HOMECase Studies Delta Air Lines
U.S. Headquarters
Atlanta, GA
Number of Employees
80,000
Industry
Transportation and Warehousing

Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines Keeps Climbing and Caring

Delta Air Lines (Delta) began serving commercial passenger flights in 1929 with planes that could carry five passengers and one pilot. Over 85 years, Delta has expanded in the jet age to eventually become the global airline we are familiar with today (Delta Air Lines, 2011). This global reach includes nearly 60 countries and every time zone. The nature of the business at Delta keeps workers engaged around the clock, whether at reservation call centers or at maintenance and training sites, or as pilots and flight attendants in the air. The span of roles at Delta and the continuous, 24-7 nature of its work makes maintaining healthy support systems for both mental and physical health of the utmost importance. The value Delta places on people is core to its supportive and meaningful work environment and the rationale for the numerous benefits and programs that support its workers.

People-First Values

Delta’s CEO, Richard Anderson, since his arrival in 2007 has been continuing Delta’s vision as a values-based organization. Anderson’s often shared phrase, “People make the difference,” is indicative of the workplace culture’s strong core values and is reflected in the care shown for people both internal and external to Delta. The focus on people is not only stated, but is built into basic business principles captured in the “Rules of the Road” value statement at Delta. The values and principles play out across the organization and are intended, in part, to keep the employees safe and engaged (Delta, n.d., pp. 4,6). Delta has a variety of health programs and other support programs that help create a work environment that reinforces employees’ safety and engagement.

The company has long supported the mental health of its employees. Delta was recognized by the Washington Business Group on Health (2000) as an example of a large employer who had generous or near-parity levels of mental health and substance use disorder benefits through their employer-sponsored plan, long before the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. Whether there is a medical condition, disability, or short-term challenge facing an employee, Delta’s support focuses on the person and finding ways for the employee to stay engaged in work.

Delta continues to engage its employees to maintain health at a variety of levels that include prevention, early intervention, and more active interventions. These three levels are seen as being on a continuum of health, and when addressed by organizations systemically, they can be indispensable in safeguarding long-term organizational health and stability, which reinforces employee health and engagement (Spangler, Koesten, Fox, & Radel, 2012). Prevention includes the organization’s core values and supportive culture, as well as peer support. Early interventions include referrals to the employee assistance program (EAP) or other education mechanisms. Active interventions are for more serious situations that require disability leave or disease management. What is striking in the case of Delta is how well connected these various health interventions and programs are, creating a fluid process for the employee – the person – who may be facing a health challenge at work. Jennifer Shay, Delta’s program manager for health plans, joined the team because of the, “palpable sense that ‘people first’ is the base of every decision across Delta.”

There are multiple ways that Delta communicates about the services available to its employees. In addition to using the company’s intranet site, Delta produces a mailer twice a year, as well as a quarterly benefit communications newsletter to remind employees about benefits and the EAP. In addition, flyers are available and can be requested by any of the Delta sites. Meetings with supervisors and leaders are another means of communicating these health programs. Following are a few of the program highlights and how they overlap to create a people-centered approach.

Employee Assistance Program

Delta’s EAP is focused on a deep understanding of Delta’s business and culture. Delta received the inaugural Behavioral Health Award for its EAP program during the 2007 Joint Forum on Health, Productivity, and Absence, presented by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) and the Integrated Benefits Institute. After 15 years of an internal EAP model, Delta shifted to an external model in 2006, yet the focus on Delta’s culture and values remained consistent throughout the transition (National Business Group on Health, 2007). Delta’s conscious focus on its people is kept at the forefront through training of key EAP staff assigned to Delta by its EAP provider, Optum Behavioral Solutions (Optum), part of UnitedHealth Group.

Shay suggests that one noteworthy feature of Delta’s EAP service is that from the first call, master’s-level behavioral health clinicians are on the other end of the line. These clinicians serve as a single point of entry within the EAP for all behavioral health concerns from employees or their family members. While employees can access their mental health benefits directly with their providers, in the first call to the EAP, a clinician talks through the caller’s concerns and challenges and helps to triage what follow-up is needed through the EAP, behavioral health and substance use disorder benefits, or work/life services. (Work/life services include concierge services related to finances, day care, and parenting, as well as a host of other topics.) Shay said this arrangement allows the EAP to begin therapeutic services using a solution-focused consultation approach immediately, and 33% of cases are resolved on the first call. This approach helps avoid transferring a potentially distressed person to another professional and making the caller explain his or her story a second time.

