Workplace Mental Health: A New Pillar of Employee Assistance Programs

As a part of my series in Authority Magazine about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jasmine Chen.

Jasmine Chen is CEO and founder of LIFE Intelligence, a mental health app putting research rigor into employee wellness and development. Previously, Chen was a finance investor at hedge fund Marcato Capital, global private equity firm the Carlyle Group, and Mergers & Acquisitions investment banking at Merrill Lynch. In finance, she realized the importance of providing professionals like herself with a practical, efficient approach to mental, career, and relationship health. This led her to developing LIFE Intelligence, a part-proactive preventive course, part-reactive problem-solving tool.

LIFE Intelligence: Start with You

Tell us your entrepreneurial journey

After Princeton, Harvard Business School, and years of finance investing, I’d been through my fair share of corporate wellness initiatives. However, I was disappointed to still see myself and high achieving peers struggle with stress and anxiety, work fulfillment, and relationships. The unfortunate reality was that most wellness offerings didn’t fit our type-A personality. We were impatient with videos, too private for therapy appointments, yet couldn’t find automated tools that had the level of rigor we wanted. 

At the time, my job at a hedge fund was to scour the world of information. Volumes of research and analysis went into finding “needle in the haystack” investment ideas. I had done all this work to back up my stock picks. But how much had I done for my most important investment: me? I realized that I was, oddly, uniquely qualified to sift through decades of psychology studies to bring professionals like me a science-backed, practical, and comprehensive resource. So, I set out to write the training I wish I’d been given over two degrees. Today, LIFE Intelligence is a scientific app for your self, career, and relationships. A comprehensive course and pocket problem-solver, our immediate therapy and coaching snippets help users optimize their wellness and development in minutes. We show holistically how each element of your mental, emotional, career, and family health intertwines with others. Missing any one piece misses the full picture and cure. 

LIFE Intelligence: Self Discovery

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Every day in a startup is interesting, but what really keeps me going is when I hear from users just how much we’ve improved their lives. From marriages, to career decisions, to students getting through college, I’ve been grateful that so many users of our app reach out and connect with me. It’s something I never expected before launching my own company, especially as in the finance world, we were dealing with massive, legacy companies and hundreds of billions of assets under management. Now, I get to see the very nuts and bolts of building a company, and that keeps me much more grounded and close to customers.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

A big part of LIFE’s emphasis on problem-solving is based on the fact that ruminating on problems is very common, but doesn’t lead to much productivity. Rather, we tend to dwell on negative thoughts without resolution. Especially in work settings, can lead to burnout and affect the morale of all those around you. So, first and foremost I hope everyone learns self-coping and problem-solving skills, such as those we teach in LIFE, to be able to bounce back quickly. Whether frustrated with a colleague, envious someone else got the promotion, or anxious before a big meeting, these mental and emotional stressors can make a regular day seem suddenly overwhelming.  

What kind of coping skills? At the most basic level, we teach emotional granularity, or the practice of naming very specific emotions. Research finds that the first step to addressing your emotions is to label them and the more specific you are, the more control you gain. People with emotional granularity are less prone to maladaptive behaviors like binge drinking and aggression and experience less severe anxiety and depression. They even are less reactive to rejection! So I’d say that’s the first step. Instead of just replying “fine” when someone asks how you’re doing, try to really think about how you feel.

LIFE Intelligence: Personal Development

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

In the next 3-5 years, we’re going to see a huge HR shift toward serving the whole human. GenZ, and Millennials, are now searching more for self-fulfillment, purpose, and engagement rather than money or stability or title. We’re already seeing that shift in some of the most forward-thinking teams and companies, and that wave will only continue. 

