Offering onsite, near-site and/or virtual/telehealth access to behavioral health services — when employees have easy access to mental health services, they are much more likely to engage in getting the support they need.
As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Myers.
Denise Myers, MS, National Director of Behavioral Health Services for Marathon Health, a leading worksite/onsite healthcare provider with over 200 locations nationwide, is an expert at helping companies create, deploy and manage successful mental health and wellness programs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I did not find my way to the career path I am on now until I was 37. In my teens, I was a nationally ranked tennis player and I had dreams of continuing professionally. I had a successful tennis career as a scholarship player for Louisiana State University, though didn’t develop into the elite player I had hoped to become. Instead, upon graduation I entered the business world. After a few years, I began to feel empty and unsatisfied on this career path and began to explore a number of different avenues. The next few years were spent teaching tennis and fitness classes; I opened my own fitness studio and my own ice cream shop. While my career exploration journey was difficult, my personal life was flourishing. I married a wonderful human being, David and we became parents to three remarkable daughters, Heather, Jackie and Sarah. In truth, being a loving partner to David, a mom to our girls, and a caring daughter to my parents are the accomplishments I am the proudest of.
While tennis and fitness were interesting career paths, I was wanting something different. I ached to find a career direction that spoke to me, a direction that allowed me to give to others in a deeper, more meaningful way and to have a positive impact on my community.
I knew I found the career path I had been searching for when by chance, I learned about the counseling program at the University of Vermont. I started by taking a few classes, then applied to the program and graduated in 2001 with a master’s in counseling. I began work as a school counselor at a local high school.
My career path, however, took another detour. A few years into my work as a counselor, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder. On the advice of my doctor, and at the urging of my family, I went to an inpatient facility in Philadelphia.
My world was turned upside down, here I was a mental health counselor treating and supporting others with behavioral and emotional conditions, and I was now a patient needing care. With the support of my family, the experts at the facility, and the absolute determination in my heart to overcome the condition, I was able to become healthy once again. In 2005, I flew to NYC and was interviewed by Katie Couric on the Today Show to discuss my understanding of women in midlife falling victim to eating disorders and the possible remedies.
Today, I hold a position with Marathon Health that brings me satisfaction and sustains my soul. As the National Director of Behavioral Health, I oversee 45 counselors across the country based in our onsite and near site workplace healthcare clinics, helping employers create, deploy and manage mental health and wellness programs for their employees and dependents. As a country, we are under unbelievable and unusual amounts of stress this year. Employers who show commitment and compassion, and support their employees with understanding and flexibility, will have happier and healthier employees building happier, healthier, more productive communities in the workplace and at home.
When I look back on my career journey, I realize that every step was a lesson contributing to my knowledge and the satisfaction I feel with my work today. I have, through direct experience, an understanding of what it means to have a desire to search for a way to contribute to others in a meaningful way, I understand addictive behavior, I understand a mental health struggle and the shame it can bring, and I understand the determination and hard work that change requires. Though my career journey was at times obstacle-full, I am so grateful for the lessons learned along the way.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Mental health providers need to heed the support we offer our clients. We remind our patients that self-care is critical to thriving in our daily lives and avoiding burnout, and we need to make sure we are embracing our own words. We are facing unprecedented stress and multiple crises between COVID-19, racial injustice, virtual schooling for our children, concern for older parents and family members, financial stress and job security. We have had a hurricane season unlike any other this year. There are wildfires in California and Colorado. We, as a country, are under unusual amounts of stress this year. Practicing self-care gives us the strength and energy to get through it all.
I believe we all need time in nature. We benefit when we get outside and away from our screens and virtual lives. We need connection, which is challenging when we are physically distancing from others, but being outside can help. Sitting outside on a driveway with neighbors or meeting up at a distance with friends at a park can be invaluable for our mental health.
