“Most health insurance plans cover physical therapy, but mental health therapy is often overlooked. Discover how one restaurant group is bridging the gap — and why.”
“How are you?” “How’s it going?” “What’s up?” Restaurant workers are asked these questions almost every day by colleagues, managers, and even owners. But is the question merely, “How are you?” or is it “How are you really?” For Dan Simons, co-owner of the Farmers Restaurant Group, it is the latter. He’s not asking rhetorical questions; he truly wants to know what’s going on with staffers and how he can help. But with more than 1,000 employees, can anyone know what’s happening with each individual at any given time?
Enter TalkSpace, the leading online counseling service, that offers sessions via text, audio, or video messaging. Farmers Restaurant Group has signed up with the company to provide on-demand, online counseling for all employees – as well as their family members (age 13 and over).
While the conversation around mental health awareness may seem new-ish thanks to the recent frankness on the part of high-profile athletes and celebs, people have always struggled with stress, anxiety, and more. When Simons was part of the T.G.I.Friday’s manager-in-training program 30 years ago, he could see his fellow workers’ challenges. “It’s always been obvious to me when someone is struggling. You can’t be a restaurant manager and not take notice,” he says.
And, given his experience, the issue isn’t at all new or any more widespread. Rather, he notes, “I don’t think it is any worse today than thirty years ago. It’s always been there, only now, people are willing to talk about it.” Certainly, he concedes, “The pandemic definitely layered in a level of deep stress and feelings of a lack of control. It was a magnifier and accelerant for anxieties and struggles. Even for people who have never been rattled by the roller coaster of life – they got rattled, too!”
For Simons, the appeal of TalkSpace to help employees thrive personally and professionally was its ease of adoption. “What was neat to me was lowering or eliminating the barrier to entry to receive therapy. When people need a hand up, the question you need to ask yourself isn’t, ‘Where are they?’ It’s, ‘How long is my arm? How easy is it for someone in need to grab the first rung of a ladder that leads to help?’” he says. Even when something is free, it has to be accessible – and almost instant. Simons says, “We often use the word ‘literally’ incorrectly, but if your fingers can reach your phone, therapy is literally within a finger’s reach! That’s the part that has motivated me to make it available to our team.”
TalkSpace also offers bilingual options, which is a boon for non-native English speakers, removing yet another barrier to entry for staffers and their families.
Another benefit to “virtual” therapy with TalkSpace is that it is available whenever you are. With traditional face-to-face weekly or bi-weekly therapy, a client needs to sit with their pressing issues until their next appointment. With TalkSpace, if a user reaches out in a moment of need, someone will be there. “It’s a funny thing, right? It can happen in a therapy appointment where you’re just getting into something and the therapist will say, ‘Our time is up!’ and you’re thinking, ‘Wait, I’m just getting started!’ So this model is appealing because you can get therapy at the moment you need it when you’re at your most communicative; you don’t have to get yourself into an introspective place once a week at a certain time,” Simons says.
He also points to the benefit of people not having to travel for therapy. “One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it’s been an accelerant for access to things like this. Even without a pandemic, should you spend an hour driving to your therapist’s office every time?” he wonders.
Simons and his group decided to offer TalkSpace to not just employees but also their families. As the conversation about the lack of access to mental health services remains a hot-button issue in the U.S., Simons opened the gates to all. “When you see someone struggling at work, it’s often a family member who needs help that your team member is worried about. If you’re living with someone with depression, that’s going to trigger additional anxiety and worry because it’s someone you care about,” he notes.
He believes if they had gated access to employees only, “We’d have been treating the symptom, but not the cause. The cause is what everyone in the family needs to identify and treat. Our employees are each a whole person, and their families are a part of that. To pretend otherwise is absurd.”
Just because staffers and their families have access to TalkSpace, it doesn’t mean Simons and management have checked out of checking in. On the contrary, leadership is always working to hone their emotional intelligence. Simons says, “We went from metaphorically taking everyone’s temperature before every shift – looking people in the eye, greeting them, checking in authentically – to physically taking their temperature, but now that we’re back to the metaphorical, it’s more important than ever.”
Staffers engage in role-playing around getting people to be transparent about what is happening in their lives. “You have to check in during shift meetings, during work, after work. And if you’re a leader and you’re having an off day, we encourage you to tell your team you’re a little down. You’ll be amazed how your team will pick you up and you’ll be amazed at the power of modeling that vulnerability to your teammates,” he states.
TalkSpace is still a relatively new benefit at the Farmers Restaurant Group, which includes several brands such as Founding Farmers and Farmers & Distillers with locations in Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. While all sensitive data is confidential, Simons will be able to see overall adoption rates (numbers, not names) in the future – and he is hopeful that it will become widely utilized by employees and their family members. It is part of employee orientation, and Simons says, “I want this to gain momentum and become ubiquitous like physical therapy. Physical therapy is everywhere! If you can go for PT, why can’t you go for MT?”
However many employees take advantage of TalkSpace, Simons and his team will continue to practice emotional intelligence and check in with staff in a meaningful way. “If you ask someone if they’re okay, and they say, ‘No, I’m fine,’ don’t stop there. That’s where the magic happens. You’ve got to stop, face them, and take a deep breath. Then they’ll take a deep breath. And you tell them, ‘I’m going to listen because I can see something is going on with you and I’m not going to accept that you’re fine.’ It may take a few prompts, but people want to spill it. And here, we’re going to make it safe for them and it’s going to be even better going forward,” he states. And if managers are unable to make in-roads in that manner? “That’s when we’re like, you should check out TalkSpace!”
About Brizo Data, Inc.: Brizo Data helps the foodservice industry by providing the strategic data you need to win in your market. We empower restaurant vendors and restauranteurs with better data for Business Intelligence, Market Research, and Competitive Analysis. Brizo monitors the online footprint of every food serving establishment in the US and Canada – from social media presence, online reviews, menu items, market composition, and even technological choices.