Workplace MVP: Bipolar Disorder in the Workplace, with Jacqui Chew, iFusion, and Colton Mulligan, FoxFuel Creative
On this edition of Workplace MVP, Jacqui Chew, iFusion, and Colton Mulligan, FoxFuel Creative, each share their stories on working with a bipolar disorder with host Jamie Gassmann. Jacqui and Colton discuss how leaders can foster psychological safety in the workplace so that employees can be open about their mental health. It’s essential listening for HR and other workplace leaders. Workplace MVP is underwritten and presented by R3 Continuum and produced by the Minneapolis-St.Paul Studio of Business RadioX®.
Jacqui Chew, Managing Director, iFusion, and Licensee, Curator at TEDxAtlanta
iFusion is a storytelling consultancy that deploys the power of narrative design to create brand stories for companies and social impact initiatives that resonate and inspire action.
Jacqui works at the intersection of storytelling, innovation and business. She deploys the power of narrative design in reframing an organization’s brand story for resonance and to inspire action.
Described as a “Lara Croft of Problem-solving,” Jacqui is a seasoned business operator with a passion for building inclusive teams, and working cross-functionally to bring disparate groups together toward a common goal.
As the curator and licensee of TEDxAtlanta, Jacqui is always on the lookout for change-makers and innovations that are solving for the challenges of today and those just around the corner. Under her leadership, first of TEDxPeachtree from 2009 to 2018 and presently of TEDxAtlanta, Atlanta has grown in recognition within the global TEDx community as an innovation hub for technology, healthcare and social impact initiatives.
She is resourceful, tenacious and well networked in the Atlanta business, social impact and technology communities.
Colton Mulligan, CEO, FoxFuel Creative
FoxFuel Creative produces effective outcomes for brands and people through design, content, and technology. The company helps consumer goods and products, healthcare, music and entertainment, finance, and real estate brands speak genuinely and effectively to their audience.
Their specialties include brand and marketing strategy, consumer insights, content development, creative ideation and execution, advertising concepts, and website development.
At FoxFuel, Colton Mulligan serves as CEO and is responsible for client relationships, guiding the discovery process through brand strategy into early creative concepting.
With 15+ years of branding and marketing experience, Colton has worked to develop brand and marketing strategies for TSA Pre-Check, Hilton Hotels/Home2Suites, Ben Folds, Fiesta Grande, Chip and Joanna Gaines, Pinnacle Bank, HarperCollins, Narus Health, Lifepoint, HCA, and Community Health Systems.
He also speaks at various events on Digital Marketing, Healthcare Marketing, Entrepreneurship, and the relationship between mental health and creativity. He lives in Nashville with his lovely wife Aly, and Goldendoodle JT.
R3 Continuum is a global leader in workplace behavioral health and security solutions. R3c helps ensure the psychological and physical safety of organizations and their people in today’s ever-changing and often unpredictable world. Through their continuum of tailored solutions, including evaluations, crisis response, executive optimization, protective services, and more, they help organizations maintain and cultivate a workplace of wellbeing so that their people can thrive. Learn more about R3c at www.r3c.com.
About Workplace MVP
Every day, around the world, organizations of all sizes face disruptive events and situations. Within those workplaces are everyday heroes in human resources, risk management, security, business continuity, and the C-suite. They don’t call themselves heroes though. On the contrary, they simply show up every day, laboring for the well-being of employees in their care, readying the workplace for and planning responses to disruption. This show, Workplace MVP, confers on these heroes the designation they deserve, Workplace MVP (Most Valuable Professionals), and gives them the forum to tell their story. As you hear their experiences, you will learn first-hand, real life approaches to readying the workplace, responses to crisis situations, and overcoming challenges of disruption. Visit our show archive here.
Workplace MVP Host Jamie Gassmann
In addition to serving as the host to the Workplace MVP podcast, Jamie Gassmann is the Director of Marketing at R3 Continuum (R3c). Collectively, she has more than fourteen years of marketing experience. Across her tenure, she has experience working in and with various industries including banking, real estate, retail, crisis management, insurance, business continuity, and more. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mass Communications with special interest in Advertising and Public Relations and a Master of Business Administration from Paseka School of Business, Minnesota State University.
Intro: [00:00:04] Broadcasting from the Business RadioX Studios, it’s time for Workplace MVP. Workplace MVP is brought to you by R3 Continuum, a global leader in workplace behavioral health and security solutions. Now, here’s your host, Jamie Gassmann.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:00:25] Hi, everyone. Your host, Jamie Gassmann, here. And welcome to this episode of Workplace MVP. According to a recent study performed by Mental Health America, only five percent of employees surveyed indicated that they strongly agree that their employer provides a safe environment for employees who live with mental illness.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:00:44] With the increased availability of workplace resources and tools for ensuring the psychological safety of their employees, along with the increase in conversations globally about reducing the stigma of mental health, particularly in the workplace, this stat seems to indicate that there’s still a level of discomfort with employees being open and honest with their employers about their mental health in a large majority of workplaces.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:01:08] Which leads to the question of how can leaders within organizations help their employees to feel psychologically safe and to create work environments that invite open dialogue about how employees are truly feeling. Are there ways to create an environment that invites vulnerability, creates a feeling of safety for being open and honest with leadership, breaking down those walls of fear that so many employees are likely still having?
