Spotlight on Mental Health Champions: Josh Decktor and Shawn Blythe

Spotlight on Mental Health Champions: Josh Decktor & Shawn Blythe
Mental Health Awareness

Traditionally, the HSE (Health, Safety, and Environment) departments were and still are responsible for ensuring the safety, health, and environmental welfare of employees and the community. These responsibilities vary depending on the industry and the company’s size, but they typically include developing and implementing safety policies and procedures, conducting risk assessments to identify potential hazards in the workplace and developing strategies to mitigate those risks, providing training and education to employees on safe work practices, investigating incidents, injuries, illness, and near-misses to prevent similar occurrences in the future and leading the development and implementation of sustainability initiatives that reduce the company’s environmental footprint, among others.

In recent years, the role of the HSE department has evolved beyond the “zero incidents” approach to working more closely with the human resources department to promote a culture of shared responsibility for psychological safety, stress management, and overall employee wellness by creating a supportive and healthy work environment where the employees and their organization can benefit.

Throughout May, we put a spotlight on Health & Safety executives to highlight the great work that organizations are doing to support their employees’ mental health and well-being.

Margaret Jaouadi talked to two senior-level executives each with years of experience in dealing with employee well-being to get a sense of how the approach to supporting employees’ well-being evolved over the years, the importance of manager training in addressing mental health issues, and what advice they would give to employers who want to take a proactive approach to address mental health issues in their workplace.

Paul Galani, Head of Sector – Industrials, Americas at Pacific International Executive Search, introduced me to Josh Decktor, a former Chief Sustainability and ESG Officer at Tupperware Brands and a senior-level health and safety executive with over 20 years of experience in the field gained at Novartis, Bayer, Campbell Soup Company, and TreeHouse Foods as well as Tupperware Brands.

Dan Rodgers, Head of Sector – Pharmaceuticals & Life Sciences, Americas at Pacific International Executive Search introduced me to Shawn Blythe, a former SVP, Chief Transformation Officer at International Flavors & Fragrances, who held other senior executive positions at the company for over 20 years, including responsibility for environmental health and safety across the whole company.

Margaret Jaouadi: Thank you for agreeing to speak to me about these important issues. Please describe how in your view the approach to supporting employees’ well-being has changed over the years.

Josh Decktor: In the past, companies looked at their insurance dollars and the cost of absenteeism. HR looked at the staff turnover, they were wondering what they can do to lower their costs, keep the associates that they want to keep, and keep them safe. The COVID-19 pandemic brought these issues to another level.

I believe that over the years, there has been a major shift from the old days when the company used to make all the decisions to giving voice to allowing our associates to identify what truly matters to them and what brings them a sense of purpose through initiatives such as employee resource groups. We’ve learned to listen to our associates and let their feedback guide our actions.

Shawn Blythe: Employee well-being was always critical to their ability to do their job well. If you’re not happy at home, you’re not going to be happy at work. I think perhaps the only thing that has changed is that employers have become much more aware and there are more tools like employee assistance programs at their disposal to deal with it. But it’s up to managers to recognize when employees are struggling and direct them to the appropriate resources.

It’s also important to consider employee safety, as mental health issues could potentially affect the workplace. I’ve seen that life stressors like illness, divorce, and pandemic-related challenges can push people over the edge. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made it more difficult to spot mental health issues due to remote work, as managers have limited interaction with employees. In my experience, it’s often the small interactions, like passing by someone’s desk or seeing them in the hallway, that can trigger recognition of mental health struggles.

MJ: How can companies raise more awareness of mental health issues and the methods to deal with them among their managers and executives? Is being an empathetic leader a personal trait or can it be taught ? What are your thoughts on that?

JD: I strongly believe companies need to invest in training managers, promote empathy and understanding, and foster a culture that values the well-being of employees at all levels. It’s not just about the numbers; it’s about creating an environment where everyone can thrive.

I’ve left some companies myself, mainly because of my managers. They were skilled in financial matters and getting operations done, but they lacked the essential qualities of being effective leaders.
I’ve seen companies, like Novartis, provide manager training courses, and I had to attend them as I moved up the ranks. We can’t simply promote technically skilled individuals and expect them to automatically become great managers.

Many managers focus solely on performance and ensuring tasks are completed, but this doesn’t bring out the best in their teams. Leading with empathy and understanding is essential, but while larger companies may have special managerial and leadership programs, smaller companies often don’t invest enough time or resources into training their successful employees who have been promoted.

SB: In my opinion, many managers are not equipped to deal with the responsibility of managing employees’ mental health. They are often promoted based on their technical skills and proficiency in their job, but that does not necessarily make them good managers. As a manager, I found that my employees’ success was crucial to my success, and I credit much of it to them and their respect for me. I believe that showing up for your employees when they need you, even for small things like attending a funeral, can go a long way in building a healthy relationship with them. Unfortunately, I don’t think most managers prioritize mental health and the responsibility they have towards their employees in that regard.

MJ: Have you personally benefited from the initiatives that the companies put in place to support employee mental health at any point throughout your career?

