With World Mental Health Day coming up on October 10, we wanted to call attention to conversations surrounding mental health in the workplace and how companies can invest in their employees' well-being to create a culture of empathy, inclusion, and productivity. To that end, we spoke with Brett Kaufman - founder and CEO of Kaufman Development - about the changes that need to happen to de-stigmatize the topic of mental health in corporate America. Brett is an entrepreneur and executive coach who has made prioritizing his employees' mental health a cornerstone of his leadership style. (This conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity).
Vault: Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
Brett Kaufman: I’ll start by saying that I am a firm believer in using our full life journey as fuel for our creative purpose. Growing up, I definitely succumbed to societal pressures to be “successful” in the most traditional sense of the word. I was programmed to grow up, have a corner office, wear a suit to work every day and make lots of money to support my family. I followed that path through college, working in finance and doing all the things people expected me to do. But I wasn’t happy doing it, that life didn’t fulfill me.
Shaking that mindset is not easy. It takes a lot of therapy and self-care to shed the layers of past trauma and tap into what motivates and inspires you. Through that work, I founded my own company where I could combine my love of art, philanthropy, health, wellness, and creativity to build conscious communities where people can live, work, and enjoy. It has also led me to do more work in the coaching space, working with others who are at various points of their journey.
Vault: World Mental Health Day is on October 10. Although observations such as these are meant to promote awareness and understanding, we as a society still share a collective reluctance to embrace honest discussions of mental health.
Is there a particular stigma against mental illness in corporate America? What are some of the biggest mistakes business leaders make when it comes to mental health and their employees?
BK: I do think there is still some stigma around it – whether it is talking about things related to mental health and even more so with topics like addiction or recovery. This is all rooted in outdated modes of thinking, especially as people realize the important connection between our professional and personal lives.
Companies that are not inclusive or welcoming are not going to be able to attract or retain top talent who have personal beliefs that do not align with those philosophies. It is in our own best interest to elevate the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees. The companies that see this as a priority will be the ones that have the most motivated employees. The perks of free food or ping pong tables in the office can help, but they are not a substitute for doing the actual work of engaging your employees directly and continuously learning and growing together.
Earlier this year, I was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting. I used that opportunity to stand in front of 1,200+ business leaders in one of the fastest-growing markets in America to highlight the pride I feel in the work we’re doing in the city to build a sustainable future. My own personal journey to embrace the importance of mental health inspires the work that we do in our community.
Business leaders have a responsibility to be authentic and vulnerable, and we must continue to evolve and prioritize the mental health and wellbeing of ourselves and our colleagues if we want to grow as people and companies.
Vault: Are there disparities in how we perceive or discuss mental health between diverse groups of employees? Men versus women—white people versus people of color? How do we overcome those disparities?
BK: Absolutely. And not just in the perception and discussions, but also in the services and resources or support we are providing. Many people have highlighted the harm of toxic and fragile masculinity at work and in society broadly, and we have seen such inspired protests for racial equity and equality for the Black community.
I recently interviewed a Black, trans entrepreneur on my podcast who is doing some amazing work in the venture capital world and in coaching and mentoring Black-owned businesses. He has found success in a world that has not traditionally been friendly or welcoming to his identities, yet he is working to break these barriers while continuing to uplift the next generation. We must all do better to center these types of stories to highlight successes but also use our voices to address the barriers and disparities that exist.
Vault: As the founder and CEO of Kaufman Development, tell us how you approach mental health in the workplace and your employee’s overall well-being? What principles do you incorporate into your leadership style, company-wide policies, and corporate culture to encourage wellness?
BK: Our company is a long-time participant in the Built to Lead program, offering each employee the opportunity to spend time unlocking their core beliefs, both personally and professionally, and how those are related. We also offer all our employees the opportunity to participate in Transcendental Meditation. We have reinforced our desire for personal excellence, hoping that each employee feels valued and engaged but also empowered to build their own path and know that we are here to support.
Community engagement and philanthropy are at the core of our company values. We encourage our employees to identify areas where we could have an impact through sponsorship, donations, or joining nonprofit boards. This allows us to align our giving with our values and provides another way to listen to our employees about what is important to them. A special highlight is our engagement with the Columbus Pride Parade and Festival, which is now the largest LGBTQ+ pride event in the Midwest. Our company has been a longtime supporter and has influenced our internal culture in positive ways, creating an environment where people can bring their whole self to work without fear.
Volunteering is also a big initiative for our company. As part of our quarterly company goals, we include impact hours - which is the sum of hours spent by employees volunteering for organizations in the city. We have a partnership with an organization called Besa that works with us to curate specific volunteer opportunities with causes aligned with our mission.
At the executive level, we have invested in having our leadership team participate in Strategic Coach. While Built to Lead allows us to grow together as a company, we put a strong emphasis on ensuring our leaders are equipped with the tools needed to lead their teams and continue to grow and find new challenges that are inspiring.
Vault: What are some actionable steps that other business leaders can take to begin shifting attitudes about mental health and creating a corporate culture that promotes openness and wellness?
BK: We all have trauma or emotional baggage that we carry with us. Some of it is more visible to the outside world, but a lot of it is carried internally. And everyone processes this stuff in different ways and at different times in their life. I believe we should just talk about this more to normalize the mental health journey. It is OK to talk about therapy. It is OK to talk about meditation. It is OK to explore alternative modalities. Not everyone is going to get it, but at least we can encourage people to have conversations and be comfortable knowing that they are not alone.
Vault: How has the pandemic impacted mental health in the workplace? How has it exacerbated stigmas and made it harder for employers to prioritize their employees’ mental health?
BK: The shift to working from home was sudden for a lot of us. Since the founding of Kaufman Development, we have had a big focus on building an inclusive, open, honest culture for employees at all levels of the company. So while the operational stuff was not a smooth transition, I was so inspired by how the team rallied around each other to proactively reach out, find time for calls or check-ins, and be more intentional about avoiding any feeling of isolation. This highlights that the hard work we have been doing for years was to build a strong set of core values and beliefs and actually live up to them.
I think some companies will definitely have to play catch up, but I think we are seeing so many new and innovative ways to support each other that there is no great excuse to not invest in the health and wellbeing of employees.
Vault: What advice do you have for people seeking ways to proactively manage their own mental health in their everyday lives—especially given these stressful times?
BK: Create your own routine and stick to it. But make sure that part of that includes “free time” when you can just sit with yourself and work on things that you want to work on, free from the influence of work or family.
Vault: What advice do you have for employees advocating for structural and cultural change in the workplace? How can people raise awareness of mental health among their colleagues and managers?
BK: Take advantage of the benefits your employer may offer. If mental health therapy is not included, suggest it. As with anything, our voices will be stronger collectively on this issue. So the more we are talking about it inside and outside of work will help to keep the conversation alive. And I think the more work that we all do on ourselves, to understand how our traumas or societal programming have affected the way we live, is important. While we’re not traveling as much as we used to these days, we all know the flight attendant’s safety speech about putting on our own oxygen mask before helping others. The more work we all do to understand ourselves will help us be more understanding and empathetic and truly shift the culture.
Brett Kaufman is a developer, entrepreneur, investor, coach, and speaker based in Columbus, Ohio. Over the course of his career, he’s started many businesses including Kaufman Development, built over $1 billion in assets, and sold over $500 million in properties. He is currently developing $300 million in real estate, hosts the Gravity podcast, and has served as a mentor and coach to over 100 entrepreneurs.
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