Mental Health Awareness Month
Employee Mental Health

How to Build a Thriving Mental Health Benefits Program at Your Company - an Interview with Dana Byerlee

May 8, 2024

As part of Tava Health’s Employee Mental Health initiative for Mental Health Awareness Month, we interviewed individuals who are building exceptional mental health benefits for employees.

In this interview with Dana Byerlee, an employee wellbeing strategist and program engineer who has helped implement global mental health programs at companies like Visa and BMS Bristol Myers Squibb), she breaks down her approach to building effective mental health benefits for a company. 

Mental Health Awareness Month takes place every May, and this year, Tava Health focuses on “Employee Mental Health.” As part of our campaign, we’re taking the entire month to highlight different HR and benefits leaders who are making huge impacts on the mental health of their employees. You can read all the stories here.

What advice would you give to other HR leaders who are looking to prioritize mental health within their own organizations?

You need to understand what prioritizing mental health means to you as an organization. You’re going to set yourself up to fall short if you don’t figure out what’s needed. Ask yourselves why you’re looking to prioritize mental health.

Once you’ve determined what prioritizing mental health means to you as org, you can start looking into the current state of your employee mental health. Surveys are a great way to get to the heart of the current problems in your org, in addition to looking at the data you have from your current vendors. In addition to the data, you should also ask yourself questions to get to the heart of the mental health issue, if there are any.

 Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • Are you actively trying to address present needs? If so, how?
  • Is mental health valued in your organization and how do you know?
  • How is mental health perceived in the workplace? 
  • Does leadership believe in the value of proactive mental health?
  • Does the way we work inhibit the ability of employees to take care of their mental health? What is your work design and work culture? Are people having back-to-back meetings? Does the culture value rest and life outside work, or is it an “always on” culture?
  • Do your well-being strategies and programs address all aspects of well-being: Physical, emotional, social, and financial? All of these components can affect our mental health.

Having an understanding of why you want to prioritize mental health, coupled with the insights from your surveys, data, and internal questions, is the perfect foundation for developing a robust and tactical plan. I try to find solutions and different ways of implementing cultural changes to instill a preventive mindset as well.

In what ways can companies accommodate employees' mental health needs?

Much like mental health itself, mental health benefits and programs aren’t one-size-fits-all. Every company should determine its programs and benefits based on the needs of its employees, not just apply what another company has done. 

There’s an emerging space for preventive care. For example, individuals screened for depression at their annual check-up have a higher rate of newly treated depression and a lower risk of psychiatric hospitalization1. As isolation continues to increase across the working population, there’s been an increase in employers and their employees requesting preventive care options such as coaching, mentoring, buddy systems, and digital wellness policies & education. 

Adding mental health & psychological safety education to mandatory training and onboarding, with ongoing support for managers can help reduce stigma and raise awareness of resources and support.

What is preventive care?

Preventive care refers to health services like screenings, check-ups, and patient counseling that help stop disease, illness, and other ailments from developing. These services can also detect illnesses early on when treatment is most effective. In the context of mental health, preventive care minimizes mental health problems by focusing on major factors impacting mental health for that given individual, group, or population. For employees, it often involves reducing stress and promoting work-life balance to prevent burnout, anxiety, and other mental health concerns.

Whatever you choose, company leaders must lead by example. Without leadership buy-in and public practice, the program won’t thrive in the way one might hope. 

Have you encountered any challenges in implementing mental health support programs, and how have you addressed them?

Launching anything internally to your company is difficult. That’s the biggest hurdle is the work to properly launch and maintain a program. Doing so without a culture that’s eager and supportive of the new change is going to be like trying to push a boulder up a mountain. If your culture isn’t bought into mental health, you need to find ways to shift the culture internally. 

If you have a culture that’s already supportive and engaged in mental health, that’s amazing, but it’s still going to be work to implement a program. Your program is going to only do as well as the amount of effort you put into launching it. You’ll need to Partner with leadership, D&I, and ERG teams to make mental well-being and sustainable human performance a topline business priority throughout the organization. 

