Pandemics, Protests, & Mental Health - Verizon Q & A

The CEO of Verizon Media says there’s never been a more urgent time than now to address this critical workplace issue.

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A Google search for the biggest stressors in life returns more than 3 million results, listing such issues as the death of a loved one, divorce, moving, and job loss. Almost nowhere will you find mention of the two obvious causes these days: pandemics and racial injustice. Even so, we know that COVID-19 and recent racial tension have contributed to the problem in a big way, with roughly 35 percent of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression this year, almost triple that of last year, according to one survey.

Verizon Media CEO Guru Gowrappan believes these figures—tragic in themselves—also portend a crisis for organizations, easily costing billions in lost productivity and engagement. Saying he has personally seen the devastation of mental health issues himself, Gowrappan has made awareness of this delicate topic his own—and Verizon Media’s—cause. That includes leading #WellnessFriday at the firm, a weekly interview on social media with a mental health expert, and mental health training for all employees. Verizon Media is also devoting $10 million in advertising space to mental and public health causes.

Gowrappan believes it is the responsibility of organizations to support employees who struggle with mental issues—and only more so nowadays. He takes the unusual view that workers should be able to take “mental health days” the same way they take personal days. “I encourage this a lot,” he says. “To me, mental health is the biggest crisis in the world today.” He says he personally does breathing exercises and has a yoga mat nearby, leading by example.



All of which is more important today, he says, given the hybrid home office that so many employees have now. Coworkers are behind a digital camera while kids and pets invade your personal space—and they’re all demanding your time and attention. For younger generations, personal space and connection may mean little more than a studio and a laptop. Race relations have replaced lunch options in Slack chats. Burnout and isolation are real. Here are some of Gowrappan’s thoughts on all this. (Comments have been edited.)

You made a commitment to make mental health an organizational priority well before the pandemic hit. Why was it important to you?

To me, mental health is the biggest crisis in the world today. Just look at the statistics. One in four people are diagnosed with a mental health disorder. But it is still misunderstood and stigmatized. Our goal is to remove the stigma by making mental health a core part of our culture and benefits program, not just for our employees and customers but also our shareholders and society at large.

How does mental health impact customers and shareholders?

Failing to address mental health issues among employees costs companies about $1 trillion annually in lost productivity. Conversely, every dollar put into mental health returns $4 in improved health and productivity. That’s a significant financial incentive for organizations and shareholders.

As for customers, we have about 900 million monthly active users on our platforms. By leveraging our platforms to program content focused on mental health where it makes sense, like we did with the launch of our Yahoo! Life wellness vertical, we can help normalize the conversation.

How has the conversation around mental health changed since the pandemic?

The crisis forced everyone to reexamine their routines and habits, particularly as it relates to personal and professional relationships. Humans thrive in social settings, and we’ve lost that in some respect. We have about 11,000 employees, and in this environment, every home is its own headquarters, so we have 11,000 headquarters. At the same time, however, there’s more openness. Everyone’s on equal footing—one screen, one person. We can see the person more now, as opposed to the portrait they would bring to the office in the past.



The home is more of a safe space than the office, then?

For sure.

But working from home comes with its own set of mental health hurdles, right?

The statistics say more people feel more socially isolated and are more anxious. More than 50 percent of people report feeling emotionally exhausted. But for me, what’s even more troubling is that nearly 40 percent of people say their managers or companies haven’t asked how they were doing since the pandemic began, and the same percentage of people say they want their manager to bring up the subject. That’s a heartbreaking statistic; it shows that people want to talk about these issues but they aren’t.

How do you get them to talk about the issues?

The biggest challenge is creating a safe place for employees where they won’t be judged and won’t face retaliation. Doing that requires openness and trust. At Verizon Media, we put a lot of effort into building that, including providing mental health training for all employees. Mental health is similar to unconscious bias in many ways, in that people need to understand the spectrum of issues, where they are on their journey, and what tools they need to address them. 

What has your own mental health journey looked like?

I grew up in Asia, where there is a lot more stigma around mental health even today. People with mental health issues are made to feel massively flawed and are isolated and put in disadvantaged positions. It’s happened with some of my friends and family who struggled with depression and anxiety. They were embarrassed to ask for help. People need to know that it’s OK to ask for help because it can change lives.

How have those experiences informed your outlook as a leader?

As a leader, every decision has a human angle. Every decision you make has an impact on business and people. I start every day by meditating. It helps center my mind so that I can be aggressive in execution but still thoughtful and mindful when addressing problems.



You actually offer guided meditation for employees, right?

Yes, that’s one of the things we offer. We recently had Deepak Chopra lead a meditation session for employees as part of our #WellnessFriday initiative. But you don’t have to practice meditation to get the benefits of mindfulness. Cooking could have the same effect, for instance.


Sure, we led a cooking class for another #WellnessFriday session and had about 3,000 people join the livestream. For those 90 minutes, everyone forgot about everything else that was going on. If you think about it, cooking is a very meditative practice.

Exercise or going to the gym can be a Zen thing for people as well. Whatever works for you. I’m a big believer in blocking out time for yourself during the day. It could be a nap or a quick 10 minutes of yoga. As long as you share what you are doing with your manager to help set expectations and plan accordingly, there are a lot of simple tricks you can do to take care of your mental health. And it’s important for managers to give permission to do that.

When work gets super stressful, People sometimes joke that they need to “take a mental health day.” But should that actually be a benefit organizations offer along with vacation time, holidays, and personal days?

Absolutely. I’d be an advocate for that.

We see CEOs today being more vulnerable and taking very public stances on social issues. Do you think they would be as vocal about their own mental health issues as they have been about other issues, like systemic racism, for instance?

That is my hope. I think talking about mental health issues and trying to find solutions is a sign of strength. I think leaders who acknowledge issues within their own selves can really bring the entire workforce together and help all employees. 

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