June 28, 2021

Workplace Mental Health Awareness with Executive Director for the Gracepoint Foundation, Ian Adair

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #45

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Ian Adair, one of the greatest advocates for mental health in the workforce. He is currently serving as the Executive Director for the Gracepoint Foundation, and is also the author of Stronger Than Stigma and A Call to Action: Stories of Grief, Loss, and Inspiration. Ian is also a three-time nonprofit CEO and has a lot to offer on the subject of confirming that every worker has the resources and support to ensure their own wellbeing. He was also the Senior Program Manager for Diversity and Inclusion at T-Mobile and has been recognized nationally and internationally for his work.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Ian sat down with 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci and discussed the importance of mental health awareness in the workplace and how to best take care of your workers in today’s virtual world.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Ian shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Leadership today is more about taking care of your people.”
  • “There’s only so much a government and corporation can do for you. Philanthropy and nonprofits are filling a gap where there is still a need for service and people are starting to see that and start their own service.”
  • “If they’re working in your organization and you care about them, they’ll be better workers for you.”


Sam: I guess why non-profits for you? 

Ian: You know, I think I was one of those kids that just grew up with a number of challenges, like so many do today, but I let that kind of guide me for what I wanted to do, those circumstances. So, you know, I’m very open and honest about my background. My father was a drug addict. We moved from town to town. He also, at the same time, was still able to provide for us because he had a good job. But when he left, when I was young, you know, it was just my mother who was sick and battling mental illness. And my brother had battled a lot of mental health challenges as well. So I had to grow up fairly fast, but I had a lot of mentors, a lot of people that were very charitable to my family and did a lot of things for us. My mother and brother have both had suicide attempts between them. So I was, as the younger member of the family, I was more of the caregiver. So I had some pretty good direction from some people that I liked as people and they were kind of in the philanthropic world, the charity world. And I knew I felt comfortable there. And I think when you lack, even a little bit of direction, you kind of tend to fall into what you feel is comfortable. And I felt really comfortable at this work and pursued it as a career. 

Sam: Given the fact that companies are gonna have to bring back a lot of talent through your sameness, hiring people back quickly is going to be a reality as the vaccine becomes more available and we get back, you know, towards whatever normal is going to look like. As that happens, what do you think leaders need to know about mental health today?

Ian: I think leaders today have a huge challenge in front of them. I think for the longest time, if you’re Gen X or above, just talking generationally in terms of what’s in the workforce, you got to a place of leadership where, you know, hopefully it was meritocracy. You worked hard, you put in your time, you got a promotion and then you only had one form of leadership that you looked at. Today that workforce is very different. So people coming back from remote working, people coming back from being furloughed, organizations that had to lay people off now having to hire and bring a lot of people back in, they’re going to be left with having to really care for their people, because everyone’s been through a lot in the last year. Maybe some of your employees are taking care of somebody at home. Maybe somebody in that household was laid off and they were the only breadwinner. You know, a lot of stressful situations happened at home for the longest time. For a long time, working from home was tabooed but a lot of people worked from home now. For the longest time, people tell me that But now all the research is telling us that people were very productive because they were always working. If we’re averaging three hours more a day, that productivity is there. So what are we looking for? When people come back into the workforce, they are really trying to understand what’s important to our people. Working from home today is not what working from home was a year ago, because there might be another spouse or roommate working from home as well. You might be having a child who’s e-learning so the house is very chaotic. And so some people are really looking forward to getting back into an office setting, or at least maybe a hybrid model. But I think leaders really have to understand today that their workforce has been through a tremendous amount of emotional stress, anxiety, isolation, depression, and although they might not have had a leader worry about their mental health because of how leadership used to be, the role of leadership has very much changed. I like to say that leadership today is really more about taking care of the people doing the work than the work itself. If leaders want to keep their best people while also attracting and recruiting top talent, they’re going to have to change their leadership style in order to do that. And, you know, the pandemic has, as one of those things, that’s really brought a lot of these things to life. 

Sam: Yeah, you’re right. You know, we thought we were so connected. A pandemic happened and it was, it was wild for me to see how many companies, given all of the technology, even as they bought Zoom, bought Slack and bought a lot of software, their workers were getting more and more disconnected, you know, and it’s almost like you’re talking about leadership. It’s a real strain on managers, you know, leadership skills that were built for an environment where you’re face to face versus one that’s largely remote. 

