Educate employees to improve behavioral health literacy and well-being.

Given generational differences, most adults in the workforce are not raised with heavy attention placed on well-being, emotional regulation, and conflict resolution. These are learned skills. Educating employees on understanding healthy emotional functioning, recognizing early signs of behavioral health symptoms, and learning to self-regulate emotions is energy well spent toward building an emotionally healthy and thriving work culture.

As a part of my series about the "5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees," I had the pleasure of interviewing George Vergolias.

George Vergolias, PsyD, CTM, chief clinical officer at R3 Continuum. Dr. Vergolias oversees and leads R3 Continuum's Clinical Risk, Threat of Violence, and Workplace Violence programs, and has directly assessed or managed over 1,000 cases related to threat of violence or self-harm, sexual assault, stalking, and communicated threats. He brings over 20 years of experience as a Forensic Psychologist and Certified Threat Manager to bear in an effort to help leaders, organizations, employees, and communities heal, optimize, and ultimately thrive before, during, and after disruption.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to "get to know you" a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I've known since early college that I wanted to pursue psychology, but not what specialty area. In my doctoral studies, I pursued a path in neuropsychology, the study of the brain-behavior relationship. I had some prior training in forensics but not as a primary focus, and only after graduating did I decide to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship in forensic psychology. I then spent several years working in traditional forensic settings, and my work in school and workplace violence mitigation is what brought me into the corporate and employee assistance space. I've remained in that area ever since, consulting with companies and organizations on how to promote well-being and resilience and mitigate behavioral risk and violence in the workplace.

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

During my first few years in the field, I was consulting with a state psychiatric hospital, evaluating chronically mentally ill patients. I evaluated one patient, let's call her Mary, who had been hospitalized for more than 20 years. She was from a very disadvantaged background, was minimally literate due to a lack of education opportunities suited to her needs and had never traveled outside the immediate geographic area. A symptom of hers over more than 10 years was a hallucination/delusion of seeing human figures dressed in late 1800s Victorian attire flying up from the ground into the sky. Mary experienced these "visions" at different locations across the hospital grounds.

Fast forward a year, I attended a cocktail party for a male colleague at the local university. His wife was completing her dissertation in anthropology, and she was beaming ear to ear discussing a new discovery she and her colleagues made.

Her team used archival data obtained from old military logs found in an abandoned cellar to identify a previously unknown large cemetery dating to the late 1800s. The location of which happened to be directly beneath the hospital campus. Geological scanning has since confirmed this.

Mary's visions occurred long before the cemetery's discovery and the research publication. There was no way that Mary could have known that somebody had built the hospital atop a sacred place. And it is improbable that Mary would have had access to any information from which the research team later worked. The real oddity? Mary's description of the dress worn by the individuals in her visions precisely matched the Victorian-era attire that the individuals who were buried in the cemetery would have worn.

As a forensic psychologist, I am — and remain — a man of science. Yet this experience and a few others, have confirmed for me that Hamlet was correct in saying, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

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

Self-care is critical. Take time for yourself — time to unwind, time to recharge. Hold to the deep belief that taking care of yourself is more than just taking care of yourself. At the same time, we also know that well-being is not behavioral health. Well-being is the foundation of good mental health. But they are not the same. There are times when clinical expertise and guidance are needed, so don't be afraid or ashamed to seek that expertise.

Strive for synthesis, not balance! We are all familiar with the concept of balance. However, balance suggests opposing forces are at play. When we view work and personal life as a balance of "one versus the other," it sets up an oppositional dynamic; we perpetually pit one against the other, increasing one at the expense of the other.

Instead, I invite people to seek synthesis and integration in my consultation work. It affords much more flexibility in navigating the vicissitudes of work and life without the pressure to constantly seek some sense of false equity. Some weeks and months, my work is more consuming due to demands or priorities, and sometimes my personal life takes precedence. The question for me is — overall, is there a synthesis such that I feel refueled, purposeful, and engaged?

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

Leaders must have the courage to lead by making tough decisions and modeling a way of embracing well-being in their own lives and those we lead. Here are a few suggestions to make good on that promise.

