two weeks in a psychiatric unit, his true diagnosis emerged: bipolar I disorder.

“I had to face it. I had a chronic disease,” he says.

Barlow had always been able to rally when severe weather struck and viewers relied on him for crucial safety information. But he has no doubt that his undiagnosed condition was sometimes a drag on his contributions.

“People with depression, treated or untreated, are not as engaged or effective,” explains Karen Lloyd, a psychologist and senior director of behavioral health and resilience at HealthPartners. “They perform with less speed and accuracy so they produce less, or their work may need to be redone. They may have trouble learning new skills. That can have implications for their team and the public they serve.”

There’s a name for what happens when workers show up, put in a full day, but don’t — can’t — function at the top of their game.

Called presenteeism, it creates some of the same problems as absenteeism, but is far more insidious. Just about everyone has the occasional day when they phone it in, but persistent mental health conditions can make disconnection a daily practice for ill employees, who often suffer in silence. The American Productivity Audit put the nation’s annual cost of impaired productivity from presenteeism at more than $150 billion; a 2003 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found U.S. businesses lose $35 billion a year in reduced performance caused only by depression alone.

Maybe you see the side effects of depression, anxiety, PTSD or stress-related disorders in colleagues dutifully seated at their desks but in no shape to do their best work — the co-worker too fatigued to make a deadline or decision, the irritable boss, the support person who can’t concentrate.

Now an increasing number of companies are taking aggressive and proactive steps to help people whose mental health conditions interfere with their professional as well as their personal lives. And there are a lot of them; the National Institute of Mental Health calculates that in any given year, one in four Americans suffers with a diagnosable mental illness.

“Mental illness affects every profession, and every profession should assist those people in getting the help they need,” says Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Heredity is one factor that contributes to the development of mental illness, but environmental factors also play a role. That includes the environment in the workplace, where most people spend one-third of their time. A five-year Swedish study published in July suggested that high levels of job stress substantially increase mental health sick leave.

Implementing programs to address balance, stress management and support for mental illness for workers and their families is not simply a matter of an employer’s compassion. Such benefits are increasingly regarded as a critical variable for recruiting and retaining key workers.

“Expectations are changing and the younger workers are a lot choosier,” says Mary Meehan, CEO of Panoramix Global, a Minneapolis-based cultural and consumer intelligence agency. “They hold their employers to high standards. Benefits tell them a lot when they are looking at the culture of that workplace.”

Hastings-based Anytime Fitness has refined a multi-pronged effort to bolster its workforce against stress, to keep workers strong emotionally as well as physically. Many of the fitness chain’s corporate employees are allowed the flexibility to accomplish work objectives on their own timetable; all workers at headquarters are encouraged to dress informally so they can hit the gym during a break or join a walking meeting.

“With our franchisees and fitness centers, we offer a product that helps people get to a healthier place, so we better be creating a culture that aligns with that within the organization,” says Anytime Fitness co-founder Dave Mortensen.

The efforts have brought recognition for workplace balance to Anytime Fitness, including being named as Minnesota Business’s No.1 Best (Large) Company to Work for in Minnesota. Mortensen said the honors have helped the business attract top candidates during its decade of rapid growth.

“Financial compensation is just one level of success. Balance is the true benefit they’re seeking,” Mortensen says.

This fall, Red Wing Shoes initiated a five-week campaign to put mental health issues before its employees in a frank, informative way. The company, long based in the Goodhue County city that shares its name, maintains a workforce of 2,300, with employees who manufacture the company’s iconic footwear, sell it to retail stores and work in the corporate office.

“As a company, we recognize the connection between mental health and productivity and engagement,” says Carrie Heimer, the company’s vice president of human relations. “We know many physical conditions have an underlying mental health component, so taking care of mental health keeps people well.”

Hiemer said the campaign, with informational videos, flyers, posters and brown bag seminars set to start in 2016, was geared at making conversations about mental health “more real and more normal,” integrated into the company’s broad vision for employee well-being.

“This is not a flavor of the month,” Heimer says. “Research shows that, because of the stigma, people live with symptoms of mental illness for 10 years before they get help. We don’t want to see our people suffering like that. It’s bad for them and it’s bad for business.”

HealthPartners offers self-guided online cognitive behavior therapy sessions to those of its 22,500 employees who are insured through the company and patients of HealthPartners and Park Nicollet clinics, to reduce stress, depression and anxiety. Called Beating the Blues, the interactive program was pioneered in England where it’s been used by the British National Health Service for 14 years. Employees engage with the material privately and on their own time.    

“Top athletes work with sports psychologists and executives have coaches who provide this,” said HealthPartners’ Dr. Karen Lloyd. “It’s cognitive behavioral therapy, focusing on being in the moment and blocking negative self-talk.”

