What Were You Thinking?

Podcast interviewers and conference organizers often ask me to talk about my mistakes and failures. Thank you very much.

It’s okay; I get it. Others can learn from our mistakes and also take solace in the fact that we all make them. Listening to some presenter prattle on about how perfect their programs are  especially when they’re from companies with nearly unlimited resources  can be discouraging rather than inspiring. (Besides, if our professional social media is pervaded exclusively by self-promotion and ungrounded thought leadership, it’s hard to grow in a way that’s relevant to the real-life work environment.)

For some reason, two of my professional flops fell in the realms of mental health and emotional well-being.

Happiness with Martin Seligman

I piloted a web-based happiness program in 2007. This probably was the first-ever employee happiness program based on evidence from the field of positive psychology. We used a startup product developed by two former doctoral students of Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology.”

The program relied on talking-head videos of Seligman, who at the time wasn’t the most dynamic speaker in the world, and many of the interventions now linked to him: Three Good Things, Gratitude Letters, Strengths Assessment, and so forth.

I somehow managed to arrange to have one of the vendor’s founders keynote that year’s internal HR and Organizational Development conference, which was attended by everyone in HR, Employee Benefits, and Training — a couple of hundred people. While he was in town, I also had him present to the entirety of our IT management team.

The concept was ahead of its time  a lot of people still felt that the workplace was no place for happiness — and the product wasn’t ready for primetime. So, much to the vendor’s relief (I believe), I chose not to expand the pilot, but I’d learned a lot about vendor management, innovation, technology, positive psychology, and — dare I say it — meeting the organization where it is, all of which led to future successes.

Unteamly Depression

On another occasion, I endeavored to develop a program to help my company’s employees manage depression. I formed an exploratory team that included representatives from our EAP, our medical administrator’s behavioral health leadership, and a psychiatrist from the local medical center, as well as some internal folks from HR and Organizational Development.

Unfortunately, this effort also was ahead of its time (my go-to rationalization/humblebrag), as there were almost no models for how to address depression in an employee population.

I had some fanciful ideas about waiving co-pays for people who were prescribed anti-depressants if they also engaged in counseling (a common model for tobacco cessation programs that I’d introduced in various settings); making light boxes available to employees with seasonal affective disorder; and conducting depression screenings with follow-up.

But other team members had their own ideas (and agenda). The community psychiatrist was preoccupied with adjusting reimbursement rates  a lever I didn’t know how to pull  for various services in order to shift more responsibility for medication management from primary care providers to specialists. The medical administrator and EAP representative both saw the project as an opportunity to upsell me their companies’ condition-management programs.

Our meetings had a Tower of Babel feel to them, and, ultimately, the project went nowhere. Indeed, this was a failure that I look back on remorsefully, but from my mistakes I did learn a lot about team leadership and project management  —  skills that ultimately increased my effectiveness immensely.

I didn’t make those mistakes again. On the other hand, we still don’t have good models for employers to support employees with depression, and many other employers’ efforts have died on the vine. (Hint: I encourage clients to have broad mental health strategies  including work design and other environmental factors  that feature proactive integration of EAP services and broad roll-out of Mental Health First Aid training.)

…And Employee Mental Health Successes, Too

Lest you think I just go from company to company screwing up mental health initiatives, I’ll tell you that I’ve also led successes. In a separate post, for example, I share my experience partnering with an EAP to offer the Yale Work and Family Stress Program to health care workers. At the time, the program was one of only five workplace interventions designated as a model program by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), based on a rigorous analysis of outcomes.

What were your flops? And how have they made you better at what you do?