On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Sarah Grayson and Nyisha Holliday discuss via video conference
Revisiting employee benefits and policies with mental health in mind

“In conversation with On-Ramps'' is a series that captures some of the discussions we’ve had as we sort through issues facing today’s social sector hiring managers. In this edition, in honor of Mental Health Month, Sarah Grayson, On-Ramp’s Founding Partner, Nakia James-Jenkins, Partner at On-Ramps, and Nyisha Holliday, Chief Talent Officer at New York Cares, discuss how mental health benefits have become more important than ever during the Covid-19 crisis.

Sarah: How we support our employees in terms of their whole self, their mental health, and their well-being has always been core to On-Ramps. Balance is one of our core values and we recognize that the word “balance'' has a different meaning for everyone. We have worked diligently to define our commitment to establishing a flexible working environment that honors individual needs. Obviously, this last year with the global pandemic, with the racial violence and racial reckonings, it has created strains that I think we didn't imagine could be possible. With both of those things happening at the same time, it heightened our need to look at this and to provide more definition and support. 

Nyisha: The pandemic, coupled with racial reckoning, and the isolation of quarantine created a lot of stress for our staff. We, the New York Cares' leadership team, needed to decide what we were going to do and how we would show up for our people. We implemented Wellness Wednesdays which allowed staff to gather virtually and share their personal best practices for coping with the pandemic. Occasionally we conducted virtual wellness activities like taking a virtual group walk, or yoga. We also extended our Summer Fridays to include Mental Health Days. This was initially done on a trial basis, to get us through the summer of the pandemic. Instead of taking a half day on Fridays, once a month staff could take the full day off for the sole purpose of engaging in self-care. Mental Health Days got a lot of positive feedback. We later revamped Mental Health Days as Self-Care days and made them a permanent part of our leave policy. This ensures staff can take these days throughout the year.

Sarah: Modeling has been critical. Throughout the course of last year, with everything that was happening, we needed to let folks know that if they just needed to take a day off, they could. That is why we’ve instituted these policies. One of our partners did that very thing when the Breonna Taylor verdict was going to be announced. She made it clear that she was not going to be working that day and that that was why. That kind of modeling empowers others to do the same thing when they feel they need to.

Nyisha: To be effective, we needed to make sure that we were not only changing the policies, but that we were modeling the behaviors. 
Our most senior leaders participated in Wellness Wednesdays. We shared our challenges and coping methods. We didn't encourage staff to share their challenges, but the feedback indicated that our openness helped staff feel more comfortable. The Wellness Wednesdays helped staff to feel more connected even though we were virtual. We noticed there were a number of things that weren't making sense. Staff had vacation days, and seemed to be stressed, but they were not taking their days. We learned that there was guilt around taking vacation days while staff were working from home. We renamed vacation days, to personal time off to signal that staff could and should take time away from work for any reason. It was also important that leaders take their vacation and other time off. My Executive Director encouraged me to take the Mental Health Days that I had instituted. We were in turn able to encourage staff to take their time off.

Sarah: We also recognized that we needed to increase the number of personal mental health days that folks could take. There are days when you just need to be offline to take care of yourself. So we added to our annual leave three personal days that you can take for any reason. I also think there's value in a time when the whole organization is closed. We are closed between December 21st and the first of the year, every year, because we can all be offline. It’s also critical to realize that seeking mental health support is so challenging in our country. It's often stigmatized. It's hard to navigate. It is not covered effectively by many health care providers. Our term with our benefits provider was coming up for renewal, and we decided to really look more broadly at this because we didn't have what we considered the most robust mental health offerings. 

Nyisha: We also revisted our bereavement policy. We could not have imagined that multiple staff members would have multiple losses in the same year. So we changed our bereavement policy to per loss to per instance. We also realized that we needed to change the language that defined who someone's immediate family. Each person is different and their family makeup is different. So we changed the policy to allow staff to determine who their immediate family is for bereavement.

Sarah: Unfortunately, this year made us evaluate that particular policy as well. We made the same shift to a “family member by your definition.”  We are not here to judge how you determine family. 

Nakia: It doesn't even have to be a blood relative. We were intentional about naming this change for our team before any team member suffered a loss. Timing is an important factor in establishing more considerate policies.

Nyisha: It was also important for us to look at our policies through an equity lens because people of color, for example, experienced loss at much higher rates in the pandemic. This also came into play when we started working from home. For some, working from home meant maybe converting a room into an office. Whereas other folks in apartments or sharing apartments with other family members and kids, that looked very different. When everybody's in the same space like that all day long, that situation alone can increase trauma. We looked closely at this situation, trying to gain an understanding into how our policies around working from home could compound trauma and how we could help alleviate some of that trauma. 
I would definitely say that these changes have helped to lessen the stigma around mental health needs in our organization. I think folks feel more comfortable approaching their supervisor saying, "I'm having a tough day. I need a minute.” I want folks to be able to bring who they are to work, because it informs their decision-making. I would rather you take the day and come back refreshed and productive, than just pushing through.

Sarah: I agree. I think our efforts and our work to communicate about mental health needs and benefits are having an impact. People are talking about it more, I’ve seen an increase in questions about it. But we have to keep going, because when there is a stigma like this and you are trying to create a mindset shift it’s all about continual reinforcement.

Nakia: It is also important for our leaders to model and engage in the mindset and behavior shift. I proudly take time off to rebalance my heart and mind and I share that information with our team and as part of my OOO message.