Three Short Words that Can Change a Colleague's Life

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One in four adults experience mental illness each year, and yet less than one-third receive the treatment they need. For Rachel Gerring, a partner at EY and who has been with the firm for 15 years, the effects of mental illness bled not just into her personal life, but her professional behavior and productivity, as well.


After her first child was born in 2007, Rachel often found herself struggling to get out of bed in the morning. She would arrive at work, shut her door and cry for 30 to 45 minutes each day. Rachel began to pull away from friends, family, and coworkers - often postponing in-person client meetings to avoid interaction.


Postpartum depression became all too real, and the effects became too difficult to avoid. After secluding herself from social and professional engagements for some time, Rachel finally confided in a partner she trusted, who was able to help her understand the benefits and resources available to her through EY.


Through EY Assist, the firm's employee assistance and work life program, she was connected to a therapist in her practice area who could provide immediate help and began her journey of healing with the support of her colleagues at the firm.


It is not uncommon for mental illness to take precedence in a workplace setting. In fact, mental health-related illnesses have been shown to lead to less productivity, as well as longer-term effects on the bottom line, with $80- $100 billion lost in the US workforce annually due to absenteeism and productivity.


For individuals like Rachel, getting the support they need at work can be increasingly crucial to overcoming these personal challenges.

Taking a Stand

Several factors converged to propel EY to take a leadership role in addressing the most common non-visible disability - mental illness. First, EY piloted discussion groups on mental health and addiction in three cities across the US, where colleagues shared personal stories and discussed ways to support one another in the office.


The firm also participated in the first CEO Summit on Mental Illness held on Wall Street in 2015 and became one of seven companies to join NAMI's (National Alliance on Mental Illness) stigma-free workplace campaign. As EY employees became more aware of the impact mental health and addiction issues can have on individuals and families, the firm's conviction to expand its culture of caring to include these conditions as part of its focus on diversity and inclusion deepened.


EY decided to do more to destigmatize mental illness and addiction in the workplace by leveraging its AccessAbilities Professional Network, a network committed to developing an inclusive culture by raising awareness of abilities related issues. Through this network, a wealth of resources became available to employees, including EY Assist, leave policies, health insurance coverage, and flexibility options.


In an effort to provide further support to employees facing personal battles with mental illness and addiction across its offices, EY launched its "r u ok?" program in September 2016. The program was initiated to raise awareness, provide educational tools and engage partners and staff to get help and support colleagues who might be struggling with mental illness and addiction.


The initiative includes e-learnings, monthly electronic news on related topics, local office meetings, virtual department meetings, videos, testimonials, captivate messages, etc. In October and November 2016, we held events in Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Raleigh and Secaucus, where various EY leaders hosted in-person sessions to discuss how to approach mental illness and addiction among coworkers and offered tips to create a culture of inclusivity.


By having our own people host these events, we felt that we could best model a community of openness and engagement, where employees could be given the framework to make supporting colleagues or those seeking support less intimidating.

The Hard Facts

Within just a few months, nearly 40,000 partners and staff were exposed to r u ok? Messages and events across the country and learning how to have an "r u ok?" conversation with coworkers no longer seems like a taboo thing to do.


In addition, there has been a 30 percent increase in mental health-related calls over the past quarter to EY Assist - our internal employee assistance program set up to provide resources to our partners, employees, and their loved ones. The increase in calls has demonstrated the value of destigmatizing mental health issues in the workplace.

Employees Continue to ask "R U OK?"

With the many day-to-day responsibilities associated with each of our jobs, we can easily fail to take notice of colleagues who may be suffering from a non-visible illness. Through the "r u ok?" program at EY, employees are better equipped to identify signs of a colleague in distress and extend their support. Sometimes, this simple three-word phrase can go a long way, making all the difference in a colleague's life and overall wellbeing.


Our mission at EY is to build a better working world, and this starts with our own people. Creating a culture of inclusion, where mental health-related illnesses are accepted and talked through is key. As organizations continue to look for ways to increase employee satisfaction and retention, creating programs that provide personal support can ultimately have a drastic effect on the overall productivity and success of employees at work.


By empowering our people with the tools they need to have a meaningful conversation with colleagues about mental illness, our colleagues can be agents of change - destigmatizing these issues across our offices and local communities. Each of our personal journeys to success is paved with obstacles that others (or ourselves) may not even truly understand at the time.


Sometimes, it is the act of a coworker asking "r u ok?" that the next positive step can be taken. Getting help can be life-changing, and when employees feel uplifted by their coworkers, a system of trust is instilled that can make all the difference in the overall success of a workplace.


About the Author

Carolyn Slaski is America's Vice Chair - Talent at EY. Carolyn leads EY's efforts to deliver an exceptional experience to each of the organization's 62,000 people in the Americas. She leverages her understanding of the issues facing EY's client-serving and professional teams across every aspect of its business to develop strategies that support EY's momentum in the market, attract top talent, and increase the engagement and retention of its people.