Jamie Gassmann: [00:01:33] Well, today, we have two wonderful MVP’s that will share from their perspective, personal experiences and approaches for how organizational leadership can create a psychologically safe work environment. And with that, the benefits it can have on the employee, leader, and organization overall. With us is Colton Mulligan, CEO of FoxFuel Creative, and Jacqui Chew, Entrepreneur and Mental Health Advocate. Welcome to the show, Jacqui and Colton.
Jacqui Chew: [00:02:03] Thanks for having us.
Colton Mulligan: [00:02:04] Glad to be here.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:02:06] So, we’ll start off with our first Workplace MVP, who is Jacqui Chew, Entrepreneur and Mental Health Advocate. Share with us, Jacqui, a bit about your background and how you came to be a mental health advocate.
Jacqui Chew: [00:02:20] Thank you, Jamie, for having me. I have been on this journey since being diagnosed in 2005, it’s been a long time. And so, I was diagnosed at a time where mental health/mental illness was not discussed. There was still a heavy, heavy stigma around it. For the first few years, I’ve lived in silence, and in fear, and in shame with what I had. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005.
Jacqui Chew: [00:03:03] And at the time, I owned my own business. I had a marketing consultancy. And my main clientele were and they still are high growth startups that are either angel backed or venture capital backed. And those cultures tend to have a very hard charging, high performance base type culture. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but those are definitely stressors. They are conditions that exacerbate my illness.
Jacqui Chew: [00:03:49] So, today, though, happily after years of psychotherapy and I continue my treatment protocol, I am managing my condition quite a bit better. And here I am.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:04:06] Great. Yeah. Great to hear kind of some personal experience that you’ve worked through. So, from your perspective, taking that personal experience into account, when you look at the stat that only five percent of employees strongly agree that their workplace is a safe environment for those with a mental illness. What are your thoughts on that?
Jacqui Chew: [00:04:27] You know, sadly, the stigma behind mental health and just the dialogue around it, I mean, there’s still such shame. I recently had a conversation, actually, just a-week-and-a-half ago with a young professional who was very concerning. She had an anxiety, she felt anxious, she had already been diagnosed with depression, and she was very, very afraid of losing her job. And there were so many stresses going on with her job that it sort of exacerbated her symptoms and she had no one to talk to.
Jacqui Chew: [00:05:16] And her situation is really very common. It’s still really difficult to talk about, say, your depression, or your bipolar disorder, or your recent manic episode, and how it’s affecting your job to your supervisors, your managers, because there’s this fear that, “Oh, my gosh. I don’t want to tell my manager about it, but yet I know I’m not performing to my usual level. And I know I’m going to be evaluated. My quarterly MBOs are coming up.” And all of this just builds and it’s a cumulative effect that just exacerbates all the symptoms of someone with bipolar disorder or depression.
Jacqui Chew: [00:06:09] And it is very common, unfortunately. And it’s quite unfortunate, with COVID and the isolation that we have all had to go through, of being alone, of being locked down, even for those of us who don’t have a chemical brain imbalance, there are many everyday folks who are being diagnosed with clinical depression. So, this sort of thing is more and more common.
Jacqui Chew: [00:06:46] But, unfortunately, the sense of safety that we can talk about it at work, just as we could talk about our blood pressure or our heart condition, or how we’re doing better now because our blood pressure is better, because we’re taking better care of ourselves, we’re exercising, and so on and so forth. We can talk about that but, yet, we still can’t talk about our mental wellness or the lack thereof. And that’s a real issue.
Jacqui Chew: [00:07:14] And that’s what that five percent statistic is all about, is, there is so much misinformation, disinformation, and misconception around mental illness. And workplaces, I don’t believe are doing enough to bring their managers and their supervisors to detect symptoms or signs of distress in an employee, which is unfortunate.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:07:49] Yeah. And, you know, you bring up a good point about kind of leaders doing enough. And when we connected previously, you mentioned that it was important that leaders educate themselves on mental illness. Can you talk a little bit about how that would be helpful in a work environment? And particularly on some of the things that you brought up, like with rising diagnoses from the COVID, working remote last year, how would that education be able to help these leaders to create more of an open environment for their employees?
Jacqui Chew: [00:08:27] That’s a really good question. I think, you know, this pandemic has really created an interesting dynamic, because depression or diagnosis of depression and anxiety is so widespread now that the managers themselves are being diagnosed. And so, not only are the folks who are individual contributors who may have been diagnosed prior to the pandemic, but the managers who may be fine prior to that, but because of the pandemic – depression being one of the effects or anxiety being one of the after effects of the lockdown – they’re being diagnosed.
Jacqui Chew: [00:09:13] I think that it has increased the sensitivity to want to understand. Because when you are a manager and you are all of a sudden diagnosed with something that you do not have to think about or not have to even be basically be educated on, you, all of a sudden, are faced with a whole range of symptoms yourself and you’re getting the treatment protocols and et cetera, et cetera. And I think that makes you more empathetic to folks at the workplace, to the people that you manage, the people on your team.
Jacqui Chew: [00:09:58] And, I mean, perhaps this is rather Pollyanna-ish of me, but I would hope that this would make leaders, managers, supervisors more empathetic and more sensitive to the signs and the symptoms because they themselves are going through treatment. They themselves are wrestling with the many challenges that come their way as someone who had been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder.
