Working Well: Cheryl Brown Merriwether Of International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE) On How Companies Are Creating Cultures That Support & Sustain Mental, Emotional, Social, Physical & Financial Wellness

An Interview with Karen Mangia

Karen Mangia
Authority Magazine

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Established Wellness industry service providers are expanding their offerings to include more behavioral health services and solutions within their client networks.

The pandemic pause brought us to a moment of collective reckoning about what it means to live well and to work well. As a result, employees are sending employers an urgent signal that they are no longer willing to choose one — life or work — at the cost of the other. Working from home brought life literally into our work. And as the world now goes hybrid, employees are drawing firmer boundaries about how much of their work comes into their life. Where does this leave employers? And which perspectives and programs contribute most to progress? In our newest interview series, Working Well: How Companies Are Creating Cultures That Support & Sustain Mental, Emotional, Social, Physical & Financial Wellness, we are talking to successful executives, entrepreneurs, managers, leaders, and thought leaders across all industries to share ideas about how to shift company cultures in light of this new expectation. We’re discovering strategies and steps employers and employees can take together to live well and to work well.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Cheryl Brown Merriwether.

Cheryl Brown Merriwether brings over two decades of experience in corporate HR management at AT&T, addiction recovery awareness, and adult education to the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE). As VP and Executive Director, she oversees and directs the administration, operations, partnerships, and business development activities for ICARE’s three divisions, Strategic Sobriety Workforce Solutions™, International Association of Professional Recovery Coaches (IAPRC) and NET Institute. Additionally, Cheryl is the Immediate Past President of GOSHRM, an active Board Member of Project Opioid, and a former adjunct faculty member at the University of Phoenix.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you better. Tell us about a formative experience that prompted you to change your relationship with work and how work shows up in your life.

Hi Karen, thank you for providing me with this opportunity to speak with you. You’ve asked a GREAT question. I think my formative experience was more of a formative season that culminated in 2017, which was two years after I had come through a very difficult divorce. There was a great deal of stress and distress that came into my life during that period. At the same time that I had to learn to navigate life as a divorced, mother of three, I unexpectedly lost my job and needed to begin a medical treatment protocol as a high risk breast cancer patient. I am so grateful that during what was an extended and very difficult season of my life, I was surrounded by a community of managers, leaders, mentors, coaches and peers who because of their own personal lived experiences were genuinely empathetic and caring. These people provided me with the support I needed to integrate all of the elements of my life including work which, during that season, consisted of a combination of full and part-time, temporary and contract. I now use everything I’ve learned as a result of my personal life experiences to facilitate better circumstances and outcomes for others.

Harvard Business Review predicts that wellness will become the newest metric employers will use to analyze and to assess their employees’ mental, physical and financial health. How does your organization define wellness, and how does your organization measure wellness?

I am incredibly blessed to have the privilege of working with a diverse group of health and wellness coaches, in addition to professionals who work in the related field of behavioral health. Behavioral health practitioners offer care and treatment for individuals struggling with mental and substance use disorders (SUDs). As a result of this integration, which has been largely necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, our mission has expanded. Today the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE) focuses on addressing the physical health and wellness of the individual. This includes a broader focus on wellbeing and incorporates the individual’s emotional, psychological and physical health.

Based on your experience or research, how do you correlate and quantify the impact of a well workforce on your organization’s productivity and profitability?

Over the course of my career I’ve worked as a manager, an HR practitioner, and now a behavioral health professional. My experience and education have taught me to view all workplace productivity and profitability issues through a behavioral health lens. Are people struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, substance misuse, addiction, or other unhealthy coping behaviors? HR practitioners use standard metrics to track things like employee attendance and performance. But there is also an extensive body of research that shows a direct correlation between an individual’s physical, emotional and psychological health to things like absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover, productivity, accidents, insurance and healthcare costs, among other things. The cumulative cost of unhealthy workers, including those who struggle with mental health or SUDs exceeds hundreds of billions of dollars annually. I encourage employers to visit the National Safety Council website, where they can access calculators that can be used to estimate workplace costs associated with employee fatigue, mental health, and SUDs.

Even though most leaders have good intentions when it comes to employee wellness, programs that require funding are beholden to business cases like any other initiative. The World Health Organization estimates for every $1 invested into treatment for common mental health disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. That sounds like a great ROI. And, yet many employers struggle to fund wellness programs that seem to come “at the cost of the business.” What advice do you have to offer to other organizations and leaders who feel stuck between intention and impact?

Employers regularly capture all types of data… and utilize technology that enables them to analyze the data, drawing conclusions and implementing solutions to improve efficiency, effectiveness, productivity and profitability. But there’s a gap in my opinion, a missing link…. that relates to their failure to connect the dots between intention and impact and between cause and effect. I believe that employers, insurers, and benefit service providers spend too much time looking at utilization and cost data, and not enough time talking with the individuals whose lives, families, workplaces, and communities are impacted by the events and circumstances reflected in those numbers.

