Counseling Through COVID
It was late spring 2020. As we stared down the screens at each other, what seemed like many months of lockdown behind us, no telling how many more ahead, Council president and CEO Ken Crerar informed the senior staff that he was hiring a psychotherapist for anyone who wanted to meet in a group setting.
Truth be told, I did have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. I think it was a mixture of “God, I need that,” and “How dare you think I need that?!” That was before the killing of George Floyd and the national outrage and upheaval that followed. It was before the Capitol insurrection that brought more violence and tension to a place that our staff calls home. It was before we began to see increasingly concerning statistics about the worsening mental health of America’s workforce (and global workforces) due to the stress of the pandemic and all of its combined pressures—health fears, caregiver fears, financial fears, isolation.
Council president and CEO Ken Crerar hired a psychotherapist to meet with staff members in group settings.
One survey found employers that do not provide mental health resources are less likely to be perceived as a safe environment for those with mental illness.
A mental health counselor hired by The Council devised a 12-week program focused on anxiety, boundaries at work, and a healthier work/life balance.
Now, more than a year later, we still struggle with many of the same stressors. Yes, the isolation is improving and the health fears aren’t as intense, but new stressors—like transitioning back to public life and coping with unknown virus variants—take their place. A 2021 Workplace Health survey produced by Mental Health America found employees do not feel like they are receiving adequate support from supervisors to help manage stress. The survey also found that employers that do not provide their staffs with mental health resources are less likely to be perceived as a safe environment for employees who live with mental illness.
In this environment we begin to look back at the six-month program that some Council staff underwent. They never called it therapy, but what was it? What inspired it? How did people respond? And then what? In striving to answer these questions, we explore The Council’s attempt to bolster the mental health of its staff and its quest to embrace diversity and inclusion. We also examine how this organization strives to be an incubator for new ways to work.
People Are Struggling
When I asked Ken what motivated him to bring in a psychotherapist for group sessions, he said he was concerned that people were alone at home. He saw some disconnection—in the behavior of others and in his own behavior. He also believed the pandemic, and the virtual working conditions it spawned, provided an opportunity to establish the importance of mental health at The Council.
“We say we’re about health and safety. And we say we’re about all these things,” Ken told me. “But are we really? I wanted to show that we really were, that this was a real concern. This wasn’t just one of those concerns that you just talk about.”
So he got in touch with Klifton Fehr, a licensed mental health counselor with more than 10 years of experience running group therapy sessions within for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. I asked Fehr to put The Council’s situation in perspective for a larger company.
“I would say to any one of those CEOs, especially the ones that are really capitalizing or emphasizing the numbers, as far as revenue, productivity, things of that nature, I would say directly to them that the heart of their organization is atrophying, even dying off,” Fehr says. “If some of their staff could actually walk out and go get a new job, they might. If you just give them space to talk about some of the struggles that they’re having with meeting the quota, with meeting those deadlines, with being able to just have an outlet, to get a breath of fresh air.” He says just 30 minutes of time dedicated to this release would effect change. Consistently done, he says, it would cause massive change.
As Fehr explains, not everyone is in crisis and needs immediate emergency assistance, but many people are struggling. “They just need somebody that can actually identify what’s going on for them, coach them up on how to change and then put them back on track so they can go and knock it out. But I think we’re failing. People are falling through the cracks, a lot more so than I would say ever before.
“People have started getting into survival, I’ve got to do everything that I can to keep my job. My boss doesn’t think I’m working hard enough because he can’t see me working in the office. What if I don’t get that promotion because there are other people that are willing to take the risk to go into the office and show their face? I’ve got kids at home. I can’t leave my home. My kids are going to get sick.”
To have CEOs really understand what’s happening in the minds of their employees, Fehr says, is crucial for their own clarity.
Why? Well, there is a business case for it. Workplace empathy is a real concept and has been measured by Businessolver for the past five years in its annual State of Workplace Empathy survey. Results from the 2020 survey show that workplace empathy continues to be seen as universally important (as it has since the study’s beginning) by employees, HR professionals and CEOs. Empathy is also consistently tied to business impact. For example, 74% of employees said they would work longer hours for an empathetic employer.
Workplace empathy also goes far in talent retention. According to the survey, 80% of employees said they would switch companies for equal pay if the employer were more empathetic; 83% of Gen Z employees would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering a slightly higher salary; 79% of Gen Z would choose an empathetic employer even if it meant changing their role, industry or career path.
But the survey also found a disconnect between how empathy is perceived and experienced between employees and executives. For example, only 48% of employees believe companies as a whole are empathetic, versus 68% of CEOs. And 91% of CEOs say their own company is empathetic, but only 68% of employees agree.
While the data were collected for this survey before the pandemic, Jon Shanahan, president and CEO of Businessolver, notes in the report, “The importance of bridging that gap is now heightened by the current environment. Employees are depending on their employers to deliver empathy to help them overcome, adapt and move forward.”
