Photo by Farm Credit Mid-America.

Prioritizing mental health brings global benefits, saves local lives

By Matt Reese

Andi Blaylock just got another call for help.

“It was a human resources partner who was working with someone who was struggling with thoughts of suicide. I get the question a lot from people in human resources. What more can I do? There is not more. I tell them to just be supportive, listen and don’t be judgmental. Just be there,” Blaylock said. “People put a lot of pressure on themselves to offer some pearl of wisdom that will change someone’s life. That is not usually how it works. People don’t usually remember what you said. They just remember you were there. If you were there, you did everything you could. You may think you did nothing, but you did a lot.”

Andi Blaylock

Blaylock has been in the field of mental health for 17 years as a licensed clinical social worker. In 2014, she started her work with Cargill as the internal mental health subject matter expert and employee relations program senior consultant. She is based in St. Louis, but working to make a difference for Cargill employees around the world.

“I consult with leaders and managers when employee personal issues impact the workplace. I work with the drug and alcohol program, our workplace violence program and I work with some of our mental health external vendors to make sure they are providing good service to our employees,” she said. “And I work with the HR partners who work with managers who deal with employee issues in the workplace.”

Cargill has certainly seen a shift in the prioritization of mental health in the work place since the start of 2020. 

“I was here pre-pandemic. My role did not come to be because of the pandemic. Cargill obviously valued paying attention to employee mental health long before that, but in the past year and a half we have been talking about mental health in a very different way than we ever have before. The pandemic accelerated this, but I think we created an environment prior to that so this could come to be,” she said. “We had a panel last October for Cargill employees who were willing to self-disclose a mental health condition and we had 600 people show up to listen to that panel discussion.”

Blaylock knows first hand this effort would not have worked in years prior.

“I had tried in the past to recruit employees to speak openly about their mental health condition and got no takers. I had one person who was willing to write a letter to be read anonymously. I couldn’t get anybody to speak publicly,” she said. “A new employee to Cargill had to do a project for her rotational assignment last year. She came to me and said she wanted to do a panel on mental health. I said, ‘Good luck. I tried to do this a couple of years ago and nobody would come forward.’ Next thing you know she recruits four people for a panel. Then I got nervous no one was going to want to be seen showing up to a mental health session. I was wrong in every way. I was so proud of her and equally proud of the panelists and Cargill. The panelists were overwhelmed from the response from their colleagues and they had so many people sending them their personal stories.”

The shift has come about for several reasons. First, Cargill recognized the value of prioritizing employee mental health.

“There is an impact of employee distress on the bottom line. There are many studies on this, but generally the return on investment for every dollar spent on mental health resources, you get $4 returned in reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, reduced medical claims and costs. I have seen it go all the way up to an $8 return in some studies,” Blaylock said. “One in four or one in five people are struggling with a mental health condition at any given time. That is a global statistic. No matter how small an employer is, they should consider offering an employee assistance program, an EAP. It is a free, confidential service for employees. It is very inexpensive relative to other mental health benefits. Then you need lots of education and awareness of how to use the program. We always want utilization of those products to be higher. Sometimes people say it is a good sign if people are not using the mental health resources, but we know 18% to 25% of people are dealing with a mental health condition at any given time. If our usage is not 18% to 25%, it means the people who need the service are not using it. It does not mean we don’t have problems, it means we need to do a better job of awareness and education and dispelling some of the myths around using the resources.” 

In addition to offering employee resources, Blaylock offers training to help employees know how and when to use those resources through ICU training.

“The training is for employees to help recognize when someone is in distress and knowing the five signs: personality change, irritability, social isolation, poor self-care, and feelings of hopelessness,” Blaylock said. “The next step is ICU, which is the intervention. We did borrow that from the Dupont Corporation. The letters of the acronym stand for the steps in the intervention.”
I: Identify the signs

C: Connect with the person. What can you say to somebody to let them know you are connecting with them?

U: Understand the way forward. Let people know what resources are available to them.

“We are not trying to turn our employees into therapists. We just want them to open their eyes to recognize when someone is struggling and have two or three supportive sentences to say to somebody to let them know you care and direct them to the resources Cargill has available to them,” Blaylock said. “We have been on this campaign globally to make sure all of our employees have a minimum level of mental health support, which is a free and confidential resource. We have had this in the U.S. for decades. We have employee health and welfare benefits through our insurance. People don’t always need a counselor if they are struggling with something, maybe they just want to read an article, listen to a podcast or sit in on a webinar. Through our vendor partners we have a website and app that covers a variety of mental health and self-care topics.” 

Since 2020, the issue of burnout has been among the most prevalent employee concerns at Cargill. 

“Workers who are able to work remotely from home on average are working two hours more per day than they were pre-pandemic. You give up your commute and go right from bed to the computer. Your work day is able to be longer. Companies are benefitting from that. It is great for the bottom line, but at what cost? That is what the cost is — burnout,” Blaylock said. “Because everyone else is always online they also feel like they have to be online. If they receive emails at late hours they feel they have to respond at late hours. We have tried to combat that by asking our leaders to be public about this and take a stand and encourage people to create boundaries for themselves around their work life and their family life. I have asked our leaders that, if you want to take a yoga class at lunch, put it on your calendar and tell everybody. That in turn, gives employees permission to do the same. We need our leaders to model the behavior we want to see in our employees. We are also offering practical advice for self-care and creating boundaries.”

The incredible change in global workplace dynamics since the start of 2020, when paired with the proper resources, training and culture, have put Cargill is a good place with regard to mental health.

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