Cutting to the Chase: US Workplace Mental Health in 2020 According to Patrick Kennedy, Garen Staglin, Paul Gionfriddo & Marjorie Morrison


At our inaugural Make a Difference Summit US in association with Mind Share Partners on 15 October, we welcomed a powerhouse morning keynote from four of the most influential leaders impacting improvements in mental health across US society today: Garen Staglin, Founder/Chairman of One Mind at Work, Former US Representative and Founder of the Kennedy Forum, Patrick J. Kennedy, Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO of Mental Health America and Marjorie Morrison, CEO of PsychHub.

Patrick Kennedy has remarked about his participation in the conference, “Connection is key when it comes to forging a clear path forward in our new normal. The Make a Difference Summit provided an invaluable platform for the exploration of ideas and the dissemination of information leaders need right now. This is how progress is made.”

When you get a group of leaders at this level of influence together, a benefit is they cut through the noise and go straight to the core issues and what needs to be done to impact change. And that’s what’s needed today: progress. We’re living through one of the most difficult times of the past century and there’s really no room for candy coating the situation.

In her opening remarks as chair of the discussion, Marjorie Morrison put it well, “For those of us who work in mental health, it’s an exciting time. For decades we’ve been screaming through megaphones and now everybody is paying attention. The downside is that people are paying attention because people are suffering everywhere. The upside is that there’s an opportunity now to make things better; to improve a landscape that was already a bit broken.”

The business case

Introducing the session, Mental Health and Wellbeing are Everybody’s Business in 2020, Garen Staglin cited One Mind at Work’s survey which captured 40-50% increased levels of anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicidality from respondents this year. Staglin emphasized the business case for any employers still on the fence in terms of investing in staff mental health support referencing a Tufts University study which found that for every dollar a company invests they can expect $3-$5 in return.

This decision by an employer, “improves productivity, reduces absenteeism and ultimately lowers healthcare costs,” Staglin urged.

“We need to be more proactive. Payers don’t see the fiduciary responsibility because they’re only covering healthcare spend,” said Patrick Kennedy. He argued that what employers don’t realize is that treatment is effective in reducing presenteeism and absenteeism. And echoing Garen Staglin, Kennedy added,“It’s why employers need to invest in this as it not only impacts lowering healthcare coverage but it also increases economic productivity.”

The law of the land

Patrick Kennedy reminded us that many employers still don’t know about the ‘law of the land,’ the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA or Parity Act). The bill, which was one of Kennedy’s key achievements during his 16 years in Congress, requires health insurance carriers to provide coverage parity between mental health/substance use disorders and medical/surgical benefits. The aim of the bill’s passage was to overcome institutionalized insurance discrimination against persons with mental illnesses and substance use disorders.

The former Congressman is still avidly campaigning through The Kennedy Forum to fully implement the 2008 parity law, join business leaders and government agencies together to eradicate stigma, work with providers to guarantee equal access to care, support policymakers with tools to craft better policy, and educate consumers about their rights.

It doesn’t have to mean spending more when budgets are lean

Peer Support

In terms of spending concerns to respond to the increased mental health strain employees are facing, Mental Health America’s CEO, Paul Gionfriddo reminded us that there are ways companies can support staff that have little to no cost.

He emphasized that employers should be taking advantage of the existing strengths of their workforce, suggesting that mental health peer support is one the best ways of doing this. “What a lot of employers are figuring out is that there’s a lot of support that can be provided internally by people who’ve lived through an experience.”


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And Patrick Kennedy made a firm point about Employee Assistance Plans (EAP’s), that while they offer fantastic benefits to staff, including mental health support, they are grossly underutilized, “In most places of employment, EAP is the biggest secret. No one even knows they have an EAP.”

The simple act of employers promoting EAP plans comes at no extra cost to a company who’s already made the investment in this very common staff benefit. But this solution almost seems too simple. The question still remains why are EAP’s traditionally under-utilized, even in 2020 when there’s an increased demand for mental health support?

Kennedy suggested there’s added institutional complexity around EAP’s which isn’t often talked about, “While a large percentage of employers have EAP’s in place, there’s a disincentive for employees to use them, which is that they’re providing the service at a capitated rate. Which means the providers are not going to make money if everyone utilizes the EAP. Which isn’t what you want.” 

