People + Strategy Journal

Summer 2020

Creating Whole-Company Resilience Through Emotional Health and Well-Being

IBM used the COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst to create resiliency through a framework of policy, practices and perspectives.

By Deb Bubb and Joanna Daly, IBM
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Over the past several decades, employers have expanded their wellness initiatives to include broader aspects of well-being—like social connectedness and financial and mental health. Beyond helping to manage health care costs, employee well-being programs yield better workforce engagement and productivity with proven financial savings and performance-related benefits. 

Concurrently, the way we work has shifted dramatically. Tools that support collaboration and communication also enable 24/7 accessibility. We have greater access to digital information, social media platforms and global, distributed talent. We enjoy more flexibility, the ability to work from anywhere, greater career mobility and the chance to be more creative, innovative and entrepreneurial. We may also suffer from an “always on” culture with little opportunity to power down. The boundaries between work and home can blur, and we must navigate constant pressure to keep up. Add external factors like economic uncertainty, climate change and global political instability, and a challenging picture emerges.

According to a 2017 national survey by the American Psychological Association, the workplace was reported as the third-leading cause of stress (61 percent), after money (62 percent) and the future of the nation (63 percent).


A 2019 study conducted by Mindshare Partners found that over 60 percent of respondents said that their productivity at work was affected by their mental health, and over a third thought their work or workplace environment contributed to their symptoms. Mental illness and substance abuse annually cost employers between USD 80 billion and 100 billion in indirect costs.

A New Workforce Imperative

From this mental health crisis, resilience has emerged as a new workforce imperative. Beyond providing services for physical and mental health conditions, we must foster an ability to bounce back from challenges so that innovation, collaboration and engagement can flourish. 

All of this was true in recent years, but the global pandemic has made it no longer possible for employers to compartmentalize the mental health of their workers as an individual responsibility, rather than a corporate one, given the potential of this crisis to massively impact the health, well-being, performance and productivity of so many workers. 

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An IBM Master Inventor is also a master magician and has been doing magic shows in different time zones for IBMers and their families all over the world. He’s entertained over 1,000 so far. He is even doing custom birthday video messages for children who are celebrating their birthdays in quarantine.

Everyone is experiencing the pandemic in their own way and on their unique timeline. Some are dealing with illness or death in their immediate family. Some are on the front lines battling the disease. Some are essential workers. Some are suddenly at home, trying to work, homeschool, nurse sick relatives and live at the same time. Many are overwhelmed by relentless media coverage, conflicting epidemiological models and projections. All are impacted by uncertainty, grief and loss. 

A recent study by IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that 1 in 4 employees surveyed cite mental health impacts while working from home during this crisis, and more than 40 percent of Americans surveyed feel strongly that their employer should provide access for employees to mental health and well-being assistance programs prior to opening up their workplace to return to normal operations. According to Dr. Randy Phelps, “Previous disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Asian tsunami revealed that those with pre-existing conditions will suffer worsening of their conditions, and rates of PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and domestic abuse will soar. Those of us in the mental health community fear that the morbidity and mortality rates globally for mental illness will far exceed those of the COVID-19 disease itself.”


5  SIGNS OF EMOTIONAL SUFFERING

Give an Hour developed the Five Signs of Emotional Suffering to help people recognize when someone—including themselves—is suffering emotional turmoil and may need help. 
  1. Personality change: Sudden or gradual changes in the way someone typically behaves. They may behave in ways that don’t seem to fit their values, or the person may just seem different. 
  2. Agitation: They seem uncharacteristically angry, anxious or moody. They may have problems controlling their temper and seem irritable or unable to calm down. 
  3. Withdrawal: This sign is marked by a change in someone’s typical sociability. They withdraw or isolate themselves and stop taking part in activities they used to enjoy. 
  4. Decline in personal care: They stop taking care of themselves, let their personal hygiene deteriorate, start abusing alcohol or illicit substances, or engage in other self-destructive behavior. 
  5. Hopelessness: People in this situation seem overwhelmed by their circumstances and may say that the world would be better off without them or show other symptoms of suicidal behavior. 
A person may show one or more of these signs. The Five Signs is an easily understandable model to encourage people to be aware of their own emotional functioning and that of their loved ones, friends and colleagues. It encourages people to reach out to others and offer support and help if they become concerned.