Creating a Safe Space
With Crerar’s input, Fehr devised a 12-week program, four weeks each on three different topics: anxiety, boundaries at work, and developing coping skills toward a healthier work/life balance. Participants would work in groups, meeting once a week virtually with Fehr facilitating.
“The idea of doing groups was really about a safe place for people to talk about some things, without my involvement, without our knowledge, without the company’s imprint,” Crerar says.
For Fehr, it took some work to actually ensure that space was truly safe. “Bringing a clinician, or even a coach for that matter, into the workplace, you already work at a bit of a disadvantage because you’re an outsider,” he says. “The second part is being able to contain the groups in such a way that it’s not just spilling over into this emotional pile…. It can be a bit cumbersome if you don’t respect the workplace boundaries or if you don’t protect each one of the group members from themselves and possibly even from other participants.” Fehr says he wanted to ensure everyone had space to talk about how to navigate some of the challenges they were facing without disclosing too much within the professional environment.
And his concern was legitimate. My own reaction to the idea of therapy at work was defensive, despite the fact that I am well aware of the value of therapy and have seen it first-hand. And I wasn’t alone.
“It felt a little bit awkward in the beginning because people have very strong feelings,” says Julia Ruiz, The Council’s vice president of leadership and management resources. “They considered it therapy—that’s how it was received initially—and there was some hesitation around mixing personal and professional. Like, how much do you want to share in a work setting?”
No stranger to group facilitation, Ruiz regularly leads groups ranging from up-and-coming producers participating in The Council’s Broker Smackdown competition to college interns to working groups of Council member executives. But given the task of introducing this opportunity to the staff and then pulling the groups together, Ruiz faced some different kinds of challenges.
“There was some negative stigma around mental health,” she says. “And then whether or not the employer may want to play a role or should play a role. I definitely think there was some questioning around whether it even makes sense for us to be doing this. And I do think there was reluctance from staff to participate or engage at this level.”
Whether or not it was the intention, Ruiz notes, “Very quickly, you see how your personal life bleeds into your professional life.
“It came out during these sessions, where you’re talking about being frustrated at work, but then Klifton was really great about digging a little bit deeper and asking unobtrusive questions but getting to the core of things.” Often, Ruiz says, what came to the surface was something completely unrelated to work, including very serious personal issues. “It was very obvious in all of our own ways, it was a really heavy time for everyone.”
Fehr notes the importance of being adaptable when leading this group, which quickly moved beyond elementary coaching. “They wanted more than just an educational group, where I’m telling them how to keep their drawers in order,” he says. “I think that that would have bombed with some of the complexities that were taking place in each individual’s life, as well as the workload that they’re managing. So as much as I want to be able to put things in a box, there had to be some latitude and flexibility with the way that the groups were structured and run.”
Fehr did ask participants to commit to challenging themselves. And Ruiz echoes the importance of commitment to the group as well.
“Sometimes you feel like you really don’t have the time for it, but we felt committed as a group,” she says. “We were accountable to each other to show up.”
And while that commitment was crucial, just as important in creating the right environment was the authenticity of Crerar’s intention.
The Leader Must Be Vulnerable
Both Crerar and Fehr seemed to understand they had to walk the walk in order to truly make this work. Ruiz says knowing that Crerar believed in the value of group counseling made it easier to take on. For Crerar, his own experience was, in fact, the impetus for action. “I was feeling isolated,” he says. “I was feeling sort of dark at times when I wasn’t normally dark. So I knew that there was something there.”
He describes the worry—about staff, about daily operational decisions being made based on safety protocols that changed overnight.
“I’ll make a decision today, and I may have new information tomorrow,” he says. “And if I have to make a new decision tomorrow, I just have to. But it’s been hard. It’s hard to do that in a vacuum. It’s hard to do that in your little office at home.
“If I could take the lead on this, then this was a good thing for everybody. Because if I admit to myself that I’m not feeling great, they’ll admit to it. I hope.”
Fehr, as well, felt the situation required him to engage on a personal level, to disclose information about himself that he might not normally reveal. “Otherwise,” he says, “I would have just been that jerk sitting there trying to teach them about something, and they already pretty much got the lesson.”
Take anxiety, he says. “I could never start talking with any level of confidence about anxiety if I, myself, haven’t really done some work on me.” When the discussion turned to racial equality, he shared his own experiences with racial injustices and tension as a black man with white, Jewish parents. “There has to be that level of comfortability that’s extended,” he says. “And that happens through disclosure.”
With that level of comfort, the group participants were able to engage.
Ruiz says that, from those staff who participated, she has heard only positive feedback. “I almost wish we could do it again for others,” she says. She sees one of the biggest takeaways as the opportunity to connect with colleagues during a time of isolation, and she has found new relationships with colleagues she has worked with for years but never felt personally connected to. “It kind of just took it to a whole new level of appreciation, like as humans,” she says.
The Council as Incubator
The Council has a full benefits program with an EAP (employee assistance program) that staff can access, so why take the risk of bringing in a therapist and asking people to dig deeper?