  1. Champion mental health at the top. Recognize that providing extra support to employees is not only the right thing to do but also enhances your bottom line, employee retention, and culture.
  2. Foster open and transparent communication. Talk about the importance of behavioral health consistently, and help employees understand how and where to get help when needed. Be explicit. Opening a dialogue is essential, yet an open discussion that needs to be more consistent, specific, or clear impedes effective leadership and organizational resilience.
  3. Engage your employees. Your greatest asset is your workforce — the human capital and talent that drives innovation, throughput, and outcomes. Take care of them. Get to know them. Only then can you come to understand their talents and their struggles. Abraham Lincoln used to tell his generals, "Get up and circulate amongst your troops; you can't know your folks if you don't walk among them."
  4. Model strength and vulnerability. Most effective leaders understand the importance of strength in leadership, but they often neglect to show the virtues of vulnerability. The most effective leaders can admit and model their vulnerability while modeling character strength to navigate difficult times. It isn't about always being strong; it's about harnessing resilience when needed to navigate difficult times.
  5. Know thyself and assess thyself. Self-awareness is a core character trait for any effective leader. We cannot know what we do not evaluate or measure. Toward this end, leaders should prioritize assessing their strengths and limitations as a focal point to build upon as they and the organization manage through crises.
  6. Know your lane. When outside of it, consult an expert. A trusted workplace behavioral health advisor can help build and deploy innovative and practical solutions to fit within your culture and business model. Many of us are good at many things. None of us are good at all things. Know what you are good at and let that shine and off-load or outsource the other stuff to someone with the proper expertise.

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

I have two favorites, each capturing a key value for living my life.

"Sometimes I go about pitying myself, and all the while I'm being carried on great winds across the sky." (Ojibwe saying)

This captures for me the critical importance of gratitude. Even in our most dire moments, emphasizing the positive aspects of our life fuels the hope that allows us to rise up. Hope floats, but it doesn't swim. Once we rise up, we need to take action to change our lives in the direction we wish to move, which leads to my other favorite quote.

"The single most important factor in determining your success in life is the degree to which you can keep a promise to yourself."

This is a hard truth, but one with laser precision. How often have we said, "I'm going to lose 10 pounds, or get in shape, or learn a new language, or be more communicative with my partner, etc.?" Sometimes we make good on these goals, often we do not. February is littered with the broken promises we made to ourselves on New Year's Day. When we reframe all of those commitments to grow or change into a lens of making a promise to ourselves, it brings in full accountability for where we are in our life journey.

Practicing gratitude lifts us up. Practicing accountability with the promises we make to ourselves empowers us to change what needs changing.


Ok thank you for all that. Now let's move to the main focus of our interview. 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. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees' mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Promote a culture of respect and integrity.

Respect and integrity are not taught or trained; they are demonstrated daily in everyday interactions (even those that can seem minimal) across all levels of an organization. And when demonstrated well, respect and integrity are powerful gestures that foster trust, inspire people to be vulnerable, and compel people to act courageously to seek help and change.

A senior manager at a Fortune 100 company recently decided to leave for another company. As part of his exit process, he emailed 30 colleagues to individually and personally thank them for their impact, how they shaped his development, and how they inspired him to grow. There was no benefit to him in doing this; it was a selfless expression of respect and integrity. Somehow this trickled up to the global CEO, who shared it across the entire company as a model for showing gratitude and celebrating positive impact in our work lives. This was a powerful message by both the manager and the CEO.

2. Educate employees to improve behavioral health literacy and well-being.

Given generational differences, most adults in the workforce are not raised with heavy attention placed on well-being, emotional regulation, and conflict resolution. These are learned skills. Educating employees on understanding healthy emotional functioning, recognizing early signs of behavioral health symptoms, and learning to self-regulate emotions is energy well spent toward building an emotionally healthy and thriving work culture.

We consult with many companies to help them provide access to resources that can support this initiative, including clinical support counseling, performance coaching, and training from experts who understand behavioral resilience and well-being.