Ian: Right, you know, we were all told, basically in a relatively short period of time, that we had to be socially distant, but I don’t know if anyone really can comprehend how long that period would be. I don’t think anyone really understood what that meant, and somehow during that, we not only became socially distant, we became emotionally distant as well. And so that lack of emotional connectedness that you spoke about, meant more to people than they thought, and they didn’t realize they until it was gone. And now when you are trying to check in on your teams and your employees, and you’re trying to do that through Zoom, unless you’ve had some training and some education, it’s hard to tell when somebody is going through a rough time. You can’t just look at their productivity level and think, ‘Okay, all of a sudden they’re not being productive. It’s their work environment or it’s them, or they aren’t passionate about the job or the mission anymore.’ Now we need to understand that a lot of factors could be at play. I think the leaders that take on that role and I call that role sometimes our culture caretakers within an organization, and that’s just basically understanding that they need to check in on their people, and the more they can do that, the more they can empathize with what their people are going through, the workforce today. And a lot of people leaving college really want the organizations to care about them, and that’s the best way to do it and that’ll mean a lot to them, and people are more loyal and work harder and more productive for an organization that knows and cares about them.

Sam: Are there any specific actions you would maybe recommend to folks out there who are thinking about obviously, again, there’s a lot of discussion around mental health and a concern for it in your workforce and the people around you. But I mean, I can’t help but say that it feels like it’s one of these topics that leaders and folks know is important, but then they move on. It’s sort of like, you know, Black History Month happens in February, and then it doesn’t happen again. You know, we talked a lot about diversity, we talked the other day with someone on diversity. Human trafficking awareness month is in January. That’s big for January. And you know, then we move on. You have, you know, topics that these, these, you know, sexual harassment and diversity training happens online once a year for companies. No, that’s not enough. I mean, how do any specific tactics you would have for companies to make, actually address the topic head-on and try to help someone who might be feeling pain or in need at the moment?

Ian: I do. I have what I feel is a pretty easy four step strategy to get organizations to really realize they can do this at a low cost to almost no costs, and implement this in their organizations for their people to understand that they really do care about mental health and wellness and people have psychological safety in the workplace. I think fortunately for mental health, or maybe, unfortunately, everyone wants to look at it, we have awareness days all over the calendar. I think awareness days just make it easier because I’m a former diversity equity and inclusion program officer for T-Mobile. So I know when you have days available, it just makes it easier to disseminate information to the workforce, to share information. They have lunch and learn or share videos, but mental health awareness month is coming up here in the month of May. Following that month, I believe that minority mental health awareness month is in July. We have suicide awareness month in September, and then we have world mental health day in October, and those are just a few. So if you really want to get serious about mental health awareness and letting your employees know that you care about their well-being, some pretty easy things to do are, first and foremost, just make people feel safe. And that requires leadership to really step up and let their employees know that we want to make mental health and wellness a priority, we want to create a safe space to talk about mental health. If we already know that one in five Americans experience a mental health condition in a given year, that’s 20% of the people in our country are experiencing something, we should know that that probably means a few people in our organization are currently experiencing something or suffering from something right now. So let’s openly talk about it, let’s talk about how we’re going to create dead space, let’s talk about how we’re going both online and in-person, how we’re going to educate our people and make them aware. That’s first and foremost, the second thing I’d like to do is tell people, share stories across all levels. But leadership should really start with this. There isn’t a group that I talk to, whether it’s on Zoom or an audience, where I just, kind of get this conversation going, I asked who in the room or who on this zoom call has been impacted in some way, either yourself, your family, or one of your closest five or six friends, by suicide, mental illness, or addiction, and an overwhelming number of people raise their hand and say they’ve been impacted in some way; usually 90, 95% plus. What that does is that allows the people who have asked you to come and speak to see how this issue has impacted their folks. It allows the people in the audience to take that collective sigh of relief that they’re in a safe place because they’re around other people who have had a shared experience. And so when a leader steps up and can say, I had mental illness in my family, I had somebody, a close friend of mine, who died by suicide, I’ve been a caregiver for somebody who had an addiction issue, and they talk about that, those personal stories allow somebody who might be suffering in your organization right now to feel a little bit safer to disclose if they’re going through something because they know they’re working for a leader who values mental health and their mental health, and well-being. 

