Jen Porto on Mental Wellness in the Workplace
October 17, 2022
Suzanne calls Jen Porto, Manager of Leader Education at Headspace Health to discuss strategies on developing a culture of mental wellness at work.
Jen and her team launched a leadership education program to equip managers with science-backed practices to drive cultural change in organizations, support mental health and well-being in the workplace and improve employee engagement, productivity and retention.
Text Transcription of Podcast:
JP: Hello, this is Jen Porto at Headspace Health.
SD: Hey Jen. It’s Suzanne Delbanco calling from Catalyst for Payment Reform. How are you?
JP: I’m great. How are you, Suzanne?
SD: I’m doing all right. Well, I’m excited to talk to you today. I wanted to make sure you knew we had an audience listening in. So before we get started, could you introduce yourself?
JP: Sure. Absolutely. So excited to have some folks listening in on our conversation today. Again, I’m Jen Porto, manager of Leader Education for Headspace Health, and I’m part of a much larger team that is developing leader programs and education for Headspace. This is a new area for us, so it’s super, super exciting as we grow.
SD: So it’s really intriguing to me because I’m the executive director of a small organization. We’ve got eight people on our team and, you know, leading everybody through the pandemic and all kinds of changes I really had to think a lot about, you know, the mental health of myself and my staff and how can we do work in a way that feels sustainable to each of us and, and all that. So I was really intrigued to learn more about what you’re up to. Can you tell me, you know, a little bit more about your role at Headspace Health and how you got involved in leadership education about mental health?
JP: Sure. And you know, what you, what you touched on, and I’m sure we’ll touch on it a little later, is just, it’s incredible the needs of mental health in the workplace today pre and really during this whole pandemic period. I am part of a cross-functional team, so there’s a team. It includes our product marketing, our creative group, our operations, customer success, corporate marketing partners. We’ve all come together to really begin building some really unique content around leader education and mental health. And so I’m really working on the content, the operations. So how do you roll this out operationally as well as the delivery? So I get to do some delivery of the workshops and content, and then of course, how are we gonna scale this as a company? Because as we know, the demand is, incredibly high for this type of training because leaders really are needing new tools in their toolbox. I came to Headspace through, you know, it’s, it’s funny, I like to think of myself, Suzanne, as like 25, but I’m not. So I’ve had a few careers in my lifetime. So really, I, I’ve done things from investment banking to running my own marketing and media agency in Chicago, when I really had my own burnout story. So that was when I was 36 and I actually experienced quite a bit of burnout myself, and that made me really look at, you know, what was happening with me, what was happening with some of the leaders and organizations that I was working at that time. And that just allowed me to make a shift. I just made a big decision that I was going to shift out of marketing and media at the time and got into executive wellness and have been doing that for the last 12 years. I’ve coached Fortune 500 executives, I’ve worked with doctors and medical groups, and I just really became acutely aware more and more of the demands on leaders in our and the trade-offs. And as I started to do that, of course you get more education, you get more certifications. One of the things I did is I got trained in functional medicine. Uh, so I’m a functional medicine certified health coach, and when I was in my functional medicine training, which was really interesting, it was a whole global program, I learned of Headspace. I was already using it myself and I would refer my clients to Headspace and then someone in my global group there in the functional medicine training said, “Hey, you know, you should really take a look at bringing some of your skills perhaps to Headspace.” So I actually joined about a year ago, and that was when the company was, actually we announced our merger because we merged with a company called Ginger and became Headspace Health. We announced our merger, I think it was five days after I started with the company. So it’s been a, it’s been a wild ride, but for me, really it, I think I have a very unique lens where I’ve had many careers. I myself have, you know, been an executive positions, I’m entrepreneur and then really just getting a front row seat at coaching some of these executives through the pandemic. So when Headspace and I came together we said, you know what, this could be a really unique opportunity with my experience to help them launch this leadership program.
SD: Got it. Well, now I know who to call when I’m having, you know, “trade-off issues”. So, you know, my head is usually filled with thoughts of strategy and I really have been lucky in my last couple decades to be able to hire the people that I want to work with and I really enjoy them, but I’m not always maybe the warmest, fuzziest person in thinking about people’s emotional states, and I’ve been very lucky to have other senior staff who are really cued into that, who kind of hit me in the head sometimes to say, “Hey, Suzanne, by the way, I think we should be paying attention to X, Y, Z.” So I’ve had a lot of great guidance from my peers, you know, people that I have brought onto the team and I’ve learned a lot more over time. I think about how to pay attention to my own state of being, but also that of my team. But I’m curious what are the qualities that really set apart leaders and managers that are likely to take bold action, either for their own mental health or that of their employees?