“I was testing it,” Crerar says. “We get to test things here. We can try them and see how they work, and we can tweak them. And that’s what I wanted to do here.”
Crerar sees The Council, which is a not-for-profit association, as an incubator for ideas. “We can explore ideas in ways that other people can’t, because we’re not looking at it for a profit,” he says. “Whether it’s minority financing or launching the magazine or doing away with PTO, we’ve changed the environment.”
Referring to The Council’s hybrid system of returning to the office, he says, “And we continue to test things now.”
In this way, The Council becomes its own safe space for member executives to explore ideas on a smaller scale. “They’re not talking to a competitor,” Crerar says. “They’re talking to somebody who understands their business well enough to figure out the nuances, because nuances are what really make the difference. I want that to be a safe place.”
There’s no topic more appropriate for safe space incubation than diversity and inclusion, which the insurance industry has long struggled with. The Council began focusing on diversity and inclusion as a strategic priority back in 2018, with working sessions for its board, research and reporting in Leader’s Edge, participation in the global Dive In: Festival for Diversity in Inclusion in Insurance, and D&I workshops for members. But at the time, according to Ruiz, there was little traction.
“We offered DE&I workshops two or three years ago with really no take-up,” she says. But, she adds, things have changed. “In the past year, it’s been very high demand. People ask about DE&I all the time. They’re reaching out for resources. Basic employee training is what a lot of people are looking for right now.”
There’s no denying the George Floyd murder sparked office conversations everywhere that ran the gamut from personal awakening to D&I efforts at work. The Council was no different.
“It’s very real,” Ruiz says. “Last summer, the George Floyd murder was the impetus…. We’re talking to our members about progressing the industry in this area, and the whole world was talking about it. So we needed to put in the work ourselves. We can’t be making recommendations to our members and tracking what they’re doing and reporting on what they’re doing and not look at ourselves. We’re all in the same system that needs help.”
The Council formed an internal DE&I committee made up of diverse staff from across departments. The committee was challenged with identifying gaps, gathering insights and making actionable recommendations to develop a more inclusive culture.
It wasn’t easy. As Ruiz explains, the nature of the work does not lend itself to quick wins. “It’s just so hard, because it’s such a long-term play that it feels slow. And for me, I’m very results oriented, so it can be discouraging at times when it feels like we’re not moving fast enough.
“I think one of the biggest challenges for all the type of work that we’re doing internally here is that people generally feel like it’s an add-on to their job as opposed to a part of everyone’s job. It’s hard to think about the long-term impacts of this work when you’re just adding one more meeting to your calendar for things that aren’t on your job description. It’s also a challenge for people to know if it’s worth it. Is this real? Are we going to make an impact? Is the leadership going to listen to our recommendations? Is this going to be taken seriously? Or is this just an exercise?”
To help combat those very real barriers to success, Ruiz says, two things were critical. “I did make sure that Ken was fully committed, that he was going to take any recommendations that come out of this committee seriously, and that staff know that he is in support of this.”
Start Small with DE&I
After conducting a staff survey in partnership with a third party and developing a set of priorities, the committee has decided to focus initially on two issues. The first is equity of communication and ensuring that all staff, no matter what level of employee, have equal access to information.
“Access to information is an equity issue that can lead to opportunities for some, but if you don’t know what’s going on and you don’t have access to information, how can you contribute?” Ruiz says.
The other focus is employee recognition. The Council is an organization of about 40 people, and only some of those are member-facing individuals. There are many folks grinding away in our D.C. office, running the association, who are never recognized publicly. Ruiz wants that to change—“making sure we all understand how each other’s roles are important to the overall mission and highlighting the people and the work that people are doing so that everyone really understands the contributions are valuable.”
The group intentionally chose two tactical areas to start with because they seemed tangible, and Ruiz believes other firms could employ the same strategy. “I think it’s so intimidating for every company that tries to do this—to think about changing your whole recruitment strategy and changing all of your operating principles,” she says. “So each one of these seemed like, ‘I can work on that.’ And that approach seems just so much more manageable, just chipping away.
“I see most firms really just struggling with how to get started. It’s very overwhelming. People feel the need to do something, which I think is good. But there’s this fear. I see a lot of, ‘How do I start? Where do I start?’ And, ‘I’m very afraid to do something wrong.’ So how do we get beyond that?”
She admits that she doesn’t have the answers, but she is energized by the renewed member interest in this topic and investment in moving forward.
Crerar, as well, believes the journey is just beginning. “We’re learning. And it’s a very personal journey that you have to go on. It’s not a set of corporate rules that fix things. It’s one of those real challenging areas. I don’t think we have the answer yet. Our members have asked us some questions, and we’ve been able to answer them honestly. I feel like we have a real role to play. But it’s not going to be the kind of role where we just fix things. This is an emotional journey that’s going to have to happen.”
Perhaps that is just what incubation is all about.