So sharing stories across all levels is the number two thing that I always say is usually one of the most impactful and many people really get a lot out of it because it brings coworkers together. The third thing I suggest is just educating your managers and supervisors. Being a manager is tough, there are always so many personalities. We know most people leave jobs because of their manager or their supervisor. So how can we train managers today to be able to understand and recognize when somebody’s struggling or from grief and loss or somebody who’s having an issue with their mental health? No one’s asking them to become their mental health counselor or mental health professional. We just want you to be able to identify it and feel confident enough that you can help steer that person to get help, because if they’re working in your organization and you care about them; they’re only going to be a better worker, a more loyal worker, for your organization if you can show how much you care. And then the final thing is to make wellness a priority. You know, wellness is kind of an overused term, but really encourage what we hear so much about, work-life balance, promoting exercise and healthy living and healthy eating. Make it a competition, friendly competition always comes from wellness events that can bring employees together. Do 5Ks together, or charity walks and have raffles. A lot of insurance companies have accounts for large organizations, have money set aside to give you wellness programs and wellness incentives. And I know that’s been something that’s helped my organization, cause we’re about 650 employees, really bring the group together and deal with crisis mental health. So we’ve seen a lot over the last year, and when we incorporated our employee recognition with our employee wellness program, that’s what helped bring staff morale up, that really helped employee engagement as well. 

Sam: How did that work? What type of recognition, what type of rewards are most effective? 

Ian: Well, with recognition, you know, many companies still have a traditional employee of the month program, but as I said, we’re 650 employees, so picking out 12 employees based at large… yeah, that program really doesn’t mean anything, it’s almost like a lottery at that point. We’ve changed our culture of recognition, our organization to recognize and have directors nominate people who are just doing incredible work or have received great recommendations from patients or patients’ families. The culture is very much changed a lot, I know, early on, people thought it would be a lot of time and a lot of investment time, and they kind of fought the process. But to see it a year later and see how that program impacted those struggling to come to work, because when you work in a healthcare facility, obviously, you’re an essential worker. You can’t work from home. So you come to work every day, with a little bit of fear that you might pick up COVID, or you might take it back and infect somebody in your family. So there’s a lot of anxiety there. It’s hard to see and work with a tough population going through a lot in a short period of time. So you’ve probably seen three years in about a period of 10 to 12 months. But the recognition sometimes it’s just very simple, but it was very meaningful. Everybody who won recognition received a handwritten note from our CEO. We had recognition challenge coins made, something very popular in the military that corporations are starting to do now. I’m looking at one right now, and it just kind of says Gracepoint points out employee recognition and going above and beyond. They’re oversized coins that people can carry with them or have on their desks that create a sense of belonging with the organization. We have a small gift card attached to it, I think it’s around $10. And then we gave out a t-shirt too because we’re a pretty professional organization that has to dress a certain way. So when we have some neat shirts that we’re able to create what people like wearing, we have kind of a casual day. It really creates a neat environment around our campus for people to show how much they care about the organization. And again, not a lot of money was invested in this program, but it’s great to see directors get excited when they’re nominating people and that we’re recognizing between 10 and 20 people a month now and not just 12 a year. 

Sam: Yeah, it’s wild, it’s the easy stuff that’s so hard. but it’s, you know, it really, isn’t hard if you make it important. The recognition you’re talking about, rewards, it’s always surprised me how the simplest rewards. It’s not the hundred-dollar Amazon gift cards and the Apple watches, and the iTunes gift cards that are necessarily going to pick up. 

Ian: Yeah, usually when you get things like that, you get people really excited about it in the beginning, and then it kind of fizzles out because there’s no sense of belonging to the organization when you do those kinds of things. You know, when we get people together, we get their teams around them, and we make it a surprise for them. We make it as special as we can, and we have directors from other divisions go and support those kinds of mini ceremonies, little five minutes get-togethers to say the reason we’re all here today is for so-and-so, so we’ll read something about that person, why they were nominated, and just the look of surprise, just how they feel being recognized in front of their peers and not just, you know, a name on a computer screen on Yammer or Slack or something like that, but really in front of the people that they work with is something special to see. You know, the gifts themselves are just tokens of appreciation, but it’s the recognition in front of their peers, the feedback that I’ve received has been the most meaningful to these folks because we don’t know what they’re going through at home. A lot of them, again, have been going through some challenging things and to show up every day and to get recognized for their work, that means a lot to the organization, but it means a lot to the employees.