The bottom line is if this benefit is in place to support staff mental health and employers are already paying for it, they should be promoting it widely through as many channels as possible and ensuring there’s no stigma associated with uptake. And if there’s a systemic disincentive for utilization, it’s time that shifts. A way employers can influence this shift is by proactively incentivizing uptake.

Setting the tone: don’t underestimate the influence leaders can have

In his final resonating remarks, Paul Gionfriddo set the tone for the rest of the conference, “If you expect the employees to step forward [about their mental health]  with all the risk and stigma that brings, it’s not going to happen. Employers must set the tone from the top. If the supervisors and C-Suite staff are willing to talk openly then there really can be a dialogue and everyone can learn from one another.”

He went on to say, “Let’s take this out of the closet… More than half of us this year have diagnosable anxiety. That in and of itself should be enough for us to bring these conversations right out into the open. And it can really start with the people who are at least risk of losing their jobs by talking about mental health and the importance of mental health preservation.”

Resources to help guide you

There’s an incredible wealth of mental health-related information and resources out there, but it can be daunting to sift through all that’s available online and to know what’s most useful for you. So our speakers on this panel wanted to be certain that the Make a Difference audience has access to the resources their organization’s offer and support, which they’ve kindly provided and I’ve shared below.

From Patrick Kennedy and The Kennedy Forum – A website that educates consumers and providers about patient rights to equal insurance coverage of mental health and addiction treatment under the Federal Parity Law and connects them to essential appeals guidance and resources. – A website where consumers can learn to file appeals—after wrongful denials of insurance coverage for mental health and addiction treatment—and register complaints against their health plans. – A website where policymakers and others can track legislative, regulatory, and legal parity activities in all 50 states and at the federal level to monitor implementation and best practices.

The Steve Fund – The nation’s only organization focused on supporting the mental health and emotional well-being of young people of color. The Steve Fund works with colleges and universities, non-profits, researchers, mental health experts, families, and young people to promote programs and strategies that build understanding and assistance for the mental and emotional health of the nation’s young people of color.

The Trevor Project – A leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25.

From Marjorie Morrison and Psych Hub

Psych Hub Free Video Library

Psych Hub Learning Solutions, including Mental Health Ally Certification

Free COVID-19 Mental Health Resource Hub

From Paul Gionfriddo and Mental Health America

MHA Screening – MHA Screening is a collection of online, free, confidential, anonymous, and scientifically validated screening tools for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), postpartum depression, alcohol and substance use, early psychosis, work health, as well as screens that are youth-focused and parent-focused. After completing a mental health screen, individuals receive immediate results, information, DIY tools and coping skills and linkage to treatment resources.

Bell Seal for Workplace Mental Health – MHA’s Bell Seal for Workplace Mental Health is a national certification program that recognizes employers committed to creating mentally healthy workplaces. With 40 years’ experience in workplace wellness, and expertise from our 2020 Workplace Advisory Board, MHA developed standards to evaluate an employer’s policies and practices that support employee mental health and well-being.

Paul Gionfriddo shared his reflections about participating in the conference: “The Make a Difference Summit will do just that – make a difference in the lives of so many people who are working through brand new workplace realities as a result of the pandemic.”

From Garen Staglin and One Mind at Work

2020 CHRO Insights Series  – The 2020 CHRO Insights Series report brings together emerging insights and data that can be used by employers to understand the new environment and the effect it is having on mental health and draws from the One Mind at Work network to highlight the diversity of approaches that employers are using to respond to the totally unprecedented circumstances that surround us, including specific steps that employers have taken to broaden their support of mental health, and a discussion of the unique needs of essential workers during this time.

One Mind at Work Charter – The One Mind at Work  Charter is a framework for making mental health a priority for all employers – and decreasing the negative impacts of mental illness, improving productivity, and increasing employee engagement in the workplace.


For those of you who missed the live digital event but who are keen to access this entire session and the best practice learning from all 47 speakers who presented at Make a Difference Summit in association with Mind Share Partners, we’re excited to announce the launch of MADFlix, our new on demand element of Make a Difference Media.   

And our final global event of 2020, Make a Difference Asiahappens on 11 November which will have an exclusive focus on the C-suite leaders pioneering workplace mental health and wellbeing across Asia.

Register your interest now at Make A Difference Asia or reach out to [email protected] for any inquiries.

About the author





Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career in the US she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.



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