Because of that, at LIFE Intelligence we’re betting big on not just training for leadership or mental health in silos, but showing people how each aspect of their lives really tie together. Issues at family will affect work productivity; fights with a colleague may lead to stress and anxiety. Your self, career, and relationships are intertwined, and thus all deserve to be part of workplace wellness and training initiatives. Some companies today are taking the screening and monitoring route, which I feel is a bit invasive, and while it may diagnose, doesn’t actually help solve the problem. Rather, I advocate for education. Preventive training that is company-wide can be a non-stigmatized, non-invasive key to supporting an employee’s whole health.

LIFE Intelligence: Understand You

Can you please give us your favorite "Life Lesson Quote"? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life? 

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin

This quote explains a lot about how we developed LIFE. Personally, I experienced books going in one ear and out the other; seminars would give me a one-day boost but then I’d fail to put learning into practice. After research, I found that per the forgetting curve, we lose 40% of what we learn almost immediately. So, our research snippets come with deep reflective prompts to try and imprint learning right away. 

As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure.  In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. What initiatives have you taken to help improve mental wellness on your team?

1. Modern employees need holistic health benefits from employers. This means all-encompassing support for a person’s self, career, and relationship success. That’s why the LIFE Intelligence training guides users through 9 Missions (modules) on 1) mental health 2) self-awareness 3) values and goals 4) time management and regret 5) decision making and bias 6) stress and social influence 7) relationships 8) communication and conflict resolution and 9) leadership and emotional intelligence.

LIFE Intelligence: Self Care Science

2. On self, mental health impacts of COVID-19 are as traumatizing as terrorist attacks and natural disasters. It’s a real stressor that must be acknowledged by employers. Companies are investing heavily into digital therapies. As a startup, we can’t provide everyone therapy coverage because it just gets too expensive. But, we can provide everyone LIFE’s digital program. During onboarding, we explain how important their mental health is to us, and show them where they can go in the app to manage stress, anxiety, panic, grief, insecurity, regret, and more.

3. On work, leadership skills are more important than ever in a crisis. Remote working has created a lot of communication friction, uncertainty, fear, and frustration. So, companies also need to invest their Learning and Development / training functions to provide digital coaching, communication, and emotional intelligence skills. At a startup, this again is quite tough. First, we’ve been remote from Day 1, and remote employee development is difficult without the organic mentorship that evolves when you’re in an office. Second, we also don’t have a lot of budget for large scale seminars and classes. So, we ask new hires to hone their goal-setting, time-management, and decision-making, communication, and leadership skills within the app, through Missions 3-5. 

LIFE Intelligence: Better You

4. On relationships, because we are now working from home, tensions between spouses, kids, families are all running high. It’s more important than ever for everyone to learn basic marriage counseling information in order to resolve conflicts, express empathy, and strengthen connections. While we try to let people maintain their personal privacy in this area we do point out that LIFE’s Missions 6-8 give plenty of communication and conflict resolution skills that can help in both work and home.

5. Last, while many of us are feeling lonely working from home, there’s actually a whole group of more introverted people who are actually able to focus better working remotely. For those like me, offices can be constant distractions. Commutes can be lengthy and force living in crowded areas. In many ways, working remotely has been a huge mental health boon, as we can finally escape to rural areas and quiet workspaces. That’s why at LIFE we embrace remote work and believe it’s the way of the future. If companies shift toward making remote more permanent, those who are more quiet or sensitive to social stress can finally shine.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees? 

Right now I see most companies dealing with their most severe cases, offering therapy or insurance coverage for medication. This is a great first step, but I think companies are drastically underestimating the value of preventive education and the role of learning and development for improving wellness. Often, the most driven people are also those most plagued by social-emotional differences that make them prone to anxiety and depression. So, companies should also look to investing in the wellness of their highest performers, whom psychiatrists might call the “worried well.” These are people who are very high functioning but still deal with stress and anxiety. They may be prone to being very hard on themselves. While these people may not need something as serious or expensive as therapy, they could benefit from education in coping, communication, and problem-solving skills, all of which are also required for strong leadership and teamwork. Essentially, companies need to stop thinking of wellness and learning and development in silos, but rather as one united front to serve the whole human for peak performance.