Jacqui Chew: [00:10:29] So, I truly believe that people in that power dynamic who are themselves going through treatment and are being educated because they have to be are going to be leading the way at work in creating a safer workplace, if you would, for these kinds of issues to be discussed. Just as you would discuss teamwork and team collaboration, you think about your work team is your support team for the project. Well, part of that support system could be key members that are understanding the person who is perhaps not having a good day, not having a good week, and being more empathetic and understanding about that.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:11:27] And I suppose with a leader who has their own diagnosis, they can be a lot more open with their team as well, which can create some of that breakdown, some of that vulnerability, or create that environment to be more vulnerable, and allow people to feel like they can be more open and bring things to their leader that maybe they wouldn’t have before because there’s a level of understanding. Would you agree with that?
Jacqui Chew: [00:11:54] Yes. Absolutely. There’s a heightened awareness, I believe, because more and more people are getting their diagnosis. They’re being diagnosed. And so, that is, certainly, I think, raising the level of conversation around mental illness.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:12:13] So, you also shared in that previous conversation that we had that it was important that a leader not assume that every person with a mood disorder is going to have the same cognitive disability. Can you talk through the impacts that that could have if an employer just assumed that it was like a one size fits all with the diagnosis and why they should be looking at it more kind of on an individual basis?
Jacqui Chew: [00:12:39] Certainly. So, it’s not a project, but we actually know more about space and getting into space or extra space than we know about the way the brain works, unfortunately. Two people could be diagnosed with bipolar disorder – there are two versions, bipolar 1 and bipolar 2. And they could both be diagnosed with bipolar disorder 2, but they could exhibit very, very different symptoms. And the severity could be very, very different as well.
Jacqui Chew: [00:13:29] So, for myself, I am the bipolar 1, that is my diagnosis. But, generally, I’m really high performing. I can perform at a very high level so long as I get my sleep and I am eating well and exercising, I am fine. But then, there are others who have a really tough time managing the symptoms, even with the exercise and the diet and the sleep. And so, it affects people very differently. And, once again, I’m not a doctor, but I do know that this is a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes at least bipolar disorder. And it affects people very differently because everyone’s physiology is just a little different.
Jacqui Chew: [00:14:31] And so, for a manager to assume that, say, if two people on their team have, say, anxiety disorders or depression, that they are going to be the same way, they’re going to have the same symptoms, and such, would just be, really, sort of a bad assumption. And it could lead to very inaccurate type of assessment of a person’s performance, or a person’s behavior, or attitude, or things like that.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:15:07] And we’re talking a lot about, you know, creating that open dialogue and showing that empathy to employees who may have a mental health diagnosis. There’s going to be probably some listeners going, “Yeah. But we can’t ask those questions. We’ve got regulations we have to follow. There’s certain H.R. rules that are applied here. We can’t discuss their medical condition.” So, from your perspective, how can a leader show support for their employee that has been open about their mental illness without violating those H.R. rules and regulations so that they can show that empathy, create that open environment, but do so in a way where they’re not putting that employer at risk?
Jacqui Chew: [00:15:53] Sure. That’s always a tricky scenario. As a manager, what I had done is, when someone is struggling, say, at work, just as a rule of thumb, regardless of their diagnosis, regardless of whether they’ve been diagnosed or they’ve disclosed, I basically say, “Hey, it seems like you’re really having a tough day. How about taking a long weekend?” So, sometimes just being human and being empathetic to someone who’s clearly having a tough day or a tough week, and we all have those regardless of whether we’ve been diagnosed or not. Just letting them know that they’re allowed, that they can take a day off, take a weekend, take a long weekend.
Jacqui Chew: [00:16:59] The other thing is, you know, most companies – the companies that I’ve been a part of – have as part of the healthcare benefits, employees have access to talk therapies as part of the package. And so, for instance, if someone has disclosed that they’ve just lost a close family member, it’s really, really common for someone with a traumatic life experience to experience clinical depression, I mean, that is a trigger or a known trigger. And so, for something like that, I mean, there’s no H.R. rule – you wouldn’t be violating any rule to say, “Hey, we have available this particular benefit. And I just want to make sure that you are aware that it’s available to you should you need it.” And that is a caring and a responsible thing for a leader or a manager to do.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:18:11] And that also is a great way to show that empathy and that support. And through education and understanding, what might be a trigger for that employee helps you to be able to spot that when you need to pull some of those other approaches that could be helpful in that moment without bringing up the actual diagnosis. That’s great feedback and approaches to use.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:18:37] So, looking at your career, what is something that you would say you were just most proud of within your career overall?
Jacqui Chew: [00:18:48] Gosh. Well, apart from the obvious, since I work with startups, it’s always fantastic when the startups that I work with thrive – more than survive but thrive – and they grow and they scale. But, actually, this might sound a little strange, but I am most proud of feeling empowered and strong enough to fire asshole clients. I have no asshole rule – and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say that on a podcast, but I’m sure y’all can bleep that out.
