Tech

Google is tackling mental health challenges among employees through 'resilience training' videos

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Key Points
  • Lauren Whitt, Google's wellness manager and resilience lead, said the company is using expertise from professional athletes and psychologists to help with mental health.
  • Google was the first large employer to tell staffers that they would have the option of working remotely through mid-2021.
  • Google executives say the greatest challenge with its employee base is mental well-being.
Google's "resilience" lead Lauren Whitt installed a series of tutorials and video content for Google employees experiencing burnout while working through the pandemic.
Google

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Google has emphasized employee health, establishing long-term remote work plans and offering periodic days off called "reset" days. Even that hasn't been enough to deal with the mental stress caused by the virus.

"Covid-19 is something we weren't anticipating or frankly prepared for from a mental skills approach," said Lauren Whitt, whose title at Google is wellness manager and resilience lead. She has a big job, "helping Googlers meet the moment they're facing today."

Whitt told CNBC in an interview that, in seeking out strategies to help Google's 130,000-plus employees deal with the ongoing crisis, the company is leaning on "resilience training," a phrase typically reserved for professional athletes and combat fighters.

The company said it has expanded existing programs and created weekly short instructional videos from athletes, coaches and psychologists, which employees are watching with greater frequency.

Alphabet's chief financial officer, Ruth Porat, who organized the early crisis response efforts, said last week that the company has rebounded after a dip in employee productivity. Her main concern today is with their mental wellness due both to isolation and the intensity of recent events.

"One of the things we're very concerned about is the wellness measures," Porat said at The New York Times DealBook conference. "What are some of the things we could do that helps ease the stress of working during a pandemic?"

For investors, Alphabet continues to perform. The stock is trading near a record, up 32% this year, compared with the 12% gain by the S&P 500. But the company's vocal employee base has not been silent about the surrounding struggles, particularly at a time when they don't have access to their usual campus amenities.

Google vs. S&P 500 this year

Soon after the Covid-19 outbreak, the nation faced another crisis following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, which was caught on tape and sparked nationwide protests. The incident forced tech companies, including Google, to reckon with their own issues surrounding diversity and the treatment of minorities.

"Summer led to a lot of discussions around social unrest and racial justice," Whitt said. "It is very real and a very prevalent part of our conversation of 2020."

She said that even with all the support groups and employees resources, "more than anything, we're encouraging Googlers to have conversations and to be authentic with who they are and what they're feeling."  

As discussions got more heated, Google began asking employees to take a more active role in moderating internal message boards.

"Tensions continue specifically for our Black+ community with Black Lives Matter, and our Asian Googlers with coronavirus and China/Hong Kong," Google's internal moderation team said in a blog post in September. "All of this is compounded by the additional stress of working from home, social isolation, and caregiver responsibilities — to name a few."

Meanwhile, Google made clear that there wouldn't be a return to normalcy anytime soon.

In July, Google became the first major company to announce it would allow employees the option to work from home through mid-2021, an extension of its prior timeline. Soon after, it began offering reset days so employees could take periodic time off to unplug.

"In July and August, we realized this isn't going away and we really began to shift the conversation to how to set new routines, how to change or alternate the environment they're working in and focus on new skills and habits and routines," Whitt said.

Small habits

The company's resilience team, which had existing programs like counseling and employee resource groups, wanted to do more for mental well-being. But it faced a challenge. Employees were already stuck in front of their screens for too many hours, and now they were being offered additional videos to watch.

Whitt's group decided on a series of digital clips called "Meet the Moment." Each video is five or six minutes long and focused on a specific topic like sleep, breathing, parenting and avoiding anxiety. Whitt said she worked with experts and performance coaches from professional football, basketball and baseball leagues as well as collegiate and Olympic athletes to create the resilience training and skills development content.

"Video content around breathing and sleep are the most meaningful ways we can rest and recover as well as momentary detachment throughout the work day," Whitt said. She added that another popular video was about "meeting times of uncertainty with authenticity and humility."

The main characters in the resilience training videos are people who have experienced high-stress situations like a big game, combat or other pressures.

"Resilience is a skill that can be built, practiced and cultivated," Google says in its digital resilience instructions for employees.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Alphabet Inc., gestures while speaking during a discussion on artificial intelligence at the Bruegel European economic think tank in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. Pichai urged the U.S. and European Union to coordinate regulatory approaches on artificial intelligence, calling their alignment critical.
Geert Vanden Wijngaert | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In less than a month, 30,000 Google employees have watched the videos. Whitt said the company has also hosted 150 virtual events globally to raise awareness about mental health and "prioritizing wellbeing." Contractors and temporary workers, who make up roughly half of Google's overall workforce, can access some but not all of the Covid-19 mental health and well-being resources, the company said.

To produce the videos in a way that was compliant with Covid-19 precautions, Whitt said Google used robotic cameras developed by a third party. The filming took place in Google's offices in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, while the directors and the audio visual team connected virtually.

As a part of the employee training, the company also expanded some existing activities it created just before the pandemic called "TEA check-ins," an acronym for thoughts, energy and attention. They're meant to address common symptoms of burnout, and managers are encouraged to say, "Let's have some TEA," as a way to get employees to be proactive.

"It gave people an opportunity to check in with, 'Where are you in this moment?'" Whitt said. "Are you distracted? Do you need a nap? Push-ups?"

Google developed a variation aimed at addressing mental health needs among employees who were parents and caregivers. Video content includes tutorials on how to focus on things like time management and household chores when people are distracted.

Parents have the added challenge of "the transition to having kids at home with a day job while navigating what it's like to be physically distanced from people you care about," Whitt said. The company also offered tips on "how to build a productive workspace in the kitchen."

To try and keep things light and fun where possible, the company began offering virtual classes on dancing, cooking and a virtual "yoga with your dog" event. The videos feature many of the same instructors and counselors who taught onsite at Google's offices. 

Employees have also formed virtual orchestras and comedy shows.

"We wanted to continue to connect employees with activities, arts and music — all that were part of our culture when they were in the office," Whitt said.

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