JP: Yeah. Such a great question. And I think you touch on something too, which is I think when you’re a hard charger, right, and you’re someone who, you know, is focused and, and running different organizations, you can, you do have to take a moment to kind of key into those things. So it’s great that you got team members behind you with that. But some of the qualities that I really see as awareness, first of all, right? So these leaders are aware, both on a personal level, but also really a holistic team level. So they’re cultivating personal awareness of their emotions, their thoughts, their behaviors on pretty much a regular basis. And then also they’re learning how to do these pulse checks, right? Checking in on their teams. And so I kind of see a dual track that, you know, they’re learning and growing as people, and then applying it to their team. And then there’s a sense of vulnerability, they’re willing to share their struggles, their stories, their successes. I think it really shows our common humanity, and that’s even when we’re doing these workshops, I think you can see, when people start to share it, it’s just, everyone can look around and say, “Hey, hey, even though I’m the leader, even though I’m the CEO of this organization, I’m human.” And so then there’s this willingness to model. So I think, you know, you’re seeing them really saying, “Hey, I’m gonna take some quiet time.” “I’m gonna take some meditation time.” “I’m gonna get some more sleep.” “There’s gonna be a big calendar block.” So people can see that they’re taking time for themselves and their family. And then the idea of mindfulness, obviously with Headspace, you know, mindfulness is really the combination of awareness and compassion. So the idea of just taking time for yourself in order to be able to do that for your team. And curiosity, so really coming at things from a curious mind, being open and not judging the mind, but actually just being open and curious and, and really that really takes a lot of. Good listening, right. And experimenting. So I’m seeing a lot of that. Creativity, of course, resilience, adaptability for sure. Being able to pivot, embrace change, really focus on a growth mindset, and then perseverance, you know, just to keep going. And really a love for their people and work. So, you know, I don’t think I’ve met any leader that doesn’t love. It might not, they might not love every day, but they do love what they do and the people that they lead and you know, that gives them the energy to keep doing it. You know, there’s a greater purpose beyond themselves. So when I think a head space and we think about, you know, being kind to our minds is something that we are focused on as a company and really making mental health something that is, it’s global, that people are caring for their mental health. Those greater purposes really drive people as well.
SD: Yeah. So I know Headspace published a recent survey, its annual Workforce Attitudes toward Mental Health Survey. So, you talked about curiosity, empathy, all these things that you need to have in the workplace. What was your biggest “aha” from the findings? Especially, what are areas where leaders or managers especially need to focus on?
JP: One of the “ahas” was that employees expect employers to help and care for their mental health. So it was really interesting, 80% of employees believe that their employers actually have a responsibility to help them with their mental health. Even more so, 82% said they wanted their leaders to ask them how they were doing but actually care about the answers. So, you know, expectations are high given where we are in the world, and I think the majority of employees really want their employer to walk alongside them. So some of the things that really I think, I don’t know if they were exactly “ahas”, I think they were more in line with what we might even expect, which is 83% of CEOs and 70% of employees missed at least one day of work due to stress or burnout or mental health challenges. In the last year and 28% of employees feel engaged. So we’re, we’re in a position where we’re looking to, how do we manage stress? How do we manage burnout? How do we foster engagement? Top stressors were what you would expect. I mean, COVID 19 was one of them, obviously, but burnout due to workloads and lack of staff, right? We’re seeing it. That, of course, is poor work-life balance and actually management and leadership. So maybe this would be definitely an “aha” would be one in four employees listed poor leadership and management as a top stressor at work, and this was something very different over 2020, because we do this often, this rep report. So, Leaders and managers are really needing new skills for their toolbox for today, and employees are expecting them to have them. And so, so that’s where, you know, you really need to step in and say, how can we walk alongside these leaders?