Lloyd said the program was selected because of its proven results; she points to peer-reviewed studies that find it reduces anxiety and depression for participants — at all levels.

“Many people who are mildly depressed don’t get treated. This can be enough to help them,” says Lloyd. “In addition to providing psychotherapy and medication, we need to add resiliency skill building, and Beating the Blues does this. Emotional resilience is a skill, and one that can be taught.”

Currently, one of the hottest approaches to improving mental health and reducing stress is a 2,500 year old Buddhist discipline. The ancient Eastern practice of mindfulness has moved from meditation retreats to the workplace.

“Mindfulness training is all over corporate America,” says Michelle Duffy, professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. She’s researched the role of mindfulness in business.    

“The research is pretty compelling. With very little training, you can get strong outcomes for people. You see productivity increasing, burnout decreasing, relationships improving.”

General Mills, United Health Group and Target are among the Minnesota companies that have embraced mindfulness training.

Duffy believes the practice, which focuses on breathing and centering, can counteract some of the harsher elements embedded in the DNA of a fast-paced, high tech workplace.

“We think we can manage being overloaded and doing multiple tasks but research says it’s unhealthy,” Duffy says. “Every time you ping into email, or read a text, you get a blast of dopamine, which makes you feel good. But you also get a pop of cortisol, the stress hormone, and that makes you irritable. Mindfulness can help balance body and mind and promotes thinking more calmly. It’s a powerful intervention, and a cheap one.”

Even after Ken Barlow began treatment for his bipolar disorder, he kept his secret, including when he was hired by KSTP four years ago.

“I spent so much energy covering it up. Mental illness was a dirty word. I sent my wife to pick up my prescriptions because I was so ashamed someone would see me,” he says.

After he was diagnosed, Barlow learned his father began treatment for bipolar disorder at age 60. Barlow’s father never acknowledged his illness to his five sons, who learned of his condition only after his death at 68.

In his father’s memory, Barlow agreed to emcee a 2012 fundraising walk sponsored by NAMI.

“I was going to talk about my dad, but then I looked out at 4,000 people holding ‘Stop the Stigma’ signs and I saw I was promoting the chain of shame. I thought, I have to break it. That’s when I blurted it out.”

With the truth released, Barlow has become the public face of bipolar disorder and a vocal advocate for living authentically with mental illness.

“The hardest thing I hear from people who have something like I do is they’re afraid to say anything. Their bosses might not be as understanding as mine are; they’ve supported me all the way and even encourage me to do speaking. From what I’m hearing, I think that’s rare.”

NAMI’s Sue Abderholden confirmed that not every employee who declares their mental illness would get the kind of consideration that Barlow has received.

“The stigma has lessened only slightly,” she says. “I hear from people who suspect they didn’t get a promotion after they disclosed, or fear they will lose their job if it’s discovered. It’s sad, because that keeps people from accessing treatment that could help them.” 


Diving into drive: Finding the fit to enhance productivity

Nothing can bring on job angst more than feeling like a square peg in a round hole — or being on a team with a co-worker who meets that description.

Managers often use tests, tools, assessments and workplace measurements to help them put the right people in key positions.

Developed 30 years ago, the Kolbe Index is one tool that’s gained ground among employers seeking to enhance worker performance and morale.

“Employers want to set people up to be their most productive. They want to maximize talent; it’s energizing for a team when employees are in positions that align with their instinctive drive,” says Erin Werde, a certified Kolbe consultant and president of Affiance Coaching.

The Kolbe Index is a series of multiple choice questions that guide the test taker to reveal their instinctive patterns of behavior. Results measure the test-taker’s so-called ‘conative drive,’ identifying their natural way of taking action.  

“People can certainly do jobs that go against their instincts. But if you’re in a position that leaves you stressed and frustrated, you won’t be your most productive,” Werde says.

Werde, 31, has administered the Kolbe Index to employees at businesses of all sizes, including in the construction, finance and medical device sectors. The assessments often begin with the leadership team. With dual master’s degrees in social work and public policy and a background in financial services, Werde is trained to interpret results to help pinpoint strengths in individuals and assist teams in ways to problem solve more effectively.

“People come to me when they say their team isn’t firing on all cylinders, or when they keep hiring the wrong person,” she says. “You need the improvisers and innovators to start a project, but you have to balance that with concrete skills to build on the ideas.”

Werde insists that businesses that make the effort to understand and utilize the unique talents of its workforce will be more likely to keep its stars on the rise.

“Job satisfaction is more important for this generation, and that’s being defined beyond economic factors. The landscape is really changing,” says Werde. “There are so many jobs on the market now; if workers don’t feel connected, they will move on.”