Jacqui Chew: [00:19:32] But I think drawing boundaries, and having boundaries, and learning to identify as someone with a bipolar disorder diagnosis, working with all kinds of personalities is a trigger. Certain kinds of behaviors are triggers. And certain kinds of situations that these types of personalities tend to create are stressors. And over time, they can bring on some very, very severe episodes for me. And I had that happen. And so, I have essentially a no asshole rule. Whereby, there are certain types of personalities that I will not work with. And if a client exhibits those behaviors and continues to exhibit those behaviors, despite my conversation with them, I just won’t work with them anymore. And I see it as self-preservation.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:20:45] And it probably took you a little bit to get there, but I could see where that could be a really proud moment for yourself to have that empowerment and strength to be able to say what you’re willing to put up with or put yourself through. So, great example. So, if our listeners wanted to connect with you, what is the best way for them to do that?
Jacqui Chew: [00:21:10] So, you can reach me at jacquichew.com, that’s an easy way. And I have started a community driven organization called Brain Babel, B-A-B-E-L. It’s in its infancy. So, I’m on Instagram as Brain Babel, so that is where I’ll be sharing tips and I’ll be sharing the latest research and trends sort of demystified and in layman’s terms for caregivers as well as folks who are dealing with mental illness, and as well as parents who are taking care of children who’ve been diagnosed with a variety of mood disorders.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:22:04] Great. So, we’re now going to move to our next Workplace MVP, so joining us is Colton Mulligan. He’s the CEO of FoxFuel Creative. Colton, can you share a little background with us in how you came to be the CEO of FoxFuel?
Colton Mulligan: [00:22:22] Sure thing. In 2014, I was working at another agency with two people that had basically become my best friends. We looked around and realized there was an opportunity to leave the agency because we were the ones effectively managing half of the agency on the creative services marketing side. So, we went to the owners of the business and we want to buy out our non-compete contracts, start our own agency, and ask some clients to go with us. They said okay, and threw out a number that was way more than the three of us had. So, I took a second mortgage out of my house. I cleaned out my investments. I borrowed money from my grandmother, doctor friend, and dad, and the partners all scraped money together.
Colton Mulligan: [00:23:06] And so, we bought out our contracts, and on January 1st, 2015, we started FoxFuel Creative in my basement. And, yeah, that was the beginning of it. So, I was the CEO and I had two business partners that manage the digital side and then also the creative side of the business. And that same month, I was diagnosed with type 1 bipolar disorder.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:23:27] Was it difficult to get that diagnosis in that first month? Or did it answer questions? Or how did you feel in that moment?
Colton Mulligan: [00:23:41] I mean, it definitely answered a lot of questions. And kind of in my little story there, I skipped past a lot of the events of 2014 that led me to that point. But, yeah, I think it was relieving. Almost exactly one year prior, I’d been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, ADHD, and major depressive disorder. Bipolar is commonly misdiagnosed in the first or second pass. So, it was definitely relieving.
Colton Mulligan: [00:24:06] It was a fun dinner with my two partners when I was like, “Hey, update. I know we just formed an LLC and bought a whole bunch of money and we’re starting this new thing. Update, I’ve got bipolar disorder.” I mean, my two business partners, unbelievably supportive, said, “Hey, you know, understanding the symptoms kind of tracks out with your manic energy and all that stuff.” I was pretty good at hiding the downside. But it’s damn near impossible to hide the upside, the energy, just all the passion that comes with that.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:24:36] And it’s great that they took it very much with open arms and probably helped to answer some questions that they had as well. And just love that support that they provided to you from the story that you’ve told me or that I have seen on some of the documentaries that you’ve done. So, from your perspective, why do so many employees still lack a feeling of psychological safety in their work environment?
Colton Mulligan: [00:25:03] I think it’s probably a couple of factors. Thing one, is probably, like, it’s just awkward for most people. And, you know, we’re not a super corporate environment. But thing two, I would assume that there’s all these gray areas within ADA compliance and H.R. regulations and, “Oh, no. Once they disclosed, is there a whole bunch of new protocols I have to have?” So, I would almost say there’s one, like, the lack of clarity for a lot of professionals in the H.R. space what you’re supposed to do.
Colton Mulligan: [00:25:33] And then, there’s also, like, the personal side of it. It’s just, you know, among just humans in general, it’s a weighty thing a lot of folks just aren’t prepared for. Like, how do I go through that conversation saying something beyond, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Let me know how I can help and I’ll pray for you.” Outside of those two things, most people are just like, “I don’t know what to say.”
Jamie Gassmann: [00:25:55] So, if you were in that situation, like, what would you have them say? From your perspective, like with your two partners, if you could have the ideal response from somebody, what would that sound like?
Colton Mulligan: [00:26:15] I mean, that’s an interesting question and it’s one that I get asked commonly. Like, I wind up doing a lot of coffees and meet ups with folks where they just ask, “Hey, my brother got diagnosed, or I have this employee, or whatever, what should I do?” And there’s an odd way to say it, which is like, if you don’t have a framework or sandbox or an ongoing conversation/relationship with that person where you have regular check ins on headspace or a depth in your relationship, you’re kind of behind the eight ball on that. So, you can start fostering that.
Colton Mulligan: [00:26:49] But like with our employees, I’m in a comfortable space, like, I’ve had employees disclose to me, “Hey, Colton. I want to let you know I’m trying a new antidepressant.” “Hey, I’m going back to my therapist. I haven’t seen him in three years, but I’m going through some stuff personally, et cetera.” Fortunately, we already have a regular cadence and rhythm where as part of our check ins on their career goals and stuff like that. There’s space where they go, “I just want to know, like as you enter this week -” it’s like Monday, Tuesday “- what’s your headspace? Are you a five? Are you an eight? What’s going on?” And that provides the employee the space where like I’m not saying, “Hey, do you have a recent mental health diagnosis? Quick question. Just wanted to throw that out there.”