Sam: I have to ask you, just because given your expertise and background on the nonprofit side, you know, so many young people today, it feels in my conversations there is just so much great stuff happening around the nonprofit category. I know three or four friends who were in a startup who had spun out and said they’re going to start up their own nonprofit. It feels like there’s this very healthy wave. Maybe that’s a positive out of the chaos of the last year is people starting to reconnect with social mission and where they can impact better than maybe working inside an enterprise. Any suggestions, feedback, or advice for folks out there thinking about starting a nonprofit or trying to grow theirs?

Ian: Well, it’s funny. I talked to a lot, especially many young people and a lot of people that, you know, are in their thirties and forties and decided to leave their jobs, they weren’t happy with it and pursued more of a passion project. You know, for the longest time I think, I mean, I’m 46 years old, you grew up seeing people work at companies for 25 or 35 years, and you don’t see that anymore. You see a lot of people realizing how many choices they have, and a lot of younger people that are starting social entrepreneur kind of mission-based organizations, or are starting nonprofits realize that they’re having the same kind of excitement and energy of a startup when they start a nonprofit. But there’s a passion and a sincere interest in the mission that they’re working with. And they’re enjoying their time a lot more than some of their peers that are joining, you know, Fortune 500 companies that are starting from the bottom. They’re really learning skills, especially leadership skills and communication skills, that will be valuable to them that I think they can take with them, whether the organization is successful or whether they transition back to the for-profit world. But I think many people forget that the nonprofit sector is the third-largest employment sector in the country, we’re behind manufacturing and retail. But there are a lot more people in the sector that are finding they enjoy their work, and if they’re going to work 10 hours or 12 hour days anyway, they might as well do it in something incredibly passionate. 

Sam: Has charity been up over the last year or down? Are there any numbers on that? 

Ian: Yeah, giving is still going up, and I think, although philanthropic giving is going up, I think the number of organizations was fast-tracking. It was like 1.5, 1.6 million, about a year and a half ago. I know through COVID, some smaller organizations had to close because of the inability to fundraise, especially through live events. So, but we’re starting to see that kind of that uptick again, or through what we’ve seen in the pandemic. Different organizations are starting to be created to deal with the whole number, a list of issues that were exposed because of the pandemic. And that’s a number of things from childcare, to elder care, to mental health, to telehealth corporations starting. So there’s a whole slew of work opportunities that were kind of, you know, some white space there that was exposed, that people are starting to feel those needs now. And so we’re going to start seeing those organizations that had to close their doors pick up again. And we’re already starting to see that, but charitable giving is still on the rise. I think people realized there’s only so much your government can do for you. There’s only so much your corporation can do for you. Philanthropy and nonprofits are feeling a gap where there is still a needed service. And so I think people are seeing that, and they’re deciding to start their own organizations.

Sam: Ian last question for you. We ask everybody, obviously the future of work is a hot topic right now, what is your hope for the future? 

Ian: I think for me that the future of work is an exciting thing. Cause the future work’s going to be led by leaders who care about their people. I know the future of work is an organization or a company that you enjoy going to every single day. The future of work is something where you can find balance in both family and work, but I’m excited because I think the future of work really is going to be more about caring about people than caring about productivity and profit. And I’m hoping that’s the case, as I see organizations understand the workforce today being 65, 70% of it being Millennial or Gen Z, what they’re asking for. If they don’t meet the needs of the largest section of the workforce, then there’s going to be, that’s almost going to force them to change for that to happen. So I’m excited for the future of work to care more about people because that’s what the workforce is demanding. 

Sam: Ian I love the work you’re doing. If anybody wants to connect with you. How can they find you?

Ian: The easiest way to do it, I’d say Twitter and Instagram, both accounts. I’m very active @IanMAdair. I have people reach out to me all the time. You know, DM me, if you want to have questions about mental health, starting a mental health or wellness program, happy to help out and give some advice, because we’re all in this together and we need to help each other out. I think people forget all the great apps out there and I have them and I use them for meditation and for, and for staying calm, the best resource we have is each other.

And we need to use that function on our smartphones that we forgot to use a year ago that we’re starting to use a little bit more of now. And that’s the phone function. So reach out and connect with your peers because we’re all here for help. 

Sam:Yeah, thanks for talking today.

Ian: I really appreciate it, Sam. Thank you so much.

Topics Discussed: Mental Health, Burnout, Leadership, Future of Work

Dana Safa Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle