Energy utility company Puget Sound Energy (PSE) regularly promotes health and safety among its employees. Like many industries, utilities are required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to provide regular training on safety and health concerns to reduce workplace injuries and protect worker health. Including mental health as a safety topic is important because of the effects that many mental conditions have on cognitive and functional abilities (Lam, Kennedy, McIntyre, & Khullar, 2014).
Adding mental health topics has worked well for PSE. The company has an internal staff member who serves as a liaison between departments to help leverage resources, get more people talking about mental health, and increase the kinds of help-seeking and resource utilization behaviors needed to make a difference. (See also Puget Sound Energy’s employer case study describing work to help medical professionals document the effects of mental health conditions on work performance.)
Collaborating with Corporate Safety and Wellness Programs
PSE’s Integrated Leaves & Accommodations program manager, Jenny Haykin, covers a number of areas that affect employee absence. These include short- and long-term disability management, disability accommodation, workers’ compensation, office ergonomics, medical case management, and the employee assistance program (EAP). Over the past several years, Haykin has collaborated with managers of both the safety program and the wellness program to enhance their communications related to mental health. Haykin, who has a master’s degree in organizational psychology/human resources, frequently works with employees who are struggling with mental conditions to help them remain, or return to being, productive team members. By partnering with the safety and wellness programs, Haykin has expanded her active outreach to employees who may be experiencing a mental illness.
At PSE, a required monthly safety video viewing has become a way to consistently deliver important messages to all employees and managers about issues that affect employee well-being. PSE brought a mental health focus to their video content and to their wellness communications. In doing so, they made talking about mental health issues easier, and they promoted the use of available mental health resources.
Each month, PSE’s safety program features an internally developed video that includes an active depiction of a situation related to the month’s targeted topic, as well as an interview with an employee or content expert who has experience on the topic. The video is shown at required monthly staff meetings for all employees and managers, and it is also available for online viewing. Haykin worked with the safety program managers on two videos on mental health topics shown several months apart.
The first video featured Haykin as a subject matter expert and covered the topic of stress. It included scenarios about eldercare and parenting and how these issues often interfere with work. Haykin provided self-care suggestions, as well as information about resources for assistance, including the company’s EAP.
Several months later, the safety topic was depression. The video included a manager who noticed an employee who had been showing signs of depression (e.g., uncharacteristic absence from work, missing deadlines, being disengaged during team meetings, having emotional outbursts). The manager meets with the employee, shares his observations, describes the company’s EAP as an important and effective resource, and asks whether he might make a call to the EAP so the employee can schedule an appointment to speak with a specialist (assuring the employee that their conversation will be private and confidential and will have no impact on the employee’s job performance appraisal). This strategy can help the employee understand the value of the EAP resource in their manager’s opinion and help reduce the employee’s reticence in taking an action step toward help.
In addition, the depression video included a segment with Haykin discussing accommodations that a manager might consider making for an employee who is struggling with mental health symptoms, such as providing written reminders if the person has difficulty remembering details or finishing tasks, reducing distractions, or adjusting schedules. Providing examples of accommodations can increase both the manager’s confidence and the employee’s comfort while participating in the accommodation process. For additional information about accommodations, see the Job Accommodation Network.
The video also promoted a program called Right Direction, a free online resource with educational information for employees and promotional materials for employers and EAPs. Right Direction was created by the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and an Ohio business coalition, Employers’ Health. Right Direction provides a depression screening tool, information about treatment, and wellness tips for staying mentally healthy. Haykin shared that “she is grateful that Right Direction is available to employers, since many don’t know where to begin.” Right Direction can fill that void. She has found the site easy to interface with and the variety of materials helpful.
PSE’s wellness program has provided brown-bag talks on other topics with benefits related to mental health, such as mindfulness, sleep, exercise, and nutrition. The company also included areas such as stress, financial fitness, and back pain in their wellness challenges. These challenges include participation incentives such as gift cards, prize drawings, and health benefit discounts.
The increased attention, communication, and activities focused on mental health have helped to raise awareness about the company’s EAP, which provides phone-based and face-to-face psychological, financial, and legal counseling as well as work/life concierge services (e.g., for assistance with plumbing, auto care, and pet sitting). Employees and family members may receive three free counseling sessions per issue each year.
Improving awareness about mental health and encouraging people to access information and interventions requires partnerships. Haykin says, “Partnering with our safety and wellness programs has been valuable because their messaging is very effective and really gets people’s attention.” She feels that the efforts have opened discussions about mental health among employees and supervisors and have helped reduced stigma for accessing accommodation and treatment services.
PSE’s work might encourage employers to:
Encourage departments, such as safety, wellness, and communications, to partner with the EAP in creating awareness about mental health.
Take advantage of free resources, such as the Job Accommodation Network, Right Direction, or those from community agencies, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America.
Designate a staff member to liaison between multiple departments that affect employee safety, health, and absence.
Haykin has been featured in several publications related to workplace mental health, and she is a columnist for @Work, a publication of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, where she provides advice on accommodations for employees whose work performance is affected by physical, sensory, or cognitive conditions.
Haykin’s father, Martin Haykin, who received recognition for 50 years in the American Psychiatric Association in 2016, passed away in February 2017 at the age of 88. He began his mental health career as a clinical psychologist, then earned his medical degree and had a psychiatric career in the Seattle area that spanned more than 4 decades. He retired at the age of 79.
About Puget Sound Energy
PSE is a Washington state energy utility that provides electrical power and natural gas primarily in the Puget Sound region of the northwest United States. The company employs over 2,900 people.
Nancy Spangler, PhD, OTR/L, president of Spangler Associates, Inc., and consultant to the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, is a health, performance, and leadership development specialist in the Kansas City, Missouri, area.
Lam, R. W., Kennedy, S. H., McIntyre, R. S., & Khullar, A. (2014). Cognitive dysfunction in major depressive disorder: Effects on psychosocial functioning and implications for treatment. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 59(12), 649–654.