Colton Mulligan: [00:27:26] But it gives them the opportunity to share what they want, and they don’t have to. I can read between the lines. But I know, hey, there are five this week and that gives me space to I don’t have to ask personal questions, but I can say, “Hey, what do you need from me?” Rather than saying, “Hey, let me know if you need anything.” That’s a really crap answer. A really great answer is, “What do you need from me? Can I be like a support and kind of a listening ear right now? Do you want to talk through some of your brain space? And maybe I can help sort priorities and share from my own experience. Hey, I know when I’m overwhelmed. Or if I feel anxious or if I do whatever, I know and I just speak from personal experience.”
Colton Mulligan: [00:28:04] Sometimes if I just talk through what I got to do the day or this week, I can kind of figure out what’s important and what I should focus on, you know. And, normally, I can try and share in that way. It’s not always perfect. But for me, personally, I love it when somebody gives me the options, “Do you need advice right now? I’m happy to help. But likewise, I can be a sounding board.” Or, “Let’s just sort through what you got going on.” I love that.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:28:26] Yeah. A little bit more, probably, natural feeling and kind of true response in that regard as opposed to just kind of, “Oh, can I help you with something or let me know?” I think it’s probably like a default maybe that they don’t know what to say, so they go to that.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:28:43] So, at FoxFuel – and you were kind of getting to this, too – you have a great approach to ensuring that your employees feel psychologically safe. Can you share how you have created a culture that welcomes vulnerability and openness? And I know you kind of touched on it a little bit, but you have, like, a specific meeting that you’re doing with your team and individuals each week and doing different approaches. So, can you kind of dive into that a little bit and share kind of some of those approaches that you’ve done?
Colton Mulligan: [00:29:13] One hundred percent. I just feel the need to disclose upfront, I am not an H.R. professional. And don’t get me wrong, there are probably past employees or people, like, “Colton was terrible at this. I can’t believe you’re talking about culture.” I like to think that over time we’ve cultivated, it’s by no means perfect.
Colton Mulligan: [00:29:29] But at least I feel better when I explain this by talking about the fact that we’ve been around seven years, and in year four, maybe five, our longest running employee that have been with us from the beginning, like, we were on a road trip and we were talking about something that came up. She was like, “You’re a really crap manager.” And she was great. She was just like, “I’ve been looking for a mentor and I had all the stuff. And you were clear that you don’t like to micromanage or manage. You just want to lead, which was great for a while, but like, we need more.”
Colton Mulligan: [00:29:57] And so, then from that, we went to StrengthsFinder conferences and I read The One Minute Manager and It’s The Manager from StrengthsFinder and Gallup and all them. And we went to emotional intelligence workshops and we had a consultant come through, so all of that. And then, I would find the threads that I noticed a lot of different areas picked up on. And one of those was a very personal check in that went hand in hand with the other times you check in with employees.
Colton Mulligan: [00:30:26] And so, as part of that, a regular cadence we have now that, at least, I think it bears fruit. Every Tuesday with my team, we manage accounts and we would normally say, “Hey, what are you looking at this week? What do you need to prioritize, like professional things?” And then, there’s always a question in there that said, “Hey, you know, how ever much you want to share with your headspace, what’s going on with you now?” And that has created a space that has helped me, I like to think, as a manager because someone can say, “I had a really rough conversation with my mom this weekend and I do not feel real confident just being honest going into this week.”
Colton Mulligan: [00:31:02] And that would let me take pause throughout the week if we left a client meeting, or there was feedback I had to share, or I realized, “Man, this person needs a win.” And I’m not always great about praising folks. And so, that would always give me a prompt, it’s like, “This week I’ve got to look for something to let a Cathy or a Lauren, you know, let them really feel accomplished and celebrated by the team.” I’m making up these names real quick because I want to scrub it. So, we’ve never employed a Cathy, but I’m just throwing these things out there.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:31:32] And I love your share of that, which is why I brought it up, because I think you touched on a little bit of what Jacqui was sharing earlier in the show about the human side of that employee leader relationship. You know, you’re really getting to know those employees at a level that they feel comfortable being able to come to you with what they might be going through and vice versa. You’re able to pick up on maybe some of those cues. I think it was just such a great example of just a tactic that’s clearly worked for you in your leadership style.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:32:06] And so, we talked a little bit about the focus internally on supporting employee wellbeing and trying to, you know, be aware of when they might need that when or when they might need that little bit of extra support. You also shared an example where FoxFuel helped its clients to do the same, I think it was regarding over the last year with COVID. Can you share that example with the audience about what you did and kind of some of the unique approaches that you took that kind of bared fruit for them?
Colton Mulligan: [00:32:43] We have a healthcare client across, basically, 22 counties. They’ve got 10,000 or 11,000 employees. They’ve got ten hospitals. And when COVID hit, you can imagine how slammed all these hospitals were. You’re terrified. You have no idea how deadly this disease is. Yet they’ve got to show up to work. They’ve got to wear all this new equipment. There are pieces of their facility that are locked down and taped over with plaster. It was terrifying. And on top of that, you have a staffing shortage, and those that are showing up are overworked, they’re working a long time. Like, you want to talk about an incredibly negative impact on culture. And then, you know, with the economy tanks and people are then worried about their jobs. And this company did so much to try and help.