SB: Well, from a formal standpoint, I would say luckily no, I just never had the need. I have a strong family and I’m a religious person, I’m a Christian, so even though I loved my job, it didn’t define me, and I think to some extent that helps. When you have a bad day at work, it is just a bad day at work. It doesn’t change who I am. But I will say that I had several managers who, by their very actions, made it clear to me that I matter to them beyond the duties I perform, and I think that does make a difference in how I approached work.

It’s important for individuals to not be consumed by their jobs and have a support system outside of work, such as family or religion, to ground themselves. With the rise of remote and contract workers, it’s even more important to have stability outside of work to weather any storms that may arise on the job.

MJ: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in addressing mental health issues in your organization, and how did you overcome them?

JD: I’ve realized the importance of setting aside time to ask the right questions and provide opportunities for my team to share their thoughts early on before any issues become problematic.

I used to have weekly meetings with my team members individually. When the pandemic hit, I shifted the focus of these conversations to genuinely understanding how they were doing, both personally and professionally. Some team members appreciated this change as it allowed them to open up, while others preferred to keep the discussions work-focused.

What I learned from this experience is that it’s essential to engage individuals in a way that encourages them to share what’s troubling them. This approach should have been implemented even when we were working in the office. Additionally, it’s crucial to educate both managers and team members about the support resources available to them. Often, there are hidden gems such as worker’s comp or insurance programs that can assist, but many people are unaware of them.

To address this, I believe organizations should make sure that all available resources are well-publicized. Furthermore, it’s important to mandate that associates have the freedom to participate in these support programs whenever they feel the need, without it negatively impacting their work responsibilities. Ultimately, enabling associates to feel good, get better, and access the necessary tools will contribute to their overall productivity and well-being.

MJ: How do the companies measure the effectiveness of their efforts to support mental health, and what kind of outcomes are they looking for?

JD: I believe two types of metrics can help measure the effectiveness of techniques implemented for associates: lagging and leading indicators. Lagging indicators include factors like work comp costs, sick days, and absenteeism. These metrics provide a baseline and show whether things are improving or worsening over time. On the other hand, leading indicators involve surveys, specifically employee surveys.

Traditionally, employee surveys have been lengthy and cover a wide range of topics. However, given our limited attention spans, companies are now opting for smaller, more frequent surveys throughout the year. This approach recognizes that our mindsets can change over time, and capturing feedback in smaller, bite-sized surveys allows for more accurate and timely insights.

Setting up resource groups or activities within the company where people can openly discuss their concerns is also beneficial as long as the issues are communicated upward so that action can be taken.
At Tupperware, we found success in capturing insights through smaller surveys, resource groups (ERGs), and analyzing available data. These practices allowed us to better understand our workforce, address their needs, and take meaningful action where possible.

SB: I believe that it’s difficult for employers and managers to differentiate between normal life stress and more serious mental health issues because we are not mental health experts. However, it’s crucial to have mental health support services available for employees. While there are measures such as overall employee satisfaction, turnover rates, absentee rates, and complaint rates to assess the success of support systems, I believe that the manager is in the best position to determine if an employee is thriving or recovering from a tough time. When an employee gets through a difficult time, they usually come back to thank you, which is a good indicator of recovery. However, when I never heard from an employee again after identifying an issue and coming up with a plan, it concerned me more because they might not have received the necessary support. As for how a corporation could systematically measure the success of its mental health support system, I don’t have an answer to that.

MJ: What is the advice that you would give employers who are looking to take a proactive approach toward employee mental well-being?

JD: When it comes to advising organizations on implementing programs for their associates, I would emphasize the importance of engaging in open communication with your associates. Ask them directly what they want and listen to their feedback. Once you reach a consensus as an organization, it’s essential to follow through and live up to the commitments made.
Secondly, it’s crucial to move beyond the mindset that work is solely about working. Acknowledging that there’s more to it and that providing additional support and resources can enhance productivity and well-being.

Regarding fairness and equality, it’s understandable that concerns may arise when implementing specific programs that benefit certain groups, such as parents. To address this, I suggest aiming for equity rather than equality. Strive to provide equitable treatment and opportunities to all employees, considering their diverse needs and circumstances. For example, offering time off to non-parents to spend with their families or loved ones can be seen as an additional benefit rather than causing inequality.

Transparency is also vital in addressing perceptions of fairness. Communicate clearly that different roles and circumstances may warrant different benefits or support. By fostering an inclusive and understanding environment, you can demonstrate that your organization values and supports all its members.

SB: I was reminded of something earlier in our conversation that I want to share here. I believe managers can do a better job of recognizing that today’s crisis may be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. We often have these big meetings that everyone must attend, and as a young engineer, I felt the pressure to attend, even if it meant missing important events in my personal life. However, I soon realized that there’s always another urgent meeting and then another and another… Over time, I think managers should understand that today’s urgent matter may not be relevant in a month. This realization can give employees more flexibility and take the pressure off them to perform at a crisis level every day and therefore have a positive effect on their well-being.

MJ: Thank you both for your insights and your refreshing and honest answers.

For a confidential chat about how Pacific International can assist you with your Talent Acquisitions challenges, please contact Manuel Preg or one of our Executive Search Consultants specialising in your sector.