In this context, the capacity of an organization to be resilient is a competitive imperative that will differentiate which companies survive the pandemic’s upheavals. Just as business leaders are reassessing supply chain stability, business continuity models and employee safety protocols, the ability of organizations to emotionally cope with trauma, uncertainty and threat, and their accompanying ability to bounce back, will determine how well we move from trauma to recovery to renewal.

Our Journey to Resiliency at IBM

Resilience is the ability to handle challenges; bounce back smarter; and thrive in the face of changing demands, stressors and opportunities. It’s about our ability to reflect, relate, renew and realize our potential under pressure. At IBM, we are seeing three landscapes of action— policy, practices and perspectives—where increased focus might enable better emotional well-being, mental health and resilience outcomes.

It’s increasingly clear that individual solutions to resilience are necessary but insufficient. We need approaches that support organizational resilience. We need to master the whole stack—a leadership mindset to foster personal and team resilience; the skillset to build healthy, productive, engaging work environments; new practices to engage, support and enable people to thrive and flourish through crisis; and the broader company/social policy environment to extend these benefits beyond the individual.

“Unleash the creative power of your employees to explore what your organization could do. This is a perfect opportunity to crowd-source employees’ clever ideas for new ways to provide support for their communities. Having the chance to help others can be an antidote for some employees who themselves may be struggling with isolation,” said Michelle Peluso, CMO, in The CMO’s Guide for Turning Mayhem into Momentum.


At IBM, here is what we have done to fortify our foundation of institutional support, experimenting with new approaches and establishing a new standard for enterprise-wide well-being and resilience. Our lessons learned, and the guiding principles behind our efforts, can be simplified and applied within organizations of nearly any size or scale.

Policy

Bridging the gaps and deploying an employee-first benefits design. With the onset of COVID-19, our policy and benefits team made new investments to help employees through the crisis. We deployed employee assistance programs (EAPs) across the globe and expanded our offering to provide these free services to members of their households. In addition to mental health services, EAPs offer webinars and counseling on personal and family issues, dealing with difficult emotions, uncertainty, grief and loss. 

We also expanded tele-behavioral health and pharmacy benefits. Early in the crisis, we saw significant challenges facing IBMers with school-aged children or family members needing care. For some, these additional responsibilities made it difficult to maintain a regular, full-time schedule, so we enhanced our part-time benefit option so people could continue to work while supporting their families. 

APPLYING THE POLICY/PRACTICES/PERSPECTIVE APPROACH IN YOUR ENVIRONMENT

Policy:
  • How do your current benefit programs support people’s needs now?
  • What are opportunities for temporary flexibility?
  • Can you enhance programs to provide emotional and mental health support to employees and their families? 

Practices:
  • Where can employees go for trusted information?
  • What sources of support are available for team members as they face new challenges? 
  • What creative ways can you connect team members to each other for support, inspiration and help?
  • Are you leveraging leaders and subject matter experts who can guide with empathy, facts and direction? 
  • Have you established community forums for open exchange about issues and ideas that help inform how you support workers as their needs evolve?
  • Are you leaning into co-creation and active listening, encouraging and amplifying great ideas and creating formal and informal ways to check in with employees? 

Perspectives:
  • Does your culture support individual and team behaviors that signal resilience as a core value? 
  • Are your managers equipped to lead through an emotional and mental health crisis, tuning into their teams in new ways, especially in a digital-only environment, to understand when a team member may need help?
  • Do your leadership development programs focus on showing up at our best, for our employees, peers and ourselves, during this critical moment of impact?