Colton Mulligan: [00:33:36] So, during that time, what was great, we’d spun up a video series because a lot of these employees don’t check email, et cetera. But we tried to make a really accessible way where every week we would release one of two kinds of videos. One, a video from leadership. So, from the CEO that was looking and speaking directly to all of his employees, not with, like, platitudes, but just saying, “I appreciate you. I appreciate the effort that you’re putting in.” And we would get him on the video to name specific things, “I know at home, you’re dealing with kids trying to do, you know, virtual learning. And I know that it’s scary.” And I think he was just very honest in just saying, “I appreciate so much what you’re doing in the impact on patients.”
Colton Mulligan: [00:34:27] So, we did that and we would produce these videos, put them out via email, put them on Facebook, all that stuff. And then, likewise, just inspiring stories. So, we would come through and don all the PPE equipment. And I would interview folks off camera and we would try to highlight the inspiring stories of what was going on. So, folks of, like, excellent care that was happening, people that had best friends on their team that they still got to show up to work with. So, I don’t like to think that it was silver lining everything. It was just reminders of what you do matters and hearing from leadership that I appreciate what you’re doing and what you’re going through.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:35:03] Yeah. It’s a great example. And sometimes those little reminders can go such a long way. So, in your opinion, what are some ways that organizations can better connect with their employees? And are there some out of the box or alternative approaches you feel can make a difference in helping to better connect with employees? Because you mentioned email, that is tough, I think, in any organization. If you think of the mass amount of email that most employees get, you know, there’s got to be different approaches that a leader can consider when trying to get important communication. Like, “Here’s where support is accessible to you.” Or, you know, “Here’s a quick update on how this person did this really well.” But just that other ways of being able to connect.
Colton Mulligan: [00:35:49] People connect via story, that’s something true long before companies and technology and all the stuff, right? And that’s what FoxFuel tries to lean into with our clients or whatever. Hey, there’s email, but, now more than ever with our clients, I try to focus on the fact that story is your driver. And whether you are trying to get your employee to feel something or your prospect or client or whatever it is, I now don’t think of email or Facebook or anything as the solution. I think of it is like the medium or the conduit where you can take these stories. So, whether they’re written stories or whatever, and we’re pushing video just because it’s accessible. By and large in any community you’re in now, you got your phone, you’re surrounded by screens.
Colton Mulligan: [00:36:33] So, if you can move to video, you can tell someone a story that will actually move them with everything that you can do there in two to three minutes versus a five page blog. And it’s very accessible. And like what you guys are doing here with podcasts and stuff, making it accessible where it doesn’t interrupt their day. So, that’s thing one that I would say things that folks can do.
Colton Mulligan: [00:36:55] And then, the second thing is a much longer burn, but it’s just investing, I think, in the management styles of your folks. The leaders are the ones that really hold the power at signaling what is psychologically safe. And so, for me, I like to think that our team feels more comfortable when they hear me say, “It’s a five. And I’m not going to go into it, but, you know, I had this fight or this incident.” Or, “I had this thing.” Or, “I’m low energy this week.” And things like that signal that it’s A-OK for you to share the same, thing one, encouraging folks to do that.
Colton Mulligan: [00:37:33] And then, thing two, is just equipping everybody with common language, I think. So, we’ve used all kinds of stuff. But, you know, the common language that we’ve used is things like radical candor or letting people use an Enneagram or StrengthFinder or Myers-Briggs. All of that just gives people common language where they can admit, “Hey, one of my strengths is not presenting. One of my strengths is not working in data.” And then, it gives people some more psychological safety that they can own what they’re bad at and then share that with a manager, so they don’t have to pretend to be a jack of all trades without a weakness. And displaying and naming weakness is like the definition of vulnerability, which creates psychological safety.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:38:20] Great. And so, similar to what I asked Jacqui, what is something that when you look at your career, what are you most proud of?
Colton Mulligan: [00:38:34] I’ll try to rattle off because Jacqui gave a great answer and I loved it. And so, I didn’t want to, like, say, “Yeah. Me too.” But to go through some real quick because I’m trying to think about this, but we just had most recently a recent thing, like, we had an employee that just left because, you know, she’s ready for the next chapter in her career and we’re excited for her. And when she left, she cried in telling clients in meetings about it. She cried in her exit interview and all that stuff. Because what she wants to do professionally is great and managing teams like that. Like, FoxFuel kind of has an intentional angle to stay a small entrepreneurial group of 9, 10, 11 folks.
Colton Mulligan: [00:39:14] But what was great was in the exit interview and some words that we exchanged via email, et cetera, she talked about she went through a rough time in her life and she said, “I came in and I am leaving FoxFuel an entirely different person, how confident I am, my approach to life, my approach to relationships, standing up for myself.” To me, there’s a lot of stuff you can look back.
