Why are so many employers reluctant to talk with their employees about the pervasive mental health crisis in the American workplace? According to Mental Health America’s Mind the Workplace 2022 Report, only one-third of employees say their company leadership speaks openly about mental health and well-being. But at Levi Strauss & Company (LS&Co), they’re setting the gold standard for transparency and taking responsibility for employee mental health.
In the last few years, LS&Co has moved employee well-being and mental health to the forefront of business. The company believes it’s on them to respond to the need to prioritize the mental health and well-being of their employees. And that’s just for starters. This forward thinking organization is doing what most company leaders are afraid to do: creating a human-centered work culture by talking openly about their own mental health challenges.
I sat down with Tracy Layney, LS&Co’s Senior Vice President and chief human resources officer, who explained how they are reshaping the company culture around mental health and workplace well-being. “If we’ve learned anything from the last few years, it’s that the old way of working just wasn’t working,” Layney told me. “The ‘always on’ mentality contributes to burnout, no matter the level in your career. This unprecedented time we are living through has inspired and kicked off the important conversations surrounding mental health and well-being and how we as employers can support our employees.”
She acknowledged that employees bring their whole selves to the workplace and spoke about how LS&Co is building a holistic approach and understanding to mental health, including a culture rooted in empathy. Part of this includes sharing their own stories and struggles and being open with colleagues and teams, according to Layney. And here’s the story of the mental health challenge she shared with me:
“Many years ago, I went through the biggest mental health challenge of my career—I experienced severe burnout. For a long period of time, I was working non-stop, always on call and never had an off button. Like so many of us, this just seemed like what needed to be done at that stage of my career when I wanted to continue to grow and advance. But soon, the daily things I was doing to take care of myself mentally and physically were no longer working. This was new for me, as I always had a high capacity for work, and I was usually able to recover after intense periods. But eventually I hit a point where I was no longer recovering and began to feel the physical and mental tolls of extreme burnout. I realized the only way I would be able to fully recover was to take a step back and prioritize my mental well-being. So, I took a sabbatical and sacrificed potential career and financial growth to mentally and physically recover from burnout. It was the best decision I could have made both for myself and my family. But it wasn’t an easy one. I share my story because it shouldn’t get to this point for our employees. Since then, I’ve found ways to allow myself to succeed in my career, something I love and care deeply about but also stay healthy mentally and physically. From seeing a therapist, to getting enough exercise and sleep, to spending time with family and friends—we all need to prioritize our own mental health and well-being.”
I asked Layney what advice she would give an employee on the verge of burnout, and her answer was to do what she did—prioritize your mental health. “It’s hard to hear because you might think well, if I could do that I wouldn’t be here. And that’s how I certainly felt,” she explains. “But at that moment do whatever you need to do to get yourself back on track. If stress is building, get enough sleep, be with people who give you energy and don’t be afraid to walk away from the computer or turn off your phone. As a result of my personal experience, I’m an evangelist for small investments in the things you do every day to prevent burnout. We have moments in our days, weeks and years designed for recharging, and we should take advantage of them. I’m a big fan of reset, and it can happen in the middle of your day. If you’re in a stressful meeting even if you’re jumping on a Zoom call and you’re walking to your meeting or if you have a customer in the store, take two minutes or 90 seconds and do box breathing or walk around the block. In five minutes you can reset your nervous system and not take that stress with you into the next interaction.”
Layney said it’s the responsibility of employers to ensure that workers don’t have to choose between career growth or health. She stressed the importance of providing a workplace environment where employees can prioritize both their well-being and work. Here is what a human-centered work culture looks like at LS&Co:
- Investing in ongoing partnerships like the one they have with Thrive Global to provide resources and tools to manage stress, improve focus, strengthen connections with others and improve overall well-being.
- Providing accessible, always on resources: from Rally Wellness Coaching to virtual therapy through Talkspace, these tools can help dial down the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression and support employees as they work to prioritize their mental and physical health.
- Developing robust employee assistance programs: to provide immediate support from specialists to help with an array of issues including stress, anxiety, depression, financial or legal questions, marriage and parenting issues, substance abuse, and more.
- Making behavioral health and substance abuse plans available: to provide an employee benefits solution that can support access to the right care at the right time.
- Prioritizing paid leave policies and bereavement leave programs: to make sure no employee should have to choose between their job and taking care of themselves or their loved ones.
I asked Layney what advice she would give someone working for an organization that might view them unfavorably if they shared a mental health challenge. “We have been socialized not to talk about what’s going on with us, so we might assume others won’t be sympathetic,” she says. “Of course, there are work environments where people are not sympathetic, and we have to be realistic about that. But there are employers who are more sympathetic than you think, especially because in the corporate world we’ve been seeing in people’s houses for the last two years. We’ve seen their kids, their pets. Hopefully, you have an HR team that you can go to for help. If you’re in a mental health crisis, you need to ask for what you need. And if it’s an environment that doesn’t support that, I advise people to look for one that will.”
When I asked Layney what she would like to see in the future of work, she said the biggest mistake any company can make is to go back to old ways of thinking and working and pretend that it’s 2019 again. “We will have missed an incredible opportunity to make our workplaces stronger, healthier and more productive,” she noted. “Instead, what I hope for all of us is that we envision a better way of working and that people get satisfaction out of their work and integrate it into their lives in a way they get meaning out of the things that matter most to them— their family, their community, whatever personal passions they have and come to work every day and make a difference.”
In her parting thoughts, she told me, “This is the moment for companies to understand the implication of the mental health of their employees, make sure there’s meaningful work for everybody and that people feel a connection to their company. It’s important for talent acquisition and retention, which we’re all thinking about these days. It’s our time to make something different to help everybody—employees, shareholders, customers. It’s good for business and it’s good for society.”