Don’t just rely on mentioning the program during onboarding, open enrollment, or all-hands meetings. To truly launch an effective program you have to consistently tell stories and build the program into various facets of the company. Don’t just rely on email. Email is great, and some companies will even send engagement emails to your entire organization if permitted. You need to continuously promote your program in multiple channels and to multiple stakeholders and audiences of your company on a regular basis.

Build yourself and your program into the workflow of your company. Whether your company uses intranet, Slack, Microsoft Teams, or carrier pigeon, find ways to demonstrate the value of the new benefit in organic ways throughout the year. Having a robust communications plan isn’t enough, you also need to find champions of the program to help shift the culture and adopt the new program. You can start small by training leadership and management on the benefits, how to talk about it, and how to include the program in their weekly or monthly meetings. Then you can create consistent mental health & wellbeing communications, programming, and community events with participation by senior leadership.

One more thing to consider is what you’re saying to your employees about the new program. You have to get specific with your messaging and embrace a storytelling mindset. Give employees detailed examples and scenarios of the different use cases that their benefits can be used for. For example:

  • Sally just lost her father and doesn’t know how to handle the grief; she booked a confidential appointment with her therapist and found relief and support when she needed it the most. 
  • Jacob finds themself stressing about various work deadlines; they didn’t want to speak with a therapist but instead utilized the mental health library that was provided to them to do a 15-minute meditation and learn how to break stress down into manageable tasks. 
  • Angela feels alone and helpless; she reached out to her therapist to build an action plan focused on growing her community and confidence. 

Of course, benefits and programs are just one piece of the puzzle. We also need to think about workplace culture & workflow design and commit to embracing human sustainability. Which workplace factors create stress or confusion? (Unpredictable work schedules, unrealistic targets, always-on culture, etc). I see the best companies creating official digital well-being policies/values and embracing “proactive rest” policies such as:

  • No-Meeting Fridays
  • Company-wide "Days of Rest"
  • Making meetings 50 or 25 minutes (vs 60 or 30)
  • Including Team PTO usage in managers' goals

How have you helped companies foster a culture of open communication regarding mental health issues?

I emphasize the importance of fostering open communication about mental health issues within companies through peer-to-peer community building. I advocate for creating passionate well-being champion networks and mental health ally programs, involving representatives from various departments, regions, ERGs, and levels of the organization to ensure inclusivity. By treating these champions as VIPs and providing them with quarterly community calls, a resource hub of quick, shareable, and regionally/ culturally relevant toolkits, assets, and activities, such as slides on discussing mental health at work with their teams, they are empowered to continuously champion mental health throughout the organization, reduce stigma, and share resources and lead activities & discussions with colleagues on a regular basis. I push for cultural change and shifting mindsets by empowering peer-to-peer communities with resources and talking points, alongside consistent, everyday conversations led by champions. 

How do you measure the effectiveness of your mental health initiatives and ensure they are meeting the needs of the workforce?

I measure through site-specific surveys conducted before and after program launches. I suggest moving beyond general questions like, "How are you doing?" to more specific ones, like rating comfort talking about mental health on a scale of one to five. My surveys assess factors like awareness of mental health resources, comfort in discussing mental health at work or with a manager, and company perception. By comparing pre- and post-program sentiment measures, I can note significant improvements, which often double or triple in positive responses. Continuous measurement and adjusting to meet the evolving needs of the workforce is critical for success. It’s also important to make sure your questions are aligned with the organization’s goals as well.

If someone wanted to work with you in the future, what would be the best way for them to contact you?

You can reach me via Linkedin

1 Chen YL, Wu MS, Wang SH, Lien YJ, Liao SC, Chang CM, Huang WL, Wu CS, Hsu CC. Effectiveness of health checkup with depression screening on depression treatment and outcomes in middle-aged and older adults: a target trial emulation study. Lancet Reg Health West Pac. 2023 Nov 23;43:100978. doi: 10.1016/j.lanwpc.2023.100978. PMID: 38076325; PMCID: PMC10701157.

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