Delta’s EAP services include:

  • Coverage for the employee, dependents, and any household members

  • Unlimited phone consultations with master’s-level clinicians

  • Unlimited phone consultations related to work/life services

  • Three free face-to-face (or telephonic, if desired) counseling visits per issue per year

  • EAP clinicians who are trained to know the Delta culture and the full scope of benefits Delta provides in order to better facilitate getting callers to the appropriate help

  • When an employee or a family member is referred to a provider in the community for face-to-face counseling, those providers are in network with Delta’s medical plan through UnitedHealthcare and can continue a therapeutic relationship through mental health benefits after the three EAP visits are exhausted. This allows for a smooth transition of support for employees who require additional therapeutic sessions (National Business Group on Health, 2007).

  • For those who leave employment with Delta, there is continued availability of EAP services for an additional 18 months.

Management Consultants: Delta has three Optum team members who have detailed understanding of Delta’s culture, operations, and benefit programs and who act as management consultants dedicated exclusively to Delta employees. Delta is one of two organizations that have an arrangement for dedicated Optum management consultants. The management consultants provide unlimited consultations with Delta leaders and supervisors on topics such as identifying and managing troubled employees and learning to provide clear, constructive, and timely feedback. They also go onsite four times a year to various locations to educate leaders about available resources.

The management consultants provide case management of mandatory referrals to the EAP or occupational or disability management services. These referrals, often related to incidents of substance use, are case managed to ensure the best possible outcomes for the employee. The management consultant provides support and follows the case, working in conjunction with Delta’s various teams, including occupational health, disability, and leave management, to facilitate the process and to support the employee’s return to work and beyond.

Other noteworthy EAP services are:

  • Critical Incident Stress Debriefings: Customized onsite responses to events causing psychological stress for work locations, such as the death of an employee or workforce changes, are also available through the EAP provider.

  • Training: Supervisors and employees have access to a catalog of hundreds of online or onsite trainings on topics such as building a successful team, coping with the stress of caregiving, and mindful living. Trainers are dispatched to the location to deliver the requested training through the EAP training services program.

  • Online Behavioral Resources: Many of the resources that focus on recovery and resiliency can be found on the Optum online site, which has been customized for Delta’s specific resources. A search capability for behavioral health clinicians is also available online.

With Delta’s focus on communication and its comprehensive people-centered approach, utilization of EAP services has increased and remained steady since implementation of Delta’s new EAP model. John Early, Delta’s general manager of productivity management, indicated that 65% of calls by employees to the EAP in 2012 were related to behavioral health concerns, such as stress, marital situations, or major depression (Early, Lee, & Nash-Wright, 2012). Overall, Delta has seen substantial resolution of behavioral health calls that were made through the EAP and that did not require additional care through other health benefits (see Table 2).

Peer Support

Delta provides extra support for employees through employee resource groups (ERGs) and a peer support program for flight attendants. ERGs provide employees with peer support through shared characteristics or life experiences and are often focused on career growth and engagement.

According to Diversity Best Practices (n.d.), the top five ERGs in U.S. companies are the following:

  1. Women

  2. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender

  3. Multicultural Women and Men

  4. Military Veterans

  5. People with Disabilities

In addition to these ERGs, Diversity Best Practices’ benchmarking and assessment companies also include: generational, working parents, religious, and single parents groups. Delta has all of these groups to support its diverse employee population.

Delta’s In Flight Services (IFS) Peer Support Program, available to Delta flight attendants, is akin to an ERG and a mentoring program but differs in that it is geared more specifically to the emotional support of flight attendants. IFS includes volunteer flight attendants who are selected as leaders and trained by the EAP behavioral health clinicians. The IFS volunteers can be sought out by flight attendant employees who are navigating challenges they may face in their duties. Flight attendants who are in need may reach out to the volunteers at any time. Moreover, outreach happens in the other direction after critical issues arise during a flight, such as security or medical issues involving passengers onboard. When this happens, a call is made by the volunteers to check in with their affected colleagues to offer support and remind them that they can access additional assistance through the EAP.

The IFS Peer Support Program team recognizes that the challenges faced by the more than 20,000 Delta flight attendants are unique and that the ability to speak with others who have faced the same or similar matters can reduce stress. The IFS program volunteers are knowledgeable about the EAP’s offerings and, when needed, will refer the colleague to the EAP or will call together to get additional assistance. The availability of the IFS Peer Support Program is reinforced to flight attendants through benefits fairs that occur nationwide.