Colton Mulligan: [00:39:34] But when I think about the kinds of impact that we have on folks, I like the idea that people won’t say, “Oh, yeah. I was an AE at FoxFuel and then I did this.” But on the inside, I love to think that we have folks come through our doors that may be with us for a couple of years or however long – you know, don’t get me wrong, you got your ups and downs. And I’m far from a perfect manager. I’m probably a crap manager on some days – that someone that leaves overall and says, “Man, it was a time where I felt supported and I grew personally in that time,” that means the world to me.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:40:08] That’s a great example. It’s always great that you know that you had that positive mark on somebody’s life and career. So, if our listeners wanted to connect with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Colton Mulligan: [00:40:20] You can email me, email@example.com, or hit me up on LinkedIn, or whatever. Or if you go to our website, foxfuelcreative.com, there’s a thing that’s going to pop up and say, “Hey, quit snooping. Grab drinks with Colton,” or something like that. So, yeah, any of those.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:40:35] Great. So, now, we’re going to hear a word from our sponsor. Workplace MVP is sponsored by R3 Continuum. R3 Continuum is a global leader in providing expert, reliable, responsive, and tailored behavioral health crisis and security solutions to promote workplace wellbeing and performance in the face of an ever changing and often unpredictable world. Learn more about how R3 Continuum can tailor a solution for your organization’s unique challenges by visiting our r3c.com today.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:41:06] So, now, I’m going to bring both of our MVP’s together and ask some questions to the both of you. So, the first question is, how can leaders create a work environment that is psychologically safe? Now, I know you both have touched on a few different components of that. But if there was one particular way, what would you say? And let’s go ahead and start with you, Colton.
Colton Mulligan: [00:41:31] I’d go back to what I said before, hands down, leaders can find spaces to (A) make it clear that they can share their vulnerabilities and share their headspace. And then, (2) create the regular rhythm of an ongoing conversation. Not like, “Hey, can I check in on your mental health diagnosis.” But instead, “Hey, can you share with me, like, what’s your headspace like this week? How confident do you feel? I’d love to talk about that to see how I can support you.”
Jamie Gassmann: [00:41:58] Perfect. And how about you, Jacqui?
Jacqui Chew: [00:42:00] Sure. There are, believe it or not, H.R. modules now, where – and I’m forgetting the name of it, gosh – basically, it incorporates this sentiment aspect of performance of work, sort of a touch base, if you would. And so, I agree with Colton this idea of a cadence, so that if you’ve established a cadence of meetings where the discussion is around the work as well as sentiment, so, how are you feeling, how are you feeling about work, about your work, it’s more accessible than, to Colton’s point, “how’s your mental health”.
Jacqui Chew: [00:42:56] And so, there are actually sort of like – gosh, I forget. Gosh. I was actually a part of an organization that had this that was quite interesting because it was a weekly check in. And as a manager, we check in with each member of my team every week where, as part, they would complete a module or web module that basically says what their five priorities were or their four priorities were for the week, how they felt about themselves and their priorities. And then, we would talk about it.
Jacqui Chew: [00:43:37] So, there was this confluence of the work as well as the self. And I thought that was really helpful and useful to them because, say, if they had a bad week, they could talk about it from the perspective of these were things that I didn’t think that I felt that I did very well at all. I had a couple of nights where my baby was crying or kept me up all night or whatever. So, it just allowed for more human conversation to happen in a corporate environment.
Jacqui Chew: [00:44:19] Now, Colton, your wonderful because you have a workplace that is accessible, it’s friendly, it’s safe. In a large organization of even 50 or 100 people, when you start having department heads and when there is a talent organization, when there’s an employee handbook – that’s basically my litmus test. When a company has an employee handbook, then, I think, that managing and leading becomes a little less human and a little more robotic. But it doesn’t have to be so. And I think and I hope that we will, as a workplace, as businesses, be more like yours, Colton, than the large sort of thousand person corporations that are out there.
Colton Mulligan: [00:45:22] Thank you very much. That’s very sweet. I don’t know that all my employees would say that, but I like to think so. So, that’s great.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:45:31] So, looking at these employers and kind of to your point, it’s almost like what you’re saying, Jacqui, when the employer gets a little bit bigger, they almost have to be more intentional about making that a cultural priority with their organization. As opposed to, you know, like it has to be kind of embedded in their handbook of how they’re going to approach that.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:45:53] So, if you were looking at employers, what do you want them to know when it comes to mental health with their employees? Like, what would be kind of, you know, the message you would want them to be aware of? If they haven’t educated themselves, if they’re being told by an employee they have this diagnosis, what message would you send to them?
Jacqui Chew: [00:46:15] Gosh. Be less afraid of litigation and more concerned about the person. I didn’t mean to rhyme, that was not intentional. But large companies, they’re about risk mitigation. I mean, I hate to say this, but every H.R. department that I’ve come into contact with has been about risk mitigation, and liability, and managing liability. At the end of the day, we are people, we are humans. And if we led and managed by just being human with compassion and empathy, I truly believe that those activities, those behaviors will naturally fall into place. It’s the humane thing to do.
Jacqui Chew: [00:47:15] If you see someone in distress, what do you do? You want to help. What makes being at the workplace any different? Well, it’s the fear of a lawsuit. So, I truly believe that if corporations can slowly retreat from this fear of litigation mindset and more of a compassion mindset of a positive versus subtractive mindset, I think we we will see more healthy workplaces. We will see healthier employees all around.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:47:55] How about you, Colton?