Practices
Creating clarity and context. Given the different impact of COVID-19 on each of the 173 countries in which IBM operates, we knew that the frequency and quality of our communication would be essential to help reduce uncertainty and anxiety. We also developed an approach to give IBMers a means to be heard so that critical information could be exchanged quickly. We adopted a “single source of truth” model for COVID-19 facts and communication and Policy, Practices and Perspectives updated the intranet page around the clock. 

At the same time, we knew IBMers would need many sources of support. For example, managers would be on the front line of crisis response, whether in a newly virtual environment or under newly challenging conditions with essential workers. Managers would have to think, act and model behavior differently. Within 24 hours of creating the Coronavirus Updates page, we launched the Leading in Challenging Times site to serve as the single access point for everything a manager would need, including skill-building around crisis management and building psychological safety, identifying signs of psychological distress, engaging a virtual team and understanding workplace stress. The site is updated regularly as the crisis evolves across the world. 

Connecting with trusted leaders. We established a regular cadence of CEO communications and opened up a Slack channel for real-time communications. Our CEO released a weekly video that provided information, clarity of direction and confidence about the future. Senior leaders shared personal video messages, expressed empathy and support, and helped teams reprioritize actions for our clients and each other. 

We also created a direct channel to trusted subject matter experts, including IBM’s Chief Medical Officer and resident epidemiologists, to reassure IBMers that we had their health and well-being—physical and mental—at the center of every decision we made. 

“Think about yourself and your clients. Are you in grit mode for them? Or are you also helping them to think about resilience to emerge stronger for the future? What do they need to be strong? You’re an IBMer. You demonstrate resilience. You’re essential to our clients. And you’re essential to me,” said Bridget Van Kralingen, Senior Vice President of Global Markets, in an all-IBM sales broadcast on April 28.


We also introduced two-way forms of communication. Building upon an existing Ask Me Anything channel in Slack, where IBMers ask subject matter experts questions on predetermined topics, we initiated Ask an IBMer Anything events during COVID-19 that allow colleagues to drive the content and share tips and best practices, building a sense of community while an executive moderates the discussion. 

From those sessions, we were able to anonymize and extract comments and run them through the Watson Sentiment Analysis tool to understand IBMers’ sentiment during those events. For example, we know that our Ask Me Anything event with IBM’s Chief Medical Officer broke a record for the number of questions asked, and the Ask an IBMer Anything event on the topic of “How are you taking care of your mental health during these challenging times?” had record-breaking engagement. These findings made clear that allowing employees an opportunity to participate in an open discussion about taking care of their mental health led to a spike in engagement. 

Checking in, at scale. Several weeks into the crisis, we leveraged our IBM Polls application to ask three simple questions of IBMers: 
  • How are you doing?
  • How able are you to get your job done?
  • Are you getting the support you need from management?
From these simple questions, rated on a scale and providing open text fields for comments, we garnered insights into IBMers’ overall well-being, productivity and access to resources and support needed, along with suggestions for leaders for where to focus improvements. 

Self-compassion: Tips for Tough Times Co-creating solutions. One of the most inspiring features of IBMers’ resilience during the pandemic was the outpouring of peer-to-peer support and solutions. Initially, when COVID-19 first impacted our colleagues in China, Slack channels appeared offering support and encouragement. These channels created a space where IBMers could help one another by sharing resources, messages of hope and insights. We learned so much from the experience of IBMers who went through social distancing first, which translated into better and more effective responses later. But these channels also provided a vehicle for altruism that is psychologically beneficial to both the giver and the receiver. We also studied the dialogue for the gaps—where did IBMers need more support and information? What are we currently focusing on that maybe we shouldn’t be? Could we put that energy elsewhere? 