LIFE Intelligence: Live Better

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

As individuals, we can strive to manage our own emotions. Stress is contagious and bleeds into relationships with colleagues and family members. So, being able to self-soothe and think before you speak (or yell) can go a long way in supporting the mental health of others. Studies even show that unclear instructions for example can cause employees a lot of stress. So, managers can try to be clearer in their communications. As a community and society, I think another huge cause of stress is conflict. If we can learn to have empathy for one another, talk, and truly listen, the hope is we can develop a more peaceful and equal society. 

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness.  What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

Absolutely, there are some basic habits that everyone can keep for a baseline of mental wellness. First is exercise. This is often prescribed as a first line of defense against depression: even 10 minutes is sufficient, so go for a walk around the block at the very least. Second, keep a sleep schedule. Science shows that the strong relationship between sleep and depression/anxiety goes both ways. Those with insomnia are 10 times more likely to have depression and 17 times more likely to have clinical anxiety. Last, drink water and eat healthy. It is estimated that 90% of the body's serotonin is made in the digestive tract. From bowel movements to eating, your gut is like a second brain. Take care of it with probiotics and water.

LIFE Intelligence: Feel Your Best

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

I have the benefit of being able to use my own product here! LIFE Intelligence covers hundreds of coping and communication skills. I’ll just highlight two of them here. 

One of the most common is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Pioneered in the 1960s, CBT has become the most widely researched form of therapy. The best part is, it's so easy you can do it yourself in five minutes. The cognitive model says that the "reality" we experience is just our interpretation of events, or our immediate thoughts about them. Change your thoughts, change your feelings, and change your behavior. For example, thinking “I can’t do anything right” might create a feeling of hopelessness that leads to behaviors like giving up. On the other hand, thoughts like “I could have done some things differently” might create interest which encourages reflection and growth.

Another one is for whenever I catch myself ruminating over a problem. Instead of agonizing over it, I do structured problem-solving. Breaking down a problem and deciding on a course of action can help you break free from useless rumination. Here’s how: Define the problem. What is it you’re really anxious about? Who is involved? List possible solutions. Think of this as one big brainstorm. Choose the idea you think is best and evaluate it. How much time and effort will it require? Write a solution statement. Then, to avoid overwhelm, break that solution statement into much smaller steps. What’s one thing you can do this month? This week? Today? Right now?

LIFE Intelligence: Onward & Upward

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

I keep a paper journal in addition to journaling in the LIFE app. Research has found that introspective writing is an effective therapeutic, educational, and healing method. One study found that writing down your life goals can help you feel happier and even boost your immune system, while another found that writing down your goals significantly increases your likelihood of achieving them. So, every year I go through one full book of the Daily Stoic Journal. Like LIFE, it provides deep and thoughtful prompts, but instead of being based on science like LIFE, it’s based on ancient stoic principles. I’m on my third book! 

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

My vision is world where we all share one common language for self-and-other-management skills. When we’re in school, we do multiplication tables before we can become theoretical physicists, and we learn vocabulary before we can write novels. Yet, we ask people to naturally develop into leaders, without the basics of good mental and emotional management skills and relationship/communication skills. A standard education, such as that for social-emotional-learning becoming more popular in schools today, is the future. Having such education become part of corporate wellness and learning and development programs can help employees collaborate and thrive. That’s why I really do believe that it is essential that wellness is not just a voluntary benefit, but something in which everyone partakes. Our daily moods, distractions, decisions, and words affect all those around us. By all gaining the same training, we can better develop both awareness of self and empathy for others. Strong culture starts with common language. 

LIFE Intelligence: Know Yourself

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

The LIFE Intelligence app has many free forever features, so we hope readers will download it and share with colleagues and friends. You can learn more about me and my story here: Download for iOS or Android.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

December 23, 2020
Just Five Minutes a Day
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