Walmart and J.B. Hunt execs say COVID raised awareness about mental health

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,607 views 

Executives with J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Walmart said Thursday (Sept. 23) their respective companies stepped up mental health awareness last year and will continue many of those services beyond the pandemic.

Mark Greenway, senior vice president of human resources at Lowell-based J.B. Hunt, said COVID has rewritten the playbook on how to manage people regardless of where they work. He said after months of many workers trying to juggle at-home Zoom meetings, educating kids remotely and not being able to get to their local gym to blow off steam, stress levels began to rise among the workforce.

He said in January the company launched a national telehealth service for mental wellbeing with WebMD Live and the company saw a 400% increase in the number of calls from workers to talk about how to deal with isolation and overworking. Greenway said Hunt did not ask employees to work more hours but the lines often got blurred and workers kept working past 5 p.m. while at home. He said it has become increasingly important for managers to model good behavior by taking time for lunch, getting out to ride the bike or walk each day and not commit more time to work than the required amount.

“We have had a relationship with the Joshua Center here in Northwest Arkansas for years and have made counseling services – 8 free sessions – available for our employees. We were able to make it available nationwide through virtual meetings this year.,” Greenway said during his participation in the Greater Area Bentonville Chamber of Commerce Fireside Chat virtual meeting on Thursday.

In 2022, Greenway said Hunt will launch a digital health and wellbeing benefit through Spring Health. He said the mobile app will launch next month and will be a portal for employees to use daily. He said the app starts with simple assessments by prompting users to say how they are feeling. There is also the opportunity to chat with coaches digitally and if more is needed users are directed to mental health professionals for counseling or prescribing meds.

Greenway said Hunt corporate employees are about 50% back in the office now and that often incorporates some remote work and flex arrangements. He said the hybrid model of working is likely to be around for a long time and Hunt continues to look for ways to let groups collaborate and work together even if it has to be remotely for some.

Mike Jansen, senior director of U.S. health and wellbeing benefits at Walmart, said Walmart has also been more aware of the importance of mental health amid the pandemic. He said the pandemic created a perfect storm for suicide and even he lost a friend to suicide last year. When the pandemic hit, Jansen said Walmart was providing free mental health counseling (3 sessions) and it became clear three was not near enough. He said Walmart raised that to 10 and the service is getting used more. He said the 10 free sessions will stand even after the pandemic has passed.

Jansen said Walmart also provides Dr. On-Demand services for physical and mental health wellbeing. He said there was a $4 co-pay prior to the pandemic but now those services are free. He said Walmart also looked for ways to use its massive data sets proactively and standup a concierge service that checks in with employees when certain triggers are tripped. He said there was a single case where the concierge counselor reached out to an employee who was contemplating suicide. Jansen said the employee got the help he needed and a life was saved.

He said Walmart also expanded its THRIVE Challenge, a 21-day challenge employees can give themselves on anything from losing weight, saving money, getting more exercises or stopping smoking. He said Walmart put $1 million into the program and each quarter selects winners for their efforts. He said Walmart also will offer access to virtual fitness classes which is an extension of the fitness club the company already provides employees. He said the digital fitness pass will launch early next year.

The executives said mental health has to be a focus or it can get overlooked. Hunt and Walmart also said they made sure truck drivers had access to the mental health services afforded everyone else in those companies. Hunt also gave drivers $500 bonuses and expanded paid quarantine times to 80 hours of paid time off.