“r u ok?” signifies three simple words, but the meaning proves much greater for partners and staff at EY. The r u ok? campaign is a mental illness and addictions initiative that weaves together the organization’s culture of caring and mental health values. The initiative aims to build awareness about mental illness and addictions, remove stigma, and show those who are struggling that they are supported. More important, the “r u ok?” question opens meaningful, nonintrusive conversations about helpful, firm resources.
EY, formerly known as Ernst & Young, is a global firm headquartered in London that provides assurance, tax, transaction, and advisory services. EY Americas is based in New York City. With 45,000 U.S. employees, the firm aims to build a better working world for the clients and communities they serve by providing high-quality services and building trust and confidence in capital markets and economies worldwide. The company supports a high-performance teaming, peer-to-peer environment.
Culture of Caring
The r u ok? initiative falls under EY Assist, EY’s employee assistance program (EAP). From providing academic coaching to helping employees find an avenue to parenting, EY Assist offers an array of benefits and resources to help simplify U.S. partners’ and staff’s lives. The firm’s 40-year EAP existence grew from a caring culture. The r u ok? initiative “naturally became another part of the network,” explained Sandra Turner, PhD, director of EY Americas Talent Team, Total Rewards, and EY Assist. While EY has had a proactive and highly respected internally managed EAP for many years, they were looking for ways to creatively reach people and to actively give permission to have conversations about personal experiences with mental health and addiction conditions. Dr. Turner further detailed how addressing mental health and addictions at EY is consistent with its culture of inclusiveness and diversity.
Development and Implementation of r u ok?
The inspiration for the initiative arose during the CEO Summit on Mental Health in the Workplace held in October 2015 in New York City. The Summit was co-hosted by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Partnership for Workplace Health with the Northeast Business Group on Health, the New York City Metro chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Kennedy Forum. The impetus of r u ok? developed from both leadership and peer efforts. Planning for r u ok? began in December 2015, with an interdepartmental team that included EY Assist, leadership, human resources (referred to as the Talent Team), the communications department, the General Counsel’s Office, the diversity and inclusion team, and the training and development team, with assistance from NAMI, all strategizing together.
As the design team convened, they strongly considered what message they wanted to convey and how they would disseminate it. They researched other similar initiatives. Everyone quickly resonated with the question “r u ok?” “It was very important to have many viewpoints included in the planning. This broad group of stakeholders offered valuable insights for the development, deployment, and promotion of the initiative,” says Turner.
The question then became: How do you convey the message to 45,000 partners and staff located in 99 offices and an additional number of virtual work stations across the country? With an audience of leaders, Talent Team members, concerned peers, and the broader population, it would be inefficient to meet face to face with 45,000 partners and staff in 99 offices. Promoting a single “mental health awareness day” would not reach all of these individuals. E-learning would reach more people, and they could participate at their convenience, but would it be impactful? Eventually, the design team settled on a multifaceted approach that would rollout over a 12-month period.
First, e-learnings that contained interactive components about signs, symptoms, interventions, and resources for mental illnesses and addictions were developed for (1) leaders, (2) Talent Team members, and (3) concerned peers. These e-learnings were developed jointly by the EY design team and Xerox (EY’s Learning and Development vendor) and were launched in mid-September. They targeted the e-learnings with “advocates” initially before it was officially launched firmwide. The trainings were intended to gain these individuals’ support and features EY Americas U.S. Chairman Steve Howe and EY Vice-Chair of Talent Carolyn Slaski to demonstrate leadership’s support of r u ok? Those who complete the e-learning trainings are encouraged to add the r u ok? hotlink to their electronic signature. That link connects to the EY Assist website, where there is a wealth of information on related issues.