3. Recognize when co-workers are struggling emotionally and offer helpful resources to respond effectively.

Identify these problems upstream before the issue becomes a full-blown crisis or behavioral health issue. Some early warning signs might include changes in mood; emotional withdrawal; increased anxiety, irritability, and hostility; growing distrust of others; rapid onset or escalation of substance use; developing apathy; and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities. Early intervention is always more effective than later, but that starts with awareness of the problem.

In my consultation work, when companies offer multiple avenues through which employees can come forward to seek help with their struggles, this increases engagement. Mental health or well-being workshops or roundtables are helpful to educate and decrease stigma. Access to counseling or coaching services that are confidential and timely increases buy-in from employees. Developing a continuum of services is also important, ranging from self-help opportunities, to educational materials, to coaching and supportive counseling, as well as access and a seamless transition to formal clinical treatment when needed.

4. Empower employees and promote environmental mastery.

Environmental mastery refers to how we interact with the world and to what extent we can shape our experiences to fit our values and priorities. It is essentially "finding your tribe" and then finding your role in it in a way that helps you feel valued. That can only come through empowering employees to reach further and seize opportunities. To be clear, this does not mean affording responsibility, authority, or power to those who are not ready or those who have not earned it. Rather, it is believing enough in a person's capabilities, strength, and resilience to be open, honest, and direct with them, thus allowing them to make informed choices to thrive as they define it.

5. Build a culture of candor.

There is an excellent quip about resilience, "Every time you told yourself you couldn't go on, you did!" We don't always recognize our resilience, and far too often in the workforce, we erroneously assume others don't have it. We assume they can't take candor or honesty. For me, nothing is more insulting. Empowerment and candor are related. Empowerment is about honest dialogue, at times tough dialogue, which can help the person self-assess and improve.

I recall receiving some feedback from a supervisor years ago, which I perceived as harsh. It was certainly negative, and I had much to improve, but the delivery was open, honest, and matter-of-fact. My supervisor did not coddle me or water down the feedback, and in the process, told me, "I'm sharing this because I know you can do better, you're strong enough to take constructive criticism, and it will help you to grow."

This fosters an elite-learning mindset, where we take critique and feedback seriously but not personally. That, in turn, encourages openness to grow from that feedback. Conversely, a fixed mindset takes feedback as personal, often shutting down our openness to learn, adapt, and grow.

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?

For me, one of the most powerful steps to take in promoting the relevance and importance of mental health is when an organizational leader unapologetically champions this from the top. This can be risky, but the rewards are plentiful as it sets a clear tone that supporting mental health and mental well-being is critically essential and non-negotiable.

Two great examples of leading by example are Cheryl Sandberg, former COO of Facebook, and Jen Fisher, chief well-being officer of Deloitte. Although their approach is different, both are examples of top leaders acknowledging their struggles with emotional burnout. In the same vein, Paul Farmer, a renowned physician, anthropologist, and co-founder of Partners In Health, has also been open about his experiences with depression.

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 or having other mental health issues? Can you explain?

We must start by listening to the other's experience and remain in the moment with them. Witnessing the struggle conveys they are not alone and instills the sense of hope I mentioned earlier. The bravest word one can utter is "Help" because saying it takes courage, and once uttered, it is a defiant stance of not giving up.

Second, seek understanding before judgment. When stressed, we tend to jump to assumptions and conclusions in our attempt to seek a resolution. Often, we bypass understanding, yet if we do that at the outset, we set in motion a host of miscommunications and misdirections that negatively impact the entire interaction. So, take a breath, and then ask the others how they are doing, how they are seeing the issue, and what their concerns are. Then do something rare — listen to what they say and respond to that! I'm so often in my head that I frequently think of my next comment versus actually listening.

Third, recognize that all people want to thrive and survive. Even in hostile situations with someone yelling at you due to fear, anger, or a mental illness issue, remember that the person in front of you probably did not plan this negative interaction today. They are having as bad of a day as you are, even if they are the instigator of the conflict. A quick recognition allows us to center ourselves, regroup, and then approach the interaction from a place where we can listen, help them feel heard and understood, and then move to a win-win outcome.

