Rarely has there been a more precarious time for employee mental health than the one we're experiencing in America right now. In just the past few weeks, employees' computer screens and social media accounts have been filled with traumatizing details of the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Fear and outrage about police brutality have become widespread as more people capture and share it on video. And all this just as people are still reeling from the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Employees who have had to adjust to new vulnerabilities, uncertainties, and business practices from Covid-19 are now being re-traumatized through repeated exposure to images and threats of violence. For some, this moment is a wakeup call to make important and necessary changes, but for many, there is a cumulative deep emotional overload and exhaustion. Coping with these two huge social forces in the context of social distancing and greater financial uncertainty leaves people feeling frightened. How do companies help their employees process these powerful experiences? 

Even before the ominous events of 2020, employee mental well-being was under siege. From 2000 to 2016, the United States experienced a 30 percent increase in suicides, making it the 10th largest cause of death. A report from Blue Cross Blue Shield found that rates of depression went up 33 percent from 2013 to 2016. Most cases of depression were found among 35- to 49-year-olds, key working years in most adults' lives. 

In this new world, you can't manage employee well-being through a top-down mandate ordering or incentivizing compliance. The opposite is needed. We call it "Movement Think." The difference is between "top-down leadership" ("Do this because I tell you to do it") and "cross-company leadership" ("Let's do this because we all want to do it -- because it's something that really matters to us, all the employees"). 

At StrawberryFrog, we believe the most effective leadership comes through activating purpose with "Movement Think," which is when leaders use the principles of societal movements to engage consumers (Movement Outside) or employees (Movement Inside). Movement Think connects companies with important currents in the broader culture and can mobilize business stakeholders in the same way societal movements mobilize millions of our fellow citizens. Despite the differences between private enterprises and society, leaders can learn from how movements engage the masses to institutionalize new mindsets and social behaviors.

CEOs, CMOs, and increasingly CHROs can ignite a "movement," especially in times of crisis, to mobilize employees and consumers. This is the moment for HR leaders to ignite a "movement" as a unified experience. Everyone has a sense of vulnerability to illness, loss, and an uncertain future. While some individuals are relatively insulated from direct risk, there is a sense of "we" that can help reduce shame and foster a culture of mutual support and compassion for those struggling through this cultural moment. This is especially true if that support is coming from management in palpable ways.

CEOs know their businesses depend on HR leaders more than ever to ensure a new kind of engagement with employees that succeeds where traditional employee communications do not. An innovative employee wellness movement can give company leaders and internal teams a powerful new tool to deal with these issues. This should enable collaboration among department heads, and give employees a sense of belonging and the feeling that they matter; their concerns are heard and are being taken seriously. Employees should feel that they can trust and be part of the process, and that they are being given choices and the power to support one another along the way. 

How bad could it get? 

We're in a time of mental anguish caused by recognition of systemic racism, barraged by evidence of police brutality and mourning the deaths of people of color and Covid victims. Covid remains ominously present in our daily lives. During this time clinicians, hotlines, and EAPs are reporting high rates of fear, uncertainty, grief, loneliness, and exhaustion. These feelings, especially because they are now becoming chronic, lead to greater risk of clinical depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide, and substance abuse. These lead to higher rates of disability, reduced productivity, and low employee morale. Unlike many disasters, this one is protracted. We can expect that there will also be a delayed emotional response, and that rates of mental health struggles will continue to surface for months after a vaccine is found.

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. The feelings that transform an experience of challenge into one of trauma are these: feeling alone, helpless, hopeless, confused, shocked, invisible, not mattering, and ashamed. When people are emotionally well, or mentally healthy, they exhibit these qualities: connected, creative, confident, calm, curious, courageous, compassionate, and clear. 

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Source: Richard Schwartz, founder, Internal Family Systems Therapy, eight "c" qualities of mental health

An employee wellness movement with a focus on mental health will:

1. Address and alleviate the feelings that cause suffering and disability

2. Foster the qualities that support mental health

What makes this challenging? 

Stigma for mental health problems is powerful. Many still fear they will be seen as weak, a failure, or defective if they acknowledge having mental health issues, which leads to shame and a reluctance to seek help. People often hide their struggles, which puts them at risk. Sociologist Erving Goffman defined stigma as a sense of "spoiled identity that you cannot wash off." People fear that their reputation will permanently suffer if they are seen as needing help. Companies need to explicitly address stigma and provide privacy and confidentiality in order for new programs and initiatives to be effective. Research about reducing stigma clearly demonstrates the value of leadership in sharing stories of vulnerability in order to shift the culture within an organization. 

