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Dr. Jodi Frey on Transforming Workplace Wellbeing

Meet Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Research Advisor Jodi Jacobson Frey, PhD. For over 20 years, Dr. Frey has been a guiding force in workplace behavioral health. She’s currently a professor and associate dean for research at the University of Maryland, as well as the founder of the university’s Behavioral Health and Well-Being Lab (BHWell Lab). As a researcher, Dr. Frey promotes early intervention in mental health challenges to not only enhance worker wellbeing across different occupations, but also to protect jobs and resources.

photo of dr. jodi frey, expert on transforming workplace wellbeing

Dr. Frey started her career as a clinical social worker, focusing on mental health and substance use in traditional community outpatient programs. She quickly discovered her passion for helping people before they lost many, if not all, of their resources — stable housing, employment, family, social support and more — to untreated substance use disorder and mental illness. That’s what drew her to the field of workplace social work and employee assistance programs (EAPs). Dr. Frey believed “if we could intervene earlier in the disease process, we could help people access treatment support earlier and then provide recovery supports for long-term recovery and resilience while they maintained employment and resources that often come with having a job.”

After working in the field for a few years, Dr. Frey knew she wanted to make a difference on a larger scale. She had questions about what worked, what could work better and how to tailor interventions to be more culturally responsive to diverse workforces. For the past 14 years, Dr. Frey has co-chaired the National Committee for Workplace Suicide Prevention and played a pivotal role in shaping workplace policies through the committee’s National Guidelines. Since the guidelines launched in October 2019, over 1,600 workplaces and professional organizations have pledged to make suicide prevention a health and safety priority at work. Dr. Frey emphasizes the importance of creating policies and programs that address the unique needs of employees from marginalized groups, such as BIPOC employees, LGBTQ+ employees and all employees who identify with a minority group. The guidelines emphasize moving suicide prevention and overall mental health and well-being upstream. Moving upstream includes changing the culture of the workplace with a focus on identifying root causes of mental health and suicide risks and removing systemic barriers in the workplace such as discrimination and bias in an effort to create a work environment that is more equitable and inclusive.

In this blog, Dr. Frey shares her insights on transforming and advancing workplace wellbeing.

Insider’s Look: Mental Health First Aid at Work

Dr. Frey began her journey with MHFA nearly a decade ago, evaluating Youth Mental Health First Aid. Since then, she has seen MHFA programming grow in popularity and increase its reach at workplaces in need of training for employees and managers, which led her to support the development of a new MHFA product: MHFA at Work Transform.

Fueled by the growing demand for workplace wellbeing programs, MHFA at Work helps employees at every level learn how to recognize and respond to colleagues who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge in the workplace, as well as build a resilient mindset and implement best practices for self-care. At the core of our courses is a commitment to creating a workplace where mental health is not just a priority but a cornerstone of success. MHFA at Work Transform is an interactive Instructor-led workshop that brings together management, HR and legal professionals to discuss the organization’s current mental health culture and create a cohesive strategy to address factors that may be impacting workers on their path to a healthy workplace that enhances employee wellbeing and cultivates empathic and bold workplace leaders.

“I was drawn to work on the development of the MHFA at Work Transform course to provide consultation on how to help workplace leaders respond to unique challenges at work, how to integrate mental health and substance use even more into training, and how to integrate workplace behavioral health with diversity, equity, inclusion and access goals while linking not only to mental health and wellbeing outcomes, but broader workplace outcomes such as productivity, engagement and retention. We need more programming such as MHFA to recommend to employers.”

The Impact of Workplace Wellbeing

Anticipating the impact of the new MHFA at Work courses, Dr. Frey highlights how these courses address the scarcity of workplace-focused training programs, filling a crucial gap.

“The intentional connections between upstream, midstream and downstream mental health and wellbeing are important as we consider how to measure outcomes for health and wellbeing, in addition to workplace outcomes. The course starts off nicely with a focus on how the health and wellbeing of employees results in desired workplace outcomes such as productivity, reduced turnover and improved worker engagement. The connections between job factors and mental health and wellbeing are important aspects to consider as we educate employers about why it is critical to invest in training, policies and programs that promote mental wellbeing.”

The customization of coursework to specific industries, including restaurants, retail, and manufacturing, is a unique contribution that helps ensure the training is responsive to the unique needs of various workplace cultures.

The MHFA at Work product suite’s innovation lies in:

  • MHFA at Work Intro and Certification courses that teach how to respond to mental health and substance use challenges and promote wellbeing at work; these offerings are a distinguishing characteristic in that employers often need to invest in training that covers several related topics to accommodate resource constraints that don’t allow for training that only impacts one area of need.
  • Courses that build on each other, starting with basic mental health training and moving through more advanced skills practice and collaborative learning with other managers. Managers and other workplace leaders often prefer to learn and hear from others in their position, both within their industry and across industries. MHFA at Work Transform provides this unique learning opportunity while building on the MHFA at Work Intro and Certification courses.
  • MHFA at Work Transform methods that convert knowledge into action, including the strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results (SOAR) model, which will help facilitate goals that can be shared with others in the class and encourage accountability and follow-up actions at the workplace.

As workplaces increasingly embrace a more comprehensive approach to mental health, Dr. Frey’s insights provide valuable guidance to create empathic leaders, foster resilience and ultimately transform workplace wellbeing.

Follow this blog series, where we highlight our research advisors and share their stories and deep-rooted passions while exploring important topics in the world of mental health and substance use.

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