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Culture Champions: The Emotional Wellness Revolution at Booz Allen Hamilton

If you read a certain genre of business journalism, you might be forgiven for thinking that the most important factors governing your happiness as an employee revolve around amenities. Does this office have nap pods? How many different kinds of non-dairy milk are the break rooms stocked with? Can I bring my corgi to work with me?

While these questions might well be worth asking—we at Ethisphere are, to be clear, pro-corgi—they aren’t actually the questions that influence happiness at work. Many of the world’s leading companies can give stunning answers about the ping pong tables in their headquarters, but they fall down on the fundamentals:

Do I feel comfortable here? Can I bring my whole self to work? If I need help, will I get it?

Until fairly recently, very few major companies could provide adequate responses to these questions. As psychologist and advocate Barbara Van Dahlen said, “Historically, you park your personal life at the door. You come to work, you do your work, you only share nice things.” There’s just one small problem, she notes: “Humans don’t work that way.” She’s spent more than a decade working to change that culture in our workplaces.

Unfortunately, a massive cultural shift in the way we think about our emotional and mental wellness at work can’t happen in a single wave. Change happens slowly, organization by organization, and individuals within a given company have to step up to champion that shift.

Booz Allen Hamilton, the multinational technology and consulting firm based in McLean, Virginia, exemplifies that shift. The company has gone all-in on transforming its culture around mental and emotional wellness, in part because a handful of leaders at the company made it a priority. In partnership with Van Dahlen’s organization Give an Hour, the company has set about educating its workforce and slowly shifting its culture to encourage, rather than ignore, conversations about emotional wellness and how it impacts our professional lives. Their story provides a model for other leaders and companies seeking to transform their own culture.

A New Way of Thinking

Barbara Van Dahlen’s advocacy work began nearly 18 years ago, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. As a child psychologist by training and profession, she knew that schools would need to take special care to help children process the events that had taken place. Her focus expanded to adults as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. Van Dahlen’s father and uncle were both veterans, so she had an innate sense of the immense psychological burdens that many deployed individuals would bring home. “I was so bothered by the fact that we were not going to be ready,” she explains. “I didn’t want to see another Vietnam.”

Barbara Van Dahlen, psychologist and mental health advocate

“It has to be a community response,” Van Dahlen thought, believing that returning veterans could not be helped by the government alone. She set about building that community, founding Give an Hour in 2004. At first, Give an Hour’s mission was narrow: build an online network of mental health professionals willing to give an hour of their time every week to provide mental health care for members of the armed forces and their families.

Van Dahlen realized quickly that the potential need went far beyond her initial approach to serving those who serve and their families. She began to explore addressing mental health and wellbeing from a holistic perspective, culminating in work on a “community blueprint” to map how various existing mental health efforts could work together to provide care for service members, veterans, and their families. In 2007, she attended an event hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative where she met Andrea Inserra, an executive at Booz Allen Hamilton who was also passionate about mental and emotional wellness. Other leaders from Booz Allen then became involved with Give an Hour, including an engineering executive named Joe Sifer.

Their partnership would prove fruitful. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, the office of Vice President Joe Biden asked Van Dahlen to examine what might be missing in efforts to support emotional wellness around the country, building on her community blueprint work to create a coordinated effort. Wanting to build a cross-sector steering committee, Van Dahlen asked Inserra to join as a representative from the private sector.

After several months, the committee announced its central conclusion: “To improve our nation’s overall mental health, we must change our culture so that mental health is seen as an important element of the human condition—something that we all have—something that we all should pay attention to.”

Working from this audacious goal, The Campaign to Change Direction launched with support from organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the Case Foundation, and Booz Allen Hamilton, and in partnership with the US Department of Health and Human Services. The Campaign created materials to educate the public on the basic signs of emotional pain in others. Rather than discussing mental health in more clinical terms of diagnoses and symptoms, the public health campaign centered on teaching everyone to identify “The Five Signs of Emotional Suffering.”

At the launch event for the initiative, First Lady Michelle Obama said, “Everyone should know all about these signs. That should be like knowing how to check for lumps in a breast or getting your cholesterol taken.” The next step toward making that happen, of course, was getting information about the Five Signs into the hands of people around the country—people like the workforce at Andrea Inserra’s employer.

Into the Corporate World

Booz Allen Hamilton had recently launched its own internal wellness program, called PowerUP, in 2014. Andrea Inserra has spent much of her career focused on healthcare and health system transformation and is a passionate advocate for treating the whole person. As such, she was a natural choice to serve on the steering committee for the program alongside other senior executives, including Joe Sifer.

However, Inserra had one bit of feedback for the program as it was initially conceived. “I told them I’d only participate if we incorporated mental wellness,” she recalls. As at many companies, Booz Allen’s wellness program focused at first on physical wellness, for the understandable reason that as Inserra acknowledged, “Emotional wellness was and is a more difficult conversation to have.” However, her career working in and around healthcare had convinced her of its vital importance.

Several months later, under the leadership of Booz Allen’s Chief Personnel Officer Betty Thompson, the steering committee began to explore adding a mental and emotional wellness component to the PowerUP program. Andrea’s involvement with The Campaign to Change Direction meant that Booz Allen had a partner with expertise and resources in Give an Hour. Even given that relationship and full support for the idea of bringing these conversations to the workplace, Van Dahlen remembers there still being some apprehension about the process, especially when the group needed to present the idea to a large gathering of senior leaders.