The key to reducing stigma and fostering a culture of mutual support and compassion is communication and connection. This is where designing a movement inside your organization among your employees comes in. Your company's engagement and communication style can make or break relationships with employees. Many companies are messaging employees to inform them about well-being programs and resources. The problem is that most employees tune these messages out. Thirty percent of employees admit they don't read email from their employers, according to APPrise. Only 13 percent report using their company's intranet daily, and 31 percent admit they have never used it, according to Prescient Digital Media.

Why don't employees pay more attention? Companies don't put the same effort into internal engagement and communication as they do externally to customers and prospects. They tend to lead with a company-centric message versus an employee-centric one, with lackluster creative delivered in channels that few employees actually use. 

One leader who understands this is Adam Stavisky, SVP of U.S. benefits, Walmart. He sought to evolve culture to be nimble, innovative, and associates-centered. Over the course of several months, his team worked with StrawberryFrog to learn about the needs of everyone, from store associates to the logistics workers to management. Together we defined and distilled the strategy, paring it down to two simple words: "Better Living." "We are working successfully to reinvent how we engage our associates around benefits, comp, and performance. We launched the 'Better Living' movement inside the organization with innovative new channels for Walmart to engage and motivate the company's 1.5 million associates in the U.S. The new associate wellness movement connects employees to the larger purpose and activates them at a grassroots level to participate," says Stavisky. 

Jon Freier, EVP of consumer markets for T-Mobile, has made it his personal mission as a leader at the company to open up the conversation around mental health, addressing both the realities as well as some of the stigmas. He acknowledges that his retail department of more than 37,000 employees is dealing with a lot of stressors right now. "You can't just turn your emotions on or off when you log on for work -- we need to remember that while it used to seem taboo to talk about tough topics in the workplace, right now, we have a responsibility as leaders to create a safe space to open up the dialogue and LISTEN, especially for our Black community. The more we listen and learn, the better we can support our peers and make changes to improve, because we can always do better." Jon hosts town halls with the over 5,000 managers on his team to make sure this approach is cascaded throughout the organization at a regional level.

Financial stress

Another area of concern is financial stress -- a major cause of mental health anxiety. A leader who understands this is Susan Somersille Johnson, the CMO of SunTrust, now Truist, one of the largest financial companies in the nation, resulting from the historic merger uniting SunTrust and BB&T. Working closely with her we designed the "onUp Movement," which was launched as a national effort to help people move from financial stress to financial confidence and now boasts nearly six million participants at onUp.com. This includes Momentum onUp, a workplace financial well-being program used by more than 200 companies, including the Home Depot, Waffle House, and Delta, to improve the financial stability of their employees. "The onUp Movement has empowered people to confront a taboo topic, money," says Johnson. "Businesses are making it part of their benefits programs, and people are sharing the resources and their stories. Our goal is to help people take control of their finances so they can enjoy the moments that matter to them most."

To help leaders deal with these issues, we have developed a better way. Movement Inside is about connecting with employees at a grassroots level with communications they want to engage with. Three principles for successfully mobilizing a Movement Inside:


There's a tendency in employee engagement and communications to start with what is an intended message, and then tailor it to the audience. Instead, always start with the employee and what they need. Then determine what to say and how to interact. Start with a mental health assessment to understand where your employees are and where they want to be. Then actively listen to your employees with a willingness to change based on what you hear. The design for the Mental Health Movement is built from listening to employee needs. 


Employees are used to seeing high-quality communications on TV, online, etc. As a result, dull, basic communications coming at them from their own company fail to engage. The key is to develop creative ideas and communications that engage employees emotionally. Select channels on the basis of employees' habits and preferences. Where needed, do executive and manager training on effective mental health.


The most relevant communication will fail to connect with employees if it's delivered at a place and time that's not relevant. Employers typically don't use the channels employees use most -- for example, employees are 75 percent more likely to watch a video than read text. It's best to pilot the Movement Inside campaign and make adjustments based on learnings. Launch across the entire organization. Monitor and evaluate progress.

Nothing's more important than your employees' mental health. And this time of uncertainty and vulnerability makes it clear that changing how you engage with employees for greater mental health impact must become a priority. A "movement inside" will help you develop greater employee engagement, reduce mental health stigma, and ultimately provide tools and solutions to support your employees' everyday mental well-being.