Colton Mulligan: [00:47:58] I’d lean into one of the things that Jacqui said, I would say a very clear and intentional investment into emotional intelligence, that umbrella. She used the word empathy, which, to me, is the largest thing more than finding just the right curriculum or mental health check in, et cetera. Investing in that at the individual level is the ongoing effort to keep finding the resources and things and spot the small elements.
Colton Mulligan: [00:48:24] To give an example, I spun up a small group that I ran for seven years on mental health where folks would get together. And there were ridiculous things I realized now that H.R. was rolling out all these wellness programs and things. And I realized that for those with eating disorders, all of the wellness campaigns right now that healthcare companies push that do weight loss challenges and stuff, are ridiculously triggering. Where you manage as a team, and you’re losing weight and pounds, and the language, and the things that are celebrated, there’s no real clear curriculum that would do that. That’s a checklist.
Colton Mulligan: [00:48:56] The biggest thing is if you invest in emotional intelligence, your team and your folks, it’s the ability to dynamically look at things in an ongoing way and exercise a greater degree of empathy, which, to me, is the solve more so than a book everybody reads together, whatever. It’s a continual emotional intelligence improvement.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:49:16] Those are both great points. I hadn’t even thought about that with the weight loss challenge, and you see that quite often, especially after The Biggest Loser came out. The biggest loser challenge is everywhere. That’s very interesting.
Jacqui Chew: [00:49:27] Sorry, Jamie. I do want to add – I completely forgot and they’re so important – there’s another whole group of people or population, they would be Founders of Color. So, startup Founders of Color faced a whole new layer of stressors, especially when they are raising funds. There was trauma for Founders of Color when they’re raising funds. This may not be the case this year or the last, maybe, two years, but I can tell you, so we have a startup circle, sort of a wellness circle where founders – primarily Founders of Color – would come together to talk about more of their personal and health issues.
Jacqui Chew: [00:50:26] But what services often is, it’s the microaggressions that happen on a daily basis when they’re raising funds from primarily non-person-of-color venture capitalists. And the questions are different, the tone is different, the assumptions that these venture capitalists make are different.
Jacqui Chew: [00:51:03] I’ll give you an example. There is this now prominent African-American female founder of a startup that also has a social group, social good sort of mission. And one of her investors actually said to her thinking that he was being so nice, he said, “Wow. I’m really glad I listened to my wife who suggested that I invested in your startup to ensure that we were being inclusive. I’m so glad that your startup is doing so well and I just wasn’t expecting the return.” I’m paraphrasing. But that is the microaggression and it caused her to doubt herself. Like, “Did my startup get funded because it was a good idea and we have a strong team and there’s a business here? Or did we get funded because I’m Black?” And so, that’s the good story.
Jacqui Chew: [00:52:19] But the bad story, this happened at TechCrunch. TechCrunch, they used to have twice a year this huge confab where they would have a startup alley of sorts. And the founders, a whole bunch of Black founders that I know of who’s ever been to those wherein the investors were primarily non-African-American, non-persons-of-color would actually physically avoid the booths of this Founders of Color. And there’s no reason for this, except for it is pure discrimination and this is what they have to deal with.
Jacqui Chew: [00:53:08] So, we, in these conversations in the support circles – we call them – I mean, these are the additional stressors that Founders of Color go through that are quite different. And to exacerbate the issue there, the percentage of psychologists/psychiatrists who look like them, a very small percentage, which is difficult as well. So, that is one of those little known challenges and issues that still plague sort of the mental health specter and category.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:53:49] So, it sounds like there could be a lot of different kind of triggering events and different things that might lead to some of those mental health concerns in all varieties of different businesses, whether startup or – it’s a very interesting point.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:54:04] So, if you were going to leave one advice on the table for a leader who’s listened to this podcast that you want them to just take with them – and if they do something with it, fantastic – but if there’s just one thing that you could leave that would help to make a difference in their work environment – and we’ll start with Colton – what would that be? What would that one piece of advice that you want to leave to that leader?
Colton Mulligan: [00:54:30] No pressure, right? What’s the one way to improve mental health in your thousand person organization? I am torn between, like, the one that’s really tactical and easy is, just go create your cost center line item, whatever for emotional intelligence training, is thing one. The other thing that’s harder is, just the idea of encouraging vulnerability between your leaders and those that they’re supporting.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:55:02] Great. And how about you, Jacqui, if there was one piece of advice?
Jacqui Chew: [00:55:06] Sure. It was a thing that I had my husband do. So, I figured if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us. Pick up Mental Health for Dummies, the book. Get educated.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:55:23] Yeah. Get educated. I love it. So, thank you both for being on the show, for sharing your personal experiences, sharing approaches you’ve used, your expertise around this topic, and for letting us celebrate you by being on the show. And we really appreciate the advice and suggestions you left the listeners. We appreciate you, and I’m sure your organizations, and staff, and co-workers, and friends, and everyone else involved into your lives do, too.
Jamie Gassmann: [00:55:55] We also want to thank our show sponsor, R3 Continuum, for supporting the Workplace MVP podcast. And to our listeners, thank you for tuning in. If you’ve not already done so, make sure to subscribe so you get our most recent episodes and other resources. You can also follow our show on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter at Workplace MVP. If you are a workplace MVP or know someone who is, we want to know, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you all for joining us and have a great rest of your day.