Behavioral Health Leave and Accommodations

When challenges faced by employees cannot be fully addressed through the EAP, then mental health and substance use disorder benefits, absence management, and accommodation processes come into play. Early, Lee, and Nash-Wright (2012) collected data about the prevalence of behavioral or substance use disorder claims among Delta’s short-term and long-term disability claims. Their findings are summarized in Table 3.

Delta is dedicated to keeping employees engaged and/or facilitating their return to work after a leave is necessary. Early shared that while there is a subjective nature to behavioral health conditions and how work functionality is determined, Delta has a thorough approach to finding solutions when possible. To maintain consistency in reviewing accommodation requests, Delta uses what is called an Interactive Accommodation Discussion process, which fulfills compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirement for an “interactive process.” The aims of the discussion are to address limitations that impact the employee and to explore what accommodations might be made that allow the core duties of the role to be completed. Delta accomplishes this consistent approach through a review process that includes the employee, a representative of Sedgwick (Delta’s disability administrator), the employee’s leader or supervisor, a designated Delta division contact for accommodations, and a human resources generalist. For Delta, a challenge in providing some accommodations is the need to meet Federal Aviation Administration qualifications for various roles (Early, Lee, & Nash-Wright, 2012).

Following are common examples of accommodations for employees with behavioral health conditions such as depression and anxiety (Early, Lee, & Nash-Wright, 2012):

  • Allow the employee to work from home during part of the day or week.

  • Provide temporary part-time work schedules to address reduced stamina.

  • Reduce distractions in the work area.

  • Provide written instructions and/or written minutes from meetings.

  • Divide large tasks/projects into smaller steps with timelines.

  • Increase communication for those having difficulty handling change.

  • Provide more frequent feedback on expectations and performance.

The availability of accommodations can depend on the employee’s job duties and the specific request and can vary dramatically depending on the role, e.g., the role of a flight attendant or pilot is dramatically different from that of an office worker. Working from home would not allow the primary duties of the role to be fulfilled for a pilot or flight attendant, while it might be available to an office worker.

Early, Lee, and Nash-Wright (2012) noted that some requests may be either too vague or too generalized to be accommodated, such as “no stress at work,” return to work only with a change in supervisor or department, or a restriction to no more than two hours of work per week. In addition, periodic reviews of the effectiveness of the accommodations, particularly those required in an ongoing basis, should be made. The Delta EAP management consultants are available to help supervisors as they navigate these various services and conversations with their employees.

Delta’s story is a great example of how the culture and values of an organization can work through a range of supportive programs across the organization. Keeping people first motivated Delta to look for ways to coordinate efforts so that its EAP, peer support, and productivity and disability management processes function better to support the health of its employees.

What Employers Can Take Away

Many large companies like Delta have several benefits and programs available to their employees. Having a clear path between the various programs and benefits can help employees utilize the programs and get help when they need it.

  • Consider creating employee resource groups to allow for peer support within your organization.

  • Have champions or consultants in place who help employees navigate the various programs your organization has available to facilitate distressed employees’ return to health and productivity.

  • Work with your EAP to determine if there can be a coordinated approach with your leave management program to support those on leave for disability and facilitate their return to work.

  • Be sure to implement an interactive process related to accommodations and include multiple stakeholders to find the best solution. Communicate at the onset that periodic review of accommodations will occur to assess their effectiveness and determine whether they are still required.

  • Review the Job Accommodation Network’s Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Mental Health Impairments for ideas about accommodations that may be useful in keeping your employees who face mental health challenges engaged and productive.

About Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines (Delta) serves nearly 165 million customers each year. With headquarters in Atlanta, GA, Delta is an industry-leading global network offering service to 322 destinations in 59 countries on six continents. Delta employs nearly 80,000 employees worldwide and operates a mainline fleet of more than 700 aircraft. Including its worldwide alliance partners, Delta offers customers more than 15,000 flights a day.

Kate A. Burke, MA, is the former associate director for the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, is currently a Senior Training and Development Specialist at Greenleaf Integrative Strategies, and can be reached at kate.burke@greenleaf-is.com.

Last Updated: October 2014

Contact Company Representative

Jennifer Shay, Program Manager — Health Plans
404.714.4832
jennifer.shay@delta.com

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