encouraging wellness in the workplace: an interview with our wellbeing ERG lead
Mental health is an integral part of our overall health. I spoke with Rebecca Vilday, the head of Choreograph's wellbeing employee resource group (ERG), on the experiences that inspired her to become an advocate and how we can continue to make Choreograph a place where people with mental health challenges feel safe and supported.
lex rosenberry communications manager
For Choreograph Project Manager Rebecca Vilday, mental health advocacy is personal. Since her late teens, she says, she’s occasionally struggled with anxiety and depression. Things became particularly difficult over a decade ago, early in her career.
“The stress got to me,” she says. “At that age I had very low self-esteem, and a lot of self-doubt.” The situation became so intense that she was unable to work for a short period of time. But rather than finding support from her employer at the time, she was met with resistance and silence. “No one even asked if I was okay,” she says. “It made my anxiety and depression worse in the long run.”
At the time, she says, the topic of mental health in the workplace was less common. “I don’t think they saw how serious these issues are,” she says. In an unsupportive environment, Rebecca found her struggles exacerbated. She felt guilty and embarrassed. But over time, she realized how much better her experience could have been with a little education. Years later, she trained as a Mental Health First Aider, a wellness certification that teaches workplace leaders to recognize and support their colleagues who might be experiencing a range of challenges related to mental health. Something clicked, and she decided to become an advocate for others to prevent similar situations in the future. “I never want someone else to go through what I went through,” she says.
In part, addressing mental health is an issue of speaking frankly about uncomfortable situations. “In the last couple of years, I’ve decided to be more open about my personal experiences,” says Rebecca, who is leading Choreograph’s wellbeing ERG. She adds, it’s also important to talk about what individuals and businesses can do to best facilitate healthier spaces for each other.
In the last couple of years, I’ve decided to be more open about my personal experiences, says Rebecca Vilday, Project manager
Rebecca considers herself lucky to have access to the support and resources she ultimately needed to get her through rough periods, but as she’s quick to note, many others don’t. According to the World Health Organization, one in eight people globally are living with a mental health disorder, a number that’s risen following the Covid-19 pandemic. Wide disparities exist, Rebecca says, in access to appropriate care for various racial and ethnic groups, as well as the LGBTQIA+ community. And these disparities can have dire consequences. In another recent report, the UN Human Rights Council has demonstrated that individuals with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities experience disproportionately higher rates of poor physical health and reduced life expectancy.
These historical biases, along with contemporary stressors like the increased cost of living and long waiting lists for accessing professional help, have made addressing mental health even more pressing. Which is why Rebecca has decided to speak publicly about her struggles and advocate for workplaces actively engaged in mental health. There’s been a lot of progress made in the last decade, since she struggled in her first job. “But still,” she says, “there remains a social stigma around mental health treatment.”
As part of her activism, Rebecca helms Choreograph’s ERG dedicated to wellbeing, which encompasses not just mental health, but physical, emotive, and social wellbeing as well — it’s a holistic approach to the wellness of the “whole” individual. It joins ERGs focused on racial and ethnic diversity along with gender and LGBTQIA+ issues, as spaces where colleagues can join forces to work towards building more inclusive environments across the organization.
The wellbeing ERG is global in scope, with participants from countries as far-ranging as the U.S., the Netherlands, and Germany. Rebecca describes it as a safe space where employees can find support and brainstorm ways to make their community the best it can be. The group hopes to invite speakers and hold events, as well as develop initiatives to best support Choreograph employees’ mental, physical, and social health. Recent topics of discussion have included issues like the occasional isolation of the remote office and how to find the right work-life balance.
“Within our space,” says Rebecca, “I think it’s very important for leaders within an organization to speak up about mental health, and their commitment to wellbeing. And, if they’re comfortable, to share their own experiences.”
For Mental Health Awareness Month earlier this year, several Choreograph leaders opened up about their own personal experiences managing anxiety. The session provided a thoughtful discussion whereby all employees within Choreograph were invited to join and ask questions in the fireside chat.
In addition to the ERG, Choreograph maintains an Employee Assistance Program, a global resource designed to help employees prevent and manage challenges through counseling and educational resources and referrals on a variety of issues such as managing stress and life changes, along with improving self-esteem and self-confidence. The WPP network also hosts a community of mental health allies, volunteers who have been trained to provide support to anyone who needs it, when they need it.
Rebecca is optimistic about the future of mental healthcare advocacy, in the workplace and outside of it. “I want to see more businesses provide employees access to the best mental health support,” she says. Speaking out about formerly stigmatized experiences is just the beginning of that process.