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Supporting employees’ mental health

By Ola Snow, Chief Human Resources Officer

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S., a time to raise greater understanding of behavioral health issues and the ways they can impact any of us. This month, I am particularly focused on the rising rates of mental health issues among workforces around the globe. Recently, I moderated a discussion with a panel of experts, designed to shine a light on this difficult and costly subject for employers.

Joining the conversation were Lori Criss, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (OhioMHAS) and Tony Coder, executive director of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation (OSPF), who highlighted some alarming statistics about mental health among Ohioans, and Sandy Williams, who shared the story of her father’s death by suicide, and how it prompted her to devote her life to prevention through her organization, Family Advocates for Suicide Prevention.

The panel, hosted by Cardinal Health and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, focused on Ohio’s workforce, but the evidence is clear that there is a mental health crisis within our communities around the globe.

The reasons for rising mental health issues are many, including the unprecedented, and in some cases, lasting, disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest and political events that occurred at the same time. Since the pandemic began, there has been a 25% increase in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression, according to the World Health Organization. And in the U.S., 76% of workers reported at least one mental health condition, according to a 2021 survey by Mind Share Partners – an increase of 17 percentage points over 2019. Further, mental health issues disproportionately impact communities of color, LGBTQ+ people, and those with chronic health issues.

In the workforce, mental health issues contribute to reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and increased medical costs – because stress, anxiety and depression all impact the immune system. Depression alone costs U.S. employers about $44 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

Sadly, more than half (54.7%) of those with mental health issues don’t seek out treatment, due to stigma, lack of access or other reasons, according to Mental Health America. But it’s been proven when people with mental health issues receive appropriate treatment, they get better. Suicide remains the most preventable death, and we have prevention resources within our communities to help.

As employers, we have the responsibility and capabilities to support our employees’ mental well-being. Investing in workforce mental health is the right thing to do for our businesses, our community and the economy.

How do we begin? Increasingly, employees say the “resource” for mental health support they want most is an open culture, according to the Mind Share Partners’ study; they want and need to be able to talk about their mental well-being at work. Creating such a culture requires focused effort, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

As a starting point, OSPF, in partnership with OhioMHAS, last week launched its employer mental health toolkit, a guide designed to help employers talk to their employees when someone experiences a mental health crisis in the workplace. The toolkit provides tips, talking points and a list of statewide and federal resources. It also includes materials to promote the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which offers 24/7 access to crisis counselors trained to help people experiencing suicidal, substance use, and/or mental health crises.

I’m pleased that Cardinal Health is joining the Ohio Chamber in supporting the rollout of this important toolkit to employers across the state. I’m also proud to share some of the work we are doing to create a psychologically safe space where employees can talk openly about mental health issues.

It’s okay to not be okay: Normalizing the conversation

Stigma remains one of the most significant barriers to getting appropriate treatment for mental health issues. Eight in 10 employees say stigma prevents them from seeking mental health support, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and only 51% of employees report feeling safe in their role if their mental health issues are revealed, according to 2022 research commissioned by Modern Health

Several years ago, we set out to end the stigma at Cardinal Health, to create a culture where it’s okay for anyone to talk about NOT being okay. Our work began with a global initiative we call MindMatters, which is designed both to provide mental health resources to employees and their families, and to foster a supportive mental health culture.

Through MindMatters, employees are encouraged to share their personal mental health journeys. Some of our senior leaders have been setting the example. For example, Russ Schuster, president of Cardinal Health Canada, joined an all-employee DE&I town hall in January to talk about anxiety and how he manages it. I believe having an open culture where employees feel comfortable talking about mental health begins with vulnerability, and I have shared my own story with employees: I have high-functioning anxiety, perhaps invisible to many, but which manifests itself in worry, stress and loss of sleep.

Here are some of the steps we’re taking to remove stigma and support employees’ mental well-being:

  • Providing tools for leaders and employees: Through online learning programs, we  equip leaders with the skills they need to address employees’ mental health issues. And we provide all employees with free access to Headspace, a meditation, mindfulness and relaxation app, because research shows that even three minutes of meditation a day can improve mental health.
  • Encouraging the use of our Employee Assistance Program (EAP): Our EAP is available to all employees, whether or not they have Cardinal Health benefits, and each employee and their household members (ages five and up) have access to eight sessions of free, confidential counseling per issue, per year. We highlight the EAP through multiple channels, including podcasts, one-on-one conversations and printed mailers. Last year, we launched a new EAP intranet site that helps facilitate connections to help; the new site resulted in a nearly 19% increase in total EAP engagement over the prior year.
  • Bringing on a licensed mental health clinician: Through our EAP benefits provider, we have a mental health professional available to our workforce. She hosts a variety of trainings and podcasts throughout the year, including two this Mental Health Awareness Month. She also works with each of our employee resource groups (ERGs) to plan and present mental health awareness sessions relevant to the ERGs’ constituencies. For example, she led a program on mental health stigma in the Black and African American community for our BOLD ERG, and hosted training sessions in both English and Spanish for our ¡HOLA! ERG, on topics like coping with traumatic events and supporting friends and families with mental health issues.
  • Offering Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training: MHFA training, available at no cost to all U.S. employees, helps people identify and support anyone who might be experiencing a mental health issue (like a panic attack, traumatic event or withdrawal from substance misuse, for example), and connect them with additional care. To date, more than 1,100 employees have completed MHFA training.
  • Training employees in QPR: QPR, an emergency mental health intervention, stands for Question. Persuade. Refer. This training teaches employees three simple steps that can help save a life from suicide: recognizing the warning signs, offering hope, and directing the person to proper help.

Recently, for the second year in a row, Cardinal Health’s support of employee mental well-being has been recognized for excellence in mental health by the Business Group on Health’s Best Employer Awards.

What is truly important, though, is the results of the work: Today, addressing mental health issues openly is core to our culture, and the mental well-being of our employees is one of our Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) priorities. It is woven through our diversity equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives.

We are building a psychologically safe space where employees can talk about what’s happening in their lives, where employees at all levels are encouraged to check in with one another. And that is key. When we create a space where it’s okay to ask, “How are you really doing?” and where it’s okay to respond openly, we can make a big impact ­– an impact that may even help to save a life.

As chief human resources officer, Ola Snow has oversight of Cardinal Health’s Human Resources, DE&I, Community Relations, Communications, Environmental Health and Safety, Security, Real Estate and Facilities organizations. Snow and her team are charged with ensuring Cardinal Health continues to be a company and culture where talented and passionate people are eager to join, ready to contribute and able to thrive as they build their careers. Snow is co-executive sponsor for the company’s DE&I Council and an advisor for the company’s Black and African American Racial Equity Cabinet, two groups helping to advance DE&I within the organization. She also serves as a board member of the Cardinal Health Foundation. Snow’s contributions to workplace culture have been recognized by several organizations, including Top 50 HR, Columbus Business First and the National Diversity Council.

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Cardinal Health is a distributor of pharmaceuticals, a global manufacturer and distributor of medical and laboratory products, and a provider of performance and data solutions for healthcare facilities. Subscribe to our News Alerts to get all of our latest news.