We need challenges and we need times of ease. We need quiet and rest from TVs, computers, social media and phones. We need music and art, wholesome food and good sleep. We need physical activity, times of laughter and times of quiet. We need self-acceptance and the realization that we are all doing the best we can within these circumstances. We need to be compassionate to our neighbors and to ourselves.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Marathon Health’s CEO, Jerry Ford, has said from the beginning of his tenure with our company, “if we take care of our ambassadors (Marathon Health employees are called ambassadors), everything else will fall into place.” As a Marathon Health ambassador, I know that Jerry and our company care about me, my life, my job satisfaction, and my health and wellbeing. Knowing that our CEO has created this culture of caring instills a feeling of security. The security I feel gives me freedom to be innovative. I can focus on taking the best care of our patients because I know I’m being cared for and our work to provide every patient with the best care possible matters. If you think about a time when you felt really cared about, how was your spirit? Did you feel freer to give more of yourself?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
William James said, “Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” He was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. James is considered to be a leading thinker of the late nineteenth century, one of the most influential philosophers of the United State and the “father of American psychology.”
For me, James’ words could not be truer in how I live my life both professionally and personally. Becoming a counselor and being able to positively impact my community brings me great joy that spreads into other areas of my life. I remind myself every day that I have the choice to nourish my soul with activities that bring me joy, even if only for 10 minutes, and I have a choice in how I look at life. My choice impacts my day. I can foster stress, or I can foster peace. My choice, my altering the attitude of my mind, impacts me and those I love; it impacts those I work with and those I care for, and my choice can have a positive ripple effect in my community.
As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
We have 37 companies (of approximately 1,000 employees or more) that have added behavioral health services to their onsite or near-site Marathon Health centers in the last 3 years. By adding behavioral health services to the medical services available in the Marathon Health centers, these companies are providing their employees and, in most cases, the employee’s dependents, a top-quality comprehensive healthcare experience. An employee can walk into their Marathon Health center and be treated in a way that fosters their best health. We know that our physical and mental health are connected and that healing from sickness requires paying attention to our whole selves. Our medical and behavioral health providers work together with their patients to address health issues and conditions in a collaborative, integrated system. Positive employee health improvements have resulted from this integrated approach and are being seen by Marathon Health customers and their employees.
The top 5 ways employers can improve or optimize employee mental wellness are:
- Offering onsite, near-site and/or virtual/telehealth access to behavioral health services — when employees have easy access to mental health services, they are much more likely to engage in getting the support they need.
- Remove barriers to access behavioral health — Many companies we work with allow employees to take time to use these services without penalty. This increases the opportunity for mental health support across the board.
- Lower the stigma of behavioral health services as part of company culture — managers and supervisors who lead by example and share with their employees that they use the available services and benefit from the care they receive, help to erode the stigma of seeking mental health services.
- Consider the whole employee — emotional worries may stem from individual health and safety concerns or outside factors like financial or family needs (e.g., childcare or elderly parents). Employers can help by providing information on local resources or setting up benevolent funds for childcare options for example.
- Be flexible — along with work-at-home options, employers may need to re-evaluate work schedules (e.g., earlier/later start times, removal of standing meetings, etc.) to help keep employees healthy.
Since the pandemic began in March, our customers have supported new behavioral health initiatives such as virtual books clubs, virtual support groups and virtual behavioral health sessions. Our behavioral health providers are presenting wellness webinars on topics ranging from “Social Distancing and Your Mental Health” to “Work Stress and Life Balance” to “A Mental Health First Aid Kit.” Many Marathon Health customers are reaching out and inquiring about the implementation of behavioral health services.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
There is no shame in seeking to grow and become a better version of yourself. That is actually what behavioral health services are about; learning, understanding, changing and growing. Mental health services are a gift and employers who support their employees by creating opportunities for receiving these services, demonstrate the commitment and caring they have for their employees and their employee community. Employers who offer and support behavioral health services are engendering loyalty in their employees by demonstrating their appreciation of employees and their health and wellbeing.