The big news headlines now speak of ‘the great resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting’. The data, numbers and analytics clearly reflect a problem that has been simmering below the surface for a while, which is now boiling over. Those who are genuinely interested in uncovering the causes of these trends may realize the genesis of the problem and be surprised to learn the causes can be traced to unhealthy corporate cultures and toxic work practices that negatively impact employees’ overall wellbeing.

Speaking of money matters, a recent Gallup study reveals employees of all generations rank well-being as one of their top three employer search criteria. How are you incorporating wellness programs into your talent recruitment and hiring processes?

I speak a lot with HR practitioners who are on the frontlines, seeking to attract, retain and engage the talent needed to maintain their business operations. I provide training to HR practitioners seeking to acquire a professional credential that validates and affirms their competence and ability to demonstrate proficiency as an accomplished HR professional. My message, regardless of the forum or media, remains relatively consistent. I share excerpts from my personal life stories, my own and those of others. I also provide data from credible sources to illustrate that workplace cultures are vitally important and must be crafted intentionally and strategically to impact the organization’s ability to achieve success in the area of talent acquisition and retention.

Beyond the stories, I also share information on industry best practices and emerging trends regarding individual and workplace wellbeing and why wellbeing must be both strategic and systemic. Ideally individual and corporate wellbeing can be established as a strategic business imperative that will provide the enterprise with a competitive advantage in the marketplace. An organization’s culture must never be left to chance, but should be crafted intentionally, and reflected through the organization’s vision, mission, and values. Fortunately many of today’s leaders are willing to incorporate individual and corporate wellbeing as part of the organization’s strategic business imperatives, goals and objectives. By committing to do this very important work, the enterprise creates a foundation upon which all policies, procedures and protocols regarding appropriate workplace behavior can be established.

We’ve all heard of the four-day work week, unlimited PTO, mental health days, and on-demand mental health services. What innovative new programs and pilots are you launching to address employee wellness? And, what are you discovering? We would benefit from an example in each of these areas.

  • Mental Wellness:
  • Emotional Wellness:
  • Social Wellness:
  • Physical Wellness:
  • Financial Wellness:

I combine all of these areas together under one category, which I label prevention. Here’s why: The programs you list are often viewed as ‘solutions to a problem’… The solutions are varied and made available to individuals who want to ‘focus’ on a particular area of need that exists within their life, family, workplace or community. Let’s step back a moment and consider that the pursuit of wellness is part of a larger ‘system of care’, the desired outcome of which is good health to individuals, in multiple areas, including, but not limited to the categories you referenced. There also exists within the overall healthcare system, something called a ‘continuum of care’ that references the ‘health care needs an individual has over time. The continuum includes multiple elements within each of the following phases: prevention, treatment, recovery, and maintenance.

As mentioned previously, I focus mainly on the impact that mental and SUDS have on individuals. A key element of prevention is awareness, which is primarily provided through education initiatives. We find that individuals can benefit tremendously from being provided information, education and access to resources regarding mental, emotional, social, physical and financial wellbeing…all together, through one program, because of the overlap that exists in real life. A life experience that negatively impacts an individual in any way (financially, emotionally, physically, mentally, socially or spiritually) can result in prolonged anxiety, stress, dis-ease, crisis or trauma. Absent awareness, access to information resources or life skills, people will often make poor choices and indulge in unhealthy coping or other harmful behaviors that further exacerbate mental, emotional, social, physical or financial health issues.

Can you please tell us more about a couple of specific ways workplaces would benefit from investing in your ideas above to improve employee wellness?

Business Solvers is an organization that annually conducts a “State of Workplace Empathy” study. Recent surveys reflect the impressions of a workforce rocked by more than two years of a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. More than 94% of employees surveyed in 2021 said that they believe that mental health is as important as physical health. Yet the weight of stigma prevents organizations from shining the light on wellness (or wellbeing) initiatives that incorporate education designed to raise employee awareness of mental illness, substance misuse, addiction, and recovery. Currently, health and wellness practitioners and professionals lack the training and skills required to guide safe conversations and provide education regarding these issues. At a time when traditional healthcare systems are overwhelmed, new and innovative approaches and solutions are needed now more than at any time in our history.

For example, a letter written by the American Hospital Association to the U.S. Congress in 2022 clearly stated that there is, and will continue to be for some time, a critical shortage of clinical care providers (physicians, nurses, mental and behavioral health practitioners. Employers who continue to rely solely on existing wellness programs, EAP and benefits programs to meet the holistic wellbeing needs of their employees, will continue to fail to meet the needs of their workforce. The greatest opportunity to reverse the negative trends is to engage the workforce and pursue partnerships with innovators seeking to introduce and provide proactive and preventative solutions. Continuing to use existing overwhelmed and underutilized methods that are engaged reactively after a critical incident has occurred are not working and must cease.