In the midst of that effort, a group of IBMers began sharing their concerns and experiences working from home while caring for other obligations. Their dialogue with leaders who were also part of our IBM Executive Women’s Council resulted in the IBM Work from Home Pledge, a set of commitments and expectations intended to make the experience of working from home during COVID-19 more manageable. It went viral internally almost overnight. This was grassroots, co-created by IBMers and their managers, and now thousands of IBMers around the world have taken the pledge, including our CEO.1 The pledge is a great example of empathy, solidarity and understanding. 

A Family@IBM Slack channel was created to help working parents find ways to entertain and educate their children. It includes a learning channel where people can invest in their own skill development and share a learning journey with others. The coronavirus-support Slack channel is a place where IBMers can offer—and ask for—help during this time. IBMers are volunteering to read to children of their colleagues during their lunch hour or at bedtime. 

Perspectives

Scaling resilience to build skills and capabilities. Prior to COVID-19, we launched an evidence-based digital resilience program to United States IBMers and have seen significant improvements in participants’ ability to reduce their anxiety, depression and improve their sense of emotional control. Top focus areas of participants have been purpose, support system, positivity and empathy. This digital cognitive behavioral therapy program and other benefit programs are being evaluated and deployed globally. 

“With this crisis, we are going to learn a lot about ourselves in the coming months. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s also an opportunity to do things differently. We are all undertaking a great experiment in the nature of work—not because we want to but because circumstances have forced our hand. Chaotic times have a way of reordering reality; and in the process, opening doors to new opportunities and mindsets,” said Arvind Krishna, CEO of IBM, in My First Day as CEO: Our Journey Together.


Along with this solution, planning was already underway prior to the pandemic for a new resilience learning experience. When it became clear that resilience was going to be a must-have capability, we fast-tracked the launch of tools to help employees understand the importance of resilience and build habits and practices that will help them through and beyond the immediate crisis. Under the banner Be Resilient @ IBM, we now offer the Starter Kit, an interactive workbook of content and activities to help learners personalize concepts, including a comprehensive, digital, self-paced learning experience for a dozen topics and a set of quick checklists and reminders that can be shared on social platforms. 

Equipping managers to support their teams. We are also focused on helping managers develop their ability to lead through the recovery and renewal—showing up at their best at this critical moment and supporting their teams to stay resilient, focused and engaged. That includes being able to identify colleagues in need of help in a digital environment. 

Looking Ahead

My daily resilence checklist Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this work is shifting our mindset about the role and responsibility for corporations in this highly personal area.

Stigma impacts the willingness of employees to share their experiences, and the willingness and ability of colleagues to deal with the challenges of mental health, emotional health and well-being. Adding to stigma, privacy and liability issues leave many leaders feeling uncomfortable with shifting expectations around emotional and mental health issues at work. 

Another challenge is that the dominant discourse in corporations pertaining to human resources has been driven by outcomes: efficiency, effectiveness, agility and innovation. We have a strong preference for solutions that are proactive, proven, measurable and scalable. While the disciplines of psychology, social work and corporate emotional well-being and mental health are full of evidence-based solutions, the path of healing from trauma is not linear, requiring a different level of patience and courage in the face of ambiguity, flexibility and compassion. We will need a level of systemic responsiveness and adaptability that will be uncomfortable. 

For years, we’ve been talking about creating workplaces where people can bring their whole selves to work. Now is the time to shift our mindset and enable our leaders and teams with a powerful new lens on their opportunity to create resilient environments. By applying the three core principles of policy, practices and perspectives in ways both old and new, and doing so at scale in the face of shared trauma of COVID-19, we are helping our employees, our leaders and our enterprise build new recovery and resilience muscles.  

Deb Bubb is Vice President, Human Resources, and the Chief Leadership, Learning and Inclusion Officer for IBM. 

Joanna Daly is Vice President, Compensation, Benefits, Corporate Health and Safety, and HR Business Development at IBM.

References
1 Arvind Krishna LinkedIn Post, May 2, 2020, I pledge to support my fellow IBMers working from home during COVID-19.