This year’s Kennedy Forum Annual meeting in Chicago kicked off with a gathering of CEOs and business executives from across the nation, to explore the vital role of the employer and workplace in addressing mental health and addiction.

An impassioned speech from mental health advocate Patrick J. Kennedy painted a positive picture of how some American businesses are addressing behavioral health among their employees. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the work place, and typically hits during working age. The productivity gains of prevention and early intervention are a no brainer in the eyes of enlightened employers, with many businesses waking up to the fact that mental health needs to be prioritized.

Dig a little deeper though and things aren’t looking so rosy. Uptake of employee assistance programs sits at less than 4 percent, “fail-first” oriented models prevail and despite the passing of the federal parity law, mental health coverage still lags. What’s perhaps lies beneath these issues is the enduring legacy of stigma that surrounds mental illness still today.

Despite the mixed state of play, a Kennedy Forum panel showcased a diverse range of initiatives and approaches to fostering a workplace that promotes, supports and improves the mental health of employees. Here’s what we learned:

Applying scientific rigor

Google’s Bill Duane, explained, the use of technology to track and diagnose mental health issues is an area Google and other tech giants are actively exploring. At one end of the spectrum Google’s flagship gDNA work study, based on the principles of the Framingham heart study, sets out to understand how happiness impacts work and vice versa. Towards the acute end, a recent IBM study has shown how computers may be used to detect episodes of psychosis. The holy grail, Bill explains, would be a wearable that allows continuous monitoring of emotions in the work place, allowing us to better measure emotional patterns and understand how to prevent stress.

When it comes to improving behavioral health in the work place, measurement matters. This was underscored by Alexandra Schwarzman, a Chicago Attorney who is championing her firm’s employee wellness program, Life XT. In an industry where high billability, competition and frequent burnouts are common place, Alexandra is realistic about how a program featuring yoga and mindfulness may be perceived. Her top tip to avoid cynicism? Make prevention initiatives measurable and join the dots for peers between emotional resiliency and improved individual and business performance.

Here at Edelman, as part of the Campaign to Change Direction, we recently launched the pledge to know the Five Signs of emotional suffering. As John Edelman explained, having a framework to recognize behaviors in others that could point to psychological distress can go a long way to supporting those in need and creating a culture free of stigma.

Humanize, don’t intellectualize

Despite the clear move toward applying scientific rigor to behavioral health, a caution was offered by the panel, “we don’t need to intellectualize this issue, we need to humanize it”. Michael Thompson of the National Alliance of Health Purchaser Coalitions pointed out that while reducing hospitalizations is a universal driver in healthcare, in medicine, we don’t always act in the financial interest but because simply it’s the right thing to do. The same rings true for mental health. Productivity aside, we must do what is right for the individual and move our business culture from one that speaks only in dollars and cents to one which speaks in term of humanity and compassion.

Tied in with this recognition is a clear workplace trend toward peer and volunteer-driven support programming. Of all classes delivered at Google, 85 percent are staff volunteer driven, Bill Duane highlighted, and the level of commitment employees have to supporting others around mental health is often surprising. We’re also seeing a growing recognition of the mental health needs of specific groups such as veterans, and how they can be supported in the workplace.

Finally, Richard Edelman, spoke of the importance of an example in stamping out stigma and showing that one can succeed in business while living with mental illness. In his late mother, Ruth Edelman, we have an inspirational example of a much-revered woman in the business world not only openly disclosing and living with Manic Depressive Disorder, but steadfastly advocating for the disease.

A proliferation of new models

As mental health grows in acceptance as a public health issue, while access to care barriers persist, we’re witnessing new players and innovative delivery approaches. Walgreens recently announced a collaboration with Mental Health America to launch a new platform that aims to screen 3 million people through 2017 for depression. Seeing the pharmacist as community venue for mental health screening and support services, the company is providing opportunities for continuing education for all its pharmacists, and a training program focused on depression and anxiety will be offered for the more than 1,100 Walgreens Healthcare Clinic nurse practitioners and physician assistants. The impact of this move is yet to be seen, but the promise of the many places we shop as also places for mental health services is an exciting prospect.

It seems that in behavioral health, we are at a tipping point, in terms of changing attitudes, preventive and treatment delivery approaches, especially within the workplace setting.  I’m looking forward to see what the next five years bring.

Lucy Yeatman, vice president, Health, Chicago.

Donald Tong