How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?

Our organization provides training and certification programs for individuals, many of whom have personally navigated and survived a journey of loss from their own or a loved one’s mental illness, substance misuse or addiction. Beginning in 2022, ICARE began delivering an addiction awareness train-the-trainer certification program to HR practitioners and others within the workplace. To date, more than 100 individuals have been enrolled in the program from across the U.S. and from several other countries around the world. Participants in the program learn to facilitate awareness programs and guide safe conversations in the workplace. Facilitators acquire the knowledge and skills needed to break the silence and remove the stigma that is associated with behavioral health issues. As the designated point person(s) within the organization, these individuals seek to identify, uncover, include and engage individuals with lived experience, their allies and others seeking to change corporate cultures with respect to behavioral health as an element of employee wellbeing.

Ideas take time to implement. What is one small step every individual, team, or organization can take to get started on these ideas — to get well?

The first step is for individuals, teams and organizations to become vulnerable enough to assess, identify and acknowledge personal and / or corporate gaps in awareness that exist regarding the impact mental health and SUDS have on individual and corporate health, wellbeing, productivity and profitability. Vulnerability and transparency go hand-in hand. Individual and corporate growth, improvement and long-term sustainable success cannot occur without there first being a realization of possible gaps, weaknesses, and improvement needs. Until that lack of awareness is recognized and acknowledged, individuals and corporations will always be limited and somewhat deficient in their ability to meet the needs of the workforce.

What are your “Top 4 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”

  1. Health and Wellness coaches are adding a recovery coaching specialty to their skillset. ICARE has entered a partnership with the University of Wisconsin Stephens Point (UWSP). UWSP trains coaches who want to become certified by the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching (NWHBC). Historically Health and Wellness Coaches do not provide services for individuals struggling with behavioral health issues. These coaches will now have the opportunity to enroll in ICARE’s Certified Professional Recovery Coach program. This will expand the Health and Wellness Coaches’ knowledge, skills and competencies and position them to provide non-clinical coaching and appropriate referral services to individuals who may need help with behavioral health issues.
  2. Companies are expanding Employee Resource and/or Affinity Groups to support employees with issues relating to mental and behavioral health issues, specifically relating to substance misuse, addiction and/or recovery. One notable example is Salesforce’s Soberforce group. Recently a graduate from ICARE’s Certified Professional Recovery Coach and Certified Facilitator in Addiction Awareness programs successfully launched a Wellness and Recovery focused affinity group called “Get Your Moxie Back” at Oracle. Other types of ‘employer-sanctioned and employee-led’ programs are being initiated by small, medium and large sized companies all over the country.
  3. Established Wellness industry service providers are expanding their offerings to include more behavioral health services and solutions within their client networks. For example, ICARE has recently become a provider of services through the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA) network. To accommodate this, WELCOA needed to add the category of ‘behavioral health’ providers to their list of service providers. ICARE has also established a strategic partnership and provides training on substance misuse, addiction and recovery through the National Wellness Institute (NWI).
  4. In the current post-pandemic environment, there is a serious shortage of clinical mental and behavioral healthcare service providers. The trend is to train, certify and incorporate non-clinical coaches, facilitators, peers, their allies and others able to help fill existing knowledge and skills gaps that exist within the wellness industry. These certified professionals are providing awareness, prevention and recovery support services within the healthcare continuum of care. ICARE, working collaboratively and in partnership with practitioners, recipients, industry and community service providers, designs, develops and delivers high-quality training and certification programs that are in great demand in this challenging season. ICARE has trained hundreds of Certified Professional Recovery Coaches and Certified Facilitators of Addiction Awareness from all over the U.S. and from 39 nations. ICARE’s Certified Facilitator in Addiction Awareness for Human Resources (CFAA-HR) program was developed in partnership with Project Opioid, Career Source Central Florida, and the Greater Orlando Society for Human Resource Management (GOSHRM) — This collaborative initiative was recently recognized by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and is being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Labor, Workforce Boards and other organizations nationwide for its proven impact to identify and mitigate opioid use in the workplace.

What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?

The greatest source of optimism comes from the cooperation and collaborations that have come about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The level of dis-ease, despair, death, and destruction caused by the pandemic has been unprecedented in modern times. The response has been to bring together many different types of human helpers and community partners. For example, health, wellness and recovery coaches are working together with clinical mental and behavioral health treatment providers to provide wraparound services to individuals. The workplace is the new frontier and incubator for innovative adult prevention solutions. It is my hope that as HR practitioners grow to realize and appreciate the benefits and ROI that can be achieved by adding behavioral health awareness and related prevention solutions in the workplace. In doing so they will encourage their insurance, EAP and other benefits service providers to deliver innovative solutions to the marketplace through cooperative and collaborative partnerships with companies able to fill existing service gaps.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?

Please connect with me on LinkedIn. And stay up to date with ICARE by visiting our website.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.

About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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