This might seem intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to spell it out. Can you help articulate a few ways how workplaces will benefit when they pay attention to an employee's mental health?

There are several ways workplaces benefit from supporting the mental health of their employees, such as decreased absenteeism and presenteeism, improved work satisfaction, improved work engagement, increased productivity, greater creativity and innovation, and the ability to retain and attract top talent. This list is not exhaustive. Workplace leaders have a choice to pay now by investing in a reasonable amount of time and resources to support the mental well-being of employees or pay later and squander an unreasonable amount of time and resources managing maladaptive behaviors.

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?

Consistent Sleep Hygiene — Really, get sleep. Sleep hygiene is critical for healthy mental and emotional functioning. I listen to the same sounds each night when I go to sleep, and I avoid blue light from my devices as it markedly decreases melatonin.

Daily Rituals — Punctuate your day, morning, and evening with a regular ritual or routine that primes the day for success or primes it for successfully shutting down. I work from home, and when not in client-facing activities, I wear a variation of the same outfit every day — casual dress jeans and a nice dress t-shirt. When I put it on, I'm ready for work like a football player walking onto the "field of play" in uniform, and then at the end of the day, I change entirely out of it to demarcate I'm "off the field" and now into my personal time.

Set Sacred Time — Carve out sacred time — unalterable and of high priority — to whatever goals you've set. For me, some of this is work-related so I can complete my deliverables, and some is personal. But once it's marked as sacred it stays there.

Get into a Meditative Flow — While I do actually meditate, I am not limiting this advice to actual meditation. Whatever it is for you, find a hobby or activity that allows you to get into some flow and unplug from the stressors and worries of the day. For me, it's fly fishing; for others, it may be pottery, drawing, etc.

Breathwork — There are a number of approaches here, and too many to explore in detail. Check out the podcast by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman (Huberman Lab podcast). He discusses a number of behavioral and biological hacks to optimize performance. In particular, look into Non-Sleep Deep Relaxation (NSDR) as a means to quickly and efficiently regain rest-states in the middle of the day; as well as the "Physiological Sigh," a breathing technique to rapidly subtle our nervous system.

Take Cold Showers (or plunges) — Scientist Susanna Soberg published a series of papers demonstrating the positive health effects of cold exposure — whether they be cold bath immersion (which many of us don't have ready access to) or standing under a cold shower. The positive health effects include increased brown fat (the good fat), increased comfort in cold environments, 2.5x increase in dopamine levels, reduced inflammation, pain relief, improved circulation, reduced stress levels (and improved cortisol levels), reduced muscle soreness and fatigue, improved immune system, and improved skin tone, among a host of other secondary health benefits. The benefits are achieved with as little as 11 minutes TOTAL per week, across multiple sessions.

Another huge benefit, which the study did not specifically address, is the psychological benefit of consistently and consciously doing something we don't like to do. While I want us all to live our best lives physically, for me, equally important is the psychological and behavioral impact of honing our decision discipline — doing that exact thing we told ourselves we were going to do; keeping a promise to ourselves! I start each day setting a tone with my mind telling my feelings that we're going to do something we agreed to do, regardless of whether we feel like it. For me, as a behavioral hack, it has been a game changer in priming my day for success.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

This is a great question and challenges me to come up with something. I'm feeling some pressure to come up with a Unified String Theory of Mental Health and am falling woefully short. Joking aside, if I could start a movement, it would be an "Authentic Dialogue" movement. So many human conflicts, crises, and disconnects arise from either a) people failing to talk when they should, or b) people talking not with each other, but past each other. In my 20 years of threat management work, I have repeatedly seen that a lack of real, genuine, and authentic dialogue has contributed to a large majority of hostility and conflict. People need skills on how to have authentic conversations and how to do so in a truly reciprocal way. This shouldn't be surprising. Almost none of us were sat down at age six by our parents and told how to have an authentic, genuine discussion with people we are fighting with. That would not solve the world's crises, but it would help alleviate many conflicts, and even when conflict remained, it would enhance proactive solutions.

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

The best avenue is to follow my contributions and posts on LinkedIn

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