Making a Difference in North America – Key Takeaways From Our First US Conference

MAD Summit

When we set out one year ago to start exploring the possibility of expanding our hugely successful MAD World UK Summit to the US, we weren’t sure whether this agenda was a priority yet for American companies like it was for those in the UK. We soon found that there was indeed a fast-growing appetite for North American employers to invest in building workplace mental health and wellbeing support for their people. We took the leap and Make a Difference Summit US was born.

Little did we know what 2020 would behold, and that our agenda would become front and center for employers across the globe in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. As Former US U.S. Representative and Founder of the Kennedy Forum, Patrick Kennedy said when he joined the program as a keynote speaker:

“Make no mistake: the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the mental health of workers everywhere. Now, more than ever, employers must be prepared with a strong foundation of support. That will require collaboration, identification of universal best practices, and the removal of roadblocks to make sure employees have access to the help they may need. The Make a Difference Summit US in association with Mind Share Partners could not have come at a better time.”

And little did we know that we’d be producing an inaugural conference digitally—uncharted territory for our team!

Coming to Life

What culminated was a program of progressive leaders tuning in from all across the US and Canada sharing their incredible insights and experiences of supporting staff mental health and wellbeing in this year of unprecedented challenges.

Last Thursday October 15th 2020, we welcomed 47 speakers and nearly 350 delegates to our first ever Make a Difference Summit US event, which we co-produced with the US nonprofit Mind Share Partners. The program included best practice learning from the likes of Google, American Express, Facebook, The NBA, Asana, PwC, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Mental Health America, Square, Johnson & Johnson, Genentech, Harvard Business Review, IBM Watson Health, amongst others.

Key Takeaways Across the Day

In nearly every session throughout our day’s program there was mention of three key areas which are significant for employers to take on board if they want to ensure effective and sustainable mental health and wellbeing support for staff: Culture, Leadership and One Size Doesn’t Fit all. In addition the theme of leading with empathy and the importance of addressing the intersections between DEI and mental health were also a consistent across the day.


A key overarching takeaway was that in order to embed mental health and wellbeing support so that staff truly feel psychological safety in an organization, the conditions must be created and then nurtured to form part of a company’s culture.

As Nancy Chahwan, CHRO for The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat stated (she looks after 300k public service workers across Canada), “It’s so important to have a systematic approach to mental health and wellness. It’s important to work on the culture.”

And bringing the topic of culture change into the context of 2020, Adam Bryant, Managing Director at Merryck & Co shared, “2020 has accelerated everything. It’s accelerated companies to understand they need to have a more holistic view when it comes to employee mental health. We are now seeing that idea supported from the very top which is the key we really know to make something stick when it comes to culture change.”


Speaking on both culture and leadership, Darcy Gruttadaro, Director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychological Association summed it up well saying, “Leadership sets the culture of an organization and that really opens the door for mental health being more accepted.”

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“Actions speak louder than words…we need to spark the conversation about mental health at work early and often,” said Guru Gowrappan CEO of Verizon Media in our opening keynote.

This was echoed across the day by speakers, the significance of mental health support initiatives not just being lip service, that the commitment needs to be coming from the top–authentically–and embedded across company cultures.

The importance of leaders also modelling best practice themselves, practicing and promoting self-care was also emphasized. Alongside ensuring that people managers are not only trained on how to support the mental health of their teams, but that they’re also provided extra support to ensure they’re able to look after themselves.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

This isn’t a new insight, that mental health exists on a spectrum for each individual and support also needs to come in different forms in workplaces to ensure the needs of a diverse workforce are met.

And as Rachel Parrott, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at New Relic stated, “There are just so many initiatives and solutions in the HR space. Mental wellness does not have a one size fits all solution.”

Charles Lattarulo from American Express emphasized how it’s important to “listen and pivot” when staff tell you what they need–to respond. In the case of AMEX, who support a global workforce, taking into account regional nuances has been incredibly important for them in supporting employee mental health in 2020. Such as ensuring they invest in translating support materials and integrating local cultural contexts.


One of the most frequently mentioned words across the entire conference was empathy. The message repeatedly shared was that it’s impossible for an organization to successfully support staff mental health if there isn’t a genuine desire to empathize with what its people are personally feeling and facing.

Robert Gill, HR Business Partner at Square summarized the sentiments of many other speakers sharing his company’s approach, “If we can lead with empathy and show that we are partners to people and that we want to find success for them as individuals and as part of the organization, that to me changes the game. It let’s us be so much more effective in what we do.”

The Intersections between DEI & Mental Health in 2020

In the year when diversity, equality and inclusion are on the minds of US employers like never before, one of the most resonating messages that came across on this subject was from Rachel Parrott of New Relic, ”Your DEI strategy will go nowhere if leadership isn’t invested at every level of the organization, including from an empathy perspective on why they need to be invested….Mental health is nuanced and it’s harder for some people than others so we want to make sure we’re targeting those intersections.”

This is just a taste: How you can access all the content

We’re excited to announce the launch of MADFlix, our new on demand element of Make a Difference Media. There you can access all the best practice learning from all 47 speakers who presented at last Thursday’s Make a Difference Summit in association with Mind Share Partners. It’s difficult to do justice to a full day’s worth of rich insights from some of the world’s leading employers in a short article.

Stay tuned

I can honestly say I had reservations at how much progress we’d find happening in America after leaving the US workforce in 2013 with mental health stigma ever-present in workplaces, but wow has this movement picked up in recent years. Employers in the States are really not so far behind UK employers. And Canadian employers are one step ahead of the US. Things really are changing. The race is on. And I’d argue that it’s one of the best races to be in on the planet right now.

As Robert Gill of Square stated, “Attitudes of individuals and organizations are changing quickly when it comes to mental health. The fact that this conference even exists is a testament to this fact.”

American business leaders have come a long way in 2020 putting this agenda front and center of their priorities. The team at Make a Difference look forward to continuing to follow and bring you the latest insights in this movement as it continues to grow across the US, Canada, the UK, Asia and beyond. Watch this space!

Our final global event of 2020, Make a Difference Asia, happens 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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