SD: Yeah. So I’m just so curious. You know, we have a long history of dividing medical care from mental healthcare, and my brother is a social worker and said something so interesting over this weekend, which is his view of the history of this is, we know how to fix a lot of things in medical care, not everything, but if a leg is broken you know how to set it and put it in the cast. But mental illness is a lot harder. There’s not quick fixes and so his view is that medical professionals said, “This is too hard, we don’t know how to do this, so we’ll let someone else do it. We’ll pay them a lot less.” He’s a social worker for context, and I just thought, of course, this is his perspective, but the issue of privacy is something that has been big in medical care, and I think it has contributed a lot to the stigma with mental health, and it’s fascinating how much we sort of divide these two things, but still care about confidentiality and privacy. How does one, as a leader bridge wanting to respect the privacy of workers, but at the same time show that you care about their mental health and want to know how they’re doing?
JP: Yeah, great question, and I love what you were saying about just historically how we’ve viewed things. I always joke and tell people, we talk about well-being and health, but it’s not like our head isn’t a part of our body, right? So, of course, your mental health is part of your health and we’re obviously working to break down that stigma as a company on a regular basis. But I would say probably one of the key things would be really the check-in conversation. I think it’s just understanding how to check in with your team. That’s key. I think that’s just caring in and of itself and what we have seen, really doing that on a regular basis… So when I say regular basis, I mean ideally it’s great to do it weekly, but maybe biweekly, but certainly you want to do it on a regular basis and teaching folks how to do that. So really asking some good, open-ended questions to allow people to share and by having those one-on-one conversations, you’re really creating those check-ins and making that part of our culture. You’re also creating a psychologically safe culture. As your leader I want to know how you’re doing. And that may sound so simple, but if we don’t make the intention to do those check-ins a part of our daily, you know, day-to-day with our people, then they’re not gonna probably happen because especially with the workloads and the staffing that we have nowadays. So, you know, I think that is key. And again, that modeling, you know, just that modeling. Sharing, as a leader that you’re human. Just different ways that you might be working through some things on your own strategies that work. So that sharing and that openness and that conversation is key.
SD: And so you were talking about doing that individually. What about as a group? You know, let’s say we meet weekly to check in about the workload and all that kind of stuff. Do you advise leaders to do anything on a group level or just individual?
JP: You know, I think groups, group dynamics can be very powerful. It’s just, I think you have to always give people the option of participating, right? So as long as they have the choice as to whether or not they are gonna participate in these groups, they’re electing to be a part of the group. It can be very powerful. It can build very strong relationships amongst colleagues, which is important as well. It also helps you spot things that are off. So if you’ve got a team member where all of a sudden they’re just not behaving the way in which they would normally behave, and you’ve got a whole group that is noticing this and ready to support that person that’s very, very powerful. And another way of thinking about, it’s like a buddy system. So not only can you do one-on-ones, but you can also buddy up and create some buddies within the larger groups where people at least have some built-in confidants that they can talk to and start to express, you know, how they’re really doing.
SD: Any success stories you can share about a leader that went through this training, implemented this check-in mentality, et cetera, and led to some measurable results?
JP: Yeah, great question. I will give this example, which was interesting. I had a client that, it was actually a part of our program, our pilot program, and she actually a high level executive within this organization and she would get on all the planning calls with us and just kind of ticked all the boxes like you normally would as you were planning something. And after the session, she was one that never wanted to really come on camera much, and after this session, she actually came on camera and shared her own burnout story with myself and some of the folks at the company. And, you know, I just thought that was powerful because you just don’t know how you’re reaching people in the moment. I’m sure we’ll be happy to share more like hard fact numbers down the road, but anecdotally, we’ve seen a lot of great stories and a lot of great testimonials.
SD: I appreciate hearing what you’re up to, Jen. I think it’s really interesting to think about, most people just think about their employees and they don’t think about their role as a leader and the influence they can have as a leader in creating the right culture. But it’s something I’ve been, you know, noodling with a lot and so it’s really neat to hear from you and the experience that you’ve had. So thank you. Thanks for, thanks for the information and I’d love to stay in touch as you guys do have real results, you know, that you can share. I think, you know, our audience will be really interested.
JP: Yes, that would be great. Yeah. I would love to share. Like I said, the program launched July 1st of 2022. We’re just get getting off the ground and would love to share more stories, and thank you so much for inviting me today and taking this step. Hopefully, by just listening people have gotten the idea that really it starts with them.
SD: I think we’ve made a lot of progress as a society over the last couple years. So, um, good timing for the work you’re doing and, um, and the work many of our employer members that we work with are doing with their teams! So thanks again and I look forward to talking again soon.
JP: Okay, thanks, Suzanne. Bye-bye!