From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?
Maybe one of the most supportive gifts we can offer those around us is to listen. Push the need to talk aside and truly listen to the words the person speaking is saying. Listen with deep intensity. (Please seek immediate help from a professional if the person is expressing suicidal ideation). You don’t need to have answers to the anxiety or sadness the person might be expressing. Actually, answers aren’t what the person is most looking for. Your loved one, friend or colleague most likely only wants to be heard, they want to feel valued and significant and that their words portray a meaning that you are hearing and understanding.
Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?
Please recognize that habits you might want to change are built slowly over time and will require an equal input of time to unwind. Focus on the baby step you have made towards a wanted change and let go of focusing on what you haven’t yet changed. In so many ways, we are what we tell ourselves we are. Find the ways of living that are meaningful to you. What is it that supports you in finding joy, having compassion for others, and holding an energy for life? We each have things that speak to us whether it’s the beauty of a garden or a hiking trail, soulful music, a breathtaking sunset, the love of a pet or the stimulation of a book — find the things you love and give them time in your day.
Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?
I have always been physically active, whether playing tennis, running, hiking, walking, biking or gardening, and have found that these activities support my wellbeing. Seven years ago, I discovered yoga and added a yoga practice to my daily routine. In the quiet of the early morning, yoga helps me connect to myself and to the good I hold in my heart. It helps me build strength and flexibility and that in turn helps my mind feel positive and vibrant.
I am fortunate to live in a place where I can see and embrace the beauty of nature. Seeing wildlife and birds and beautiful natural scenes brings me calmness and feelings of gratitude. I am a (very) amateur photographer and love to take pictures of the amazing colors a setting sun radiates through the sky and the interesting birds and majestic wildlife I see. I keep an Instagram with my photos and enjoy adding to them.
I write in a journal daily and process my thoughts and feelings. I go to bed early and make sure I get enough sleep. I am thoughtful about what I choose to eat, avoiding processed foods, sugar and other carbohydrates. I listen to gentle instrumental music as I work and take minutes every so often in my workday to release stress by doing gentle stretches. I talk and share thoughts, feelings, anxieties and joys with my partner, I carefully visit and talk with my parents who live nearby and are in their eighties, and I zoom, text and talk on the phone with my daughters who live in Vermont. I read inspirational quotes and articles and do my best to keep learning and growing.
I try and be easy on myself when I am anxious and overwhelmed. There are nights I am wakeful and I have to practice breathing exercises to help myself fall back asleep. There are hours in the day when my brain feels like it’s going in 100 directions and I feel my heart pounding and my muscles tensing. In these moments, I remind myself to take a breath, take a step back, look out the window or take a walk. I remind myself that everything will be ok.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
A favorite book of mine is by author Sylvia Boorstein, called Happiness is an Inside Job. Sylvia describes, often in personal vignettes, the how of William James’ belief that “Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” She writes about how our choice to practice compassion and kindness leads to greater ease and calmness. Sylvia has a knack for bringing understanding to this notion and helps her readers in feeling self-acceptance and patience with stumbles and mistakes. She acknowledges in a supportive way, the difficulties and challenges life contains. I love the words she will repeat to herself in moments of struggle, “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I wonder what our world would look like if we started educating our children at a young age to care for their emotional health. We have physical education classes; what if we consistently supported our youth in learning to value their inner emotional world and care for their mental health? What if we modeled and taught the tools of listening deeply to one another? What if we taught our kids to understand how our thoughts lead to our feelings and how feelings lead to our behaviors? What if we taught and modeled positive thoughts, self-acceptance and self-compassion? Maybe there would be less anger, less jealousy, less thoughtlessness in our world and maybe there would be fewer bullies, fewer people suffering from addictive behaviors and fewer divisiveness. Maybe we would have a world with greater joy, and more ease.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
You can learn more about my work on https://www.marathon-health.com. My wildlife Instagram is sw_fl_skies