Five Questions with Dr. Ronald Copeland of Kaiser Permanente on Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace

May 16, 2018

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Kaiser Permanente’s focus on reducing mental health stigma for consumers and members also applies to its own employees. The National Organization on Disability caught up with Ron Copeland, MD, to understand how to best create a supportive and inclusive workplace for people who are experiencing a mental health condition.   

Ronald Copeland, MD, FACS, is senior vice president, National Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Strategy and Policy and chief equity, inclusion, and diversity officer at Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Copeland has been a practicing physician and surgeon within the Kaiser Permanente health system for 25 years and since 2013 has championed Kaiser Permanente’s equity, inclusion, and diversity agenda as a critical element of the organization’s overall strategic goals.

Dr. Copeland joined the NOD Board of Directors in 2015, and in 2016 Kaiser Permanente became a President’s Circle member of the NOD Corporate Leadership Council, a group of 50+ companies committed to advancing disability inclusion in the workplace. Because of Kaiser Permanente’s exemplary employment practices for people with disabilities, NOD named the company a 2017 Leading Disability Employer™.

Dr. Copeland served as a panelist at an NOD Corporate Leadership Council roundtable dedicated to starting a dialogue and challenging outdated thinking on mental health in the workplace. NOD asked Dr. Copeland five key questions to find out why employers shouldn’t overlook mental health in the workplace, how to reduce stigma and improve employee engagement, and what Kaiser Permanente is doing to build an inclusive culture.

Dr. Copeland speaking, alongside two panelists, at an NOD Corporate Leadership Council event

1. Why is it as important to focus on mental health in the workplace as physical wellbeing?

Mental health conditions are on the rise globally. An estimated 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and the World Health Organization has predicted that by 2020 depression will be the second-leading cause of disease globally. Depression and other mental health conditions are a leading cause of workplace disability in the form of lost productivity because of how common they are–1 out of every 5 people are suffering from a mental health condition at any given time–and because they tend to occur when people are young. Three-quarters of mental health conditions arise before the age of 24. While these statistics seem daunting, it’s important to remember most of these conditions are treatable.

However, mental health too often is treated as separate from physical health. One of Kaiser Permanente’s core beliefs is that total health is more than freedom from physical affliction — it’s about mind, body, and spirit. It’s the philosophy we live and breathe. Part of our mission is to achieve total health for our employees, members, and the communities we serve. With respect to our employees, we know it’s difficult to reach their full potential if they are experiencing physical or mental challenges. If we are committed to our employees achieving total health, we must treat mental health as importantly as we treat physical health, by creating an environment where people feel supported and psychologically safe, and where they have access to mental health services. There are resources available. There is hope.

2. Why is there still a stigma about mental health? Are you seeing a cultural sea change at all?

Stigma about mental health, driven by fear and misunderstanding, occurs because people often view conditions such as depression as character flaws instead of as treatable illnesses.  Stigma has been largely absent from the dialog about how the health care industry and society overall should address the mental health epidemic. The stigma around mental health has led to harmful and biased ways of describing people with mental health conditions, and feeds the stereotypes that people living with mental health conditions are less than whole, abnormal, or dangerous.

As part of our “Find Your Words,” public health awareness campaign, which is designed to help people start conversations around mental health issues, Kaiser Permanente conducted the first national consumer poll focused on stigma to assess attitudes and perceptions toward mental health. It uncovered some interesting contradictions: While 70 percent of respondents said people are more open about discussing mental health conditions compared to 10 years ago, more than half the respondents felt a family member or friend was struggling with a mental health issue, but not telling them.

As health care providers, we must make it safe and routine to talk with patients about mental health. It is as relevant as talking about chest pain or a broken limb. It is part of a patient’s total health.

3. What does the research show about prioritizing mental health and inclusion?

Among the reasons employers can no longer afford to remain silent about mental health in the workplace is the direct connection between employees’ mental health and the organization’s bottom line. Research demonstrates that employees struggling with mental health conditions directly impact workplace productivity and performance:

  • Mental health conditions are the single greatest cause of worker disability in the U.S.
  • 62% of missed work days can be attributed to mental health conditions.
  • Employees with untreated mental health conditions use non-psychiatric health care services 3 times more than those who do get treatment.
  • Depressed employees are 20% to 40% more likely to become unemployed because of their condition.
  • People with depression have a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

But, again, we want people to understand there is hope. Treatment for depression and mental health conditions works – but people who feel the need to keep their depression hidden are far less likely to seek help. That is why we want to reduce the stigma around mental health conditions, so those who could benefit from treatment aren’t afraid to seek it out.

4. What is Kaiser Permanente doing to make the workplace inclusive for people with disabilities, including mental health issues?

Creating an inclusive environment in the workplace helps employees feel safe and supported. If we’re interested in the total health and wellness of our employees and patients, we must have the same level of empathy about a person’s mental health as we do for their physical health. One of the ways we do this at Kaiser Permanente is through training and education around equity, inclusion, and diversity. Our Leading Inclusively program provides leaders and their teams the opportunity to gain knowledge, adopt attitudes, develop skills, and modify behaviors that contribute to Kaiser Permanente’s goal of continuously becoming more inclusive.

Additionally, assessment and measurement play a significant role in how Kaiser Permanente approaches making our workplace culture more inclusive for people with disabilities, including mental health conditions. We participate in benchmarking and undergo several external assessments to identify improvement opportunities and effective workplace inclusion practices we can implement.

Specific to mental health conditions – our commitment to advancing the conversation on mental health and wellness runs throughout our organization and beyond. Our Chairman and CEO  Bernard J. Tyson is actively leading a global dialogue about mental health, leading a panel on the topic at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and participating in a discussion at Brainstorm Health 2018 on ways to reduce stigma around mental health issues, integrate mental and physical care, and build resilient communities.

Kaiser Permanente is piloting a Mental Health First Aid training course to empower employees and the community to respond compassionately to someone experiencing a mental health challenge.

And as part of our Find Your Words campaign, Kaiser Permanente partnered with national oral history project StoryCorps. We asked for volunteers – both inside and outside our organization – to share their personal experiences with mental health conditions. The conversations are powerful, and everyone who participated said they did it because they wanted to help others. Sharing these conversations builds awareness and empathy around mental health conditions and the hope is listeners will be inspired to step out and share as well.

5. What are things we all can do to create a more inclusive environment for those struggling with mental health issues?

We all can show compassion and empathy for those with mental health conditions. We can also talk more openly about mental health by sharing personal stories, which help those struggling with mental health issues feel less isolated. We can also reduce stigma by learning and sharing facts about mental health conditions and being mindful of the words we use to avoid reinforcing stigma and causing harm. By raising awareness about the mental health epidemic and making it safe for people to seek help, we can move toward achieving total health for all.

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