“To give full credit to the leadership at Booz Allen, including the CEO, they really wanted to do this. But it took many, many conversations, and people were still worried—how would the top executives at the company react?” Van Dahlen recalls. However, her experience with such groups gave her confidence their work would be well-received, because issues of mental and emotional wellness have impacted so many individuals. She was right, and the group received the go-ahead to make Booz Allen one of the first companies to partner with Van Dahlen’s efforts.

Andrea Inserra accepting Booz Allen Hamilton’s first-ever Mental Health Corporate Excellence Award. Also pictured are Paul Gionfriddo, CEO of Mental Health America, and Garen Staglin, Charman of One Mind.

The company was breaking new ground, so challenges remained. Although Give an Hour had extensive experience working with government agencies and healthcare providers, that work had to be adapted to a corporate environment. Conversations needed to be had with stakeholders across the organization to ensure reporting lines were respected and resources were in place to handle employees who now felt enabled to come forward.

Andrea Inserra was particularly focused on what sort of impact the program would have. “How do we measure if we’re making a difference?” she recalls asking. “My fear was that we would set up systems for helping people, train first responders, and then we wouldn’t be able to make accommodations.” Fortunately, the company hasn’t seen any such issues after the rollout. Employees haven’t needed anything yet that the company could not provide—all they needed was to know they could ask.

Changing the Culture

Building a compelling program was only half the battle for Booz Allen, though. They also had to change their own culture so people knew they could speak up and ask for help. The company hosted a mental health symposium to launch the new resources and programming in 2016, attended or streamed by 600 employees around the world and featuring the company’s CEO, Horacio Rozanski. Inserra noted how this public statement from the CEO helped cement that this initiative had support from the very top of the organization.

Joe Sifer, Executive Vice President, Booz Allen Hamilton

Steering committee member and senior executive Joe Sifer had a major role to play in fostering this change, using his own personal journey to illustrate and advocate for the importance of a culture shift around mental health at the company. When Sifer first joined Booz Allen Hamilton in the mid 1990s, already ten years into a career as an engineer, he was a high performer who was quickly promoted to a management role with significant responsibility.

However, that responsibility came with unexpected hurdles for Sifer, and his lack of coping skills became an impediment to his success.

Fortunately for him, a mentor within the firm recognized his struggles for what they were: post-traumatic stress induced by an exceedingly difficult upbringing. That mentor advocated on Sifer’s behalf so that, quite unusually for the time, he got help through the company. Booz Allen arranged for him to connect with a coach—“really my therapist,” as Sifer put it. “I learned that I had an emotional illness, just like a physical injury, and to be the happiest and most well-adjusted person I was going to have to manage it.”

After this ad hoc intervention facilitated by his mentor and Booz Allen, Sifer moved quickly up in the ranks, eventually becoming an executive vice president. Given the vital role that frankly addressing his mental wellbeing and getting help for it had played in Joe’s success, he has always been very open about telling his own story in smaller professional settings such as the leadership development program. Once Booz Allen rolled out the new mental health components to the PowerUP program, Sifer found himself eager to speak publicly about its importance, both in person and in videos for Booz Allen employees.

Having a highly successful executive who had spent most of his career at the firm come forward to speak frankly about his journey with mental health and emotional fitness put a face on the program, and helped to spark conversations. As James Fisher, a communications specialist at the firm, said, “By telling his story, I think Joe made it safe for other people to begin telling theirs.”

The Program Today

Now, Booz Allen Hamilton’s mental and emotional wellness program is fully integrated into the PowerUP initiative, which has also expanded to include components focused on community and financial wellness. The company has made educating all employees on the Five Signs a requirement, and cards with information about them, as well as healthy mental health habits, can be found in any break room “right next to the employee discounts,” according to Joe Sifer. Two more mental health symposia have also been held after the first one’s success.

The company has also trained hundreds of “first responders” around the world whose focus is helping those who step forward with mental health concerns. These first responders are equipped to direct individuals to the full array of the company’s mental health resources and employee assistance program. As the program rolled out, its relevance to all corners of the company became clear.

“There was a pivotal point,” Sifer recalls, “when our Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer came to me and Andrea and said, ‘Too many of the cases that come to compliance are from people who ultimately were struggling emotionally, sometimes acutely.’” After that conversation, the training for first responders became mandatory as a component of the ethics and compliance program. Members of the legal and human resources teams also receive the training to inform the work that they do.

The compliance benefits of a wellness program didn’t surprise Barbara Van Dahlen, either, who emphasized that anybody at a company can champion the sorts of changes she advocates. In fact, she says that when she connects with companies via business leaders, rather than through more traditional channels like human resources, she sees more serious engagement.

She emphasizes that any company can take the steps that Booz Allen has, and that they won’t necessarily be costly. “This is not expensive, which is the good news,” she emphasized to me. “But it requires leadership and engagement all the way down. If you do that, the return on investment is massive.”

About the Author:

Tyler Lawrence is the Executive Editor of Ethisphere Magazine. He oversees the content of the magazine, Ethisphere’s special reports, and other publications. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and is based in New York City. He may be reached at [email protected].

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