The r u ok? campaign launched firmwide on October 3, 2016, in recognition of Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 2-8). Everyone was encouraged to participate in one of the e-learnings. Also, local events took place in major EY offices, including Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Secaucus, and Raleigh. Local and regional leaders (office managing partners) were prepared through an extensive development effort by the planning team to be hosts of the meetings and spokespersons on mental health topics. The meetings were facilitated by local members of EY’s AccessAbilities professional network group and the office managing partners each worked in advance on a very authentic story about their experience with mental illness, either personally or through a family member or colleague. This allowed for the meetings to feel more personal rather than like just another corporate program. Each region was provided with contact information for local resources, such as NAMI, and EY Assist also participated to provide information about internal resources offered by the EAP. Hosts were also provided with links to the e-learnings (one for leaders, one for Talent Team members, and one for concerned peers), town hall meeting scripts, articles, links to resources, posters, banners, and peer videos. At least 12 local events are planned in other cities, starting in April 2017 and running through October 2017.
Articles in EY’s daily online newsletters took a deeper dive into depression, anxiety, and addictions. They included links to tools and resources. Posters and banners were circulated in all EY offices, and a mental health awareness exhibit was featured for 1 day each week at the New York City headquarters during October 2016 for Mental Health Awareness Month.
The r u ok? Conversation
In no way does the initiative imply that one should confront another person with the question, “r u ok?” just because someone is having a bad day. Indeed, there is a protocol covering how to go about asking the question. The main steps that a concerned co-worker is trained to take are the following: (1) Notice signs of change in the individual who needs help. (2) Ask “r u ok?“ to start the conversation, and see whether this opens up the topic for further discussion. (3) Listen for key information that helps you gain perspective about the situation; this includes what is not said. Finally, (4) act to remedy matters by involving EY Assist or firm leadership to foster a conversation in a responsible way and get the individual/team the help they need. The role of anyone who leads the conversation is not to diagnose but rather to express care and concern when someone has shown a pattern of change in behavior.
Success and Future
With the initiative in full effect as of October 3, 2016, it continues to be supported by national and regional newsletter communications and local meetings hosted by office managing partners and facilitated by the AccessAbilities professional network group. The response has been tremendous.
As recent as mid-May, 2017, “r u ok?” had close to 50,000 touchpoints, which included completed e-learnings, hits on the electronic daily news, views of the campaign videos, EY Assist cases, hits on the EY Assist website, and attendance at local and virtual events. The firm will measure success by the increase in EY Assist requests for help, increase in management consultations by EY Assist, increase in accommodations related to behavior health, and recognition as an employer of choice by Fortune; Working Mother; Diversity, Inc.; and so forth.
Lori Golden, EY America’s Talent Team abilities strategy leader, discusses the initial outcome of EY’s ability to talk about mental health openly and frankly: r u ok? is “caring about people as well as achieving business goals.” Most rewarding for Lori is that so many people are saying they are grateful that “my organization has the courage to do this.”
Both Turner and Golden expressed gratitude for the positive response and quick uptake of this initiative. EY Vice-Chair of Talent Carolyn Slaski had this to say, “I am very proud of and impressed by the impact of r u ok? We have a unique responsibility to promote a culture of caring through one-on-one actions with our teams. I believe that r u ok? allows us to pay such attention to our people’s individual wellbeing by starting the dialog in a safe, non-confrontational way. It can really make a difference for someone in need.” In addition, they remain optimistic about its continued success.
For those looking to start or revise their workplace mental health and addictions programs, Turner emphasizes the following:
Take the time to bring together a diverse planning team, including legal, human resources, communications, employee resource groups, and other organizational partners.
Everyone’s buy-in is needed.
Include people who are willing to tell their stories—tell the stories of individuals who have been through treatment who are healthy and stable or have family members who have been through this. The stories are so powerful.
Reach out to local mental health organizations who can provide local resource information and speak about the importance of workplace mental health programming as an objective voice not employed by the company.
Consider starting with a small campaign, learning as you go, and adding new partners and features each year.
Ewuria Darley, MS, is the associate director of the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-907-8503.
Last Updated: May 2017