How SAP Brazil’s mental health initiative paved the way for its pandemic response

A look at how its campaign turned into a ready-made platform, tripling engagement while serving its employees during a crisis.

By Kathie Harris      
SAP Brazil's wellness program

Mental health was already a trending topic in corporate wellness programs, and then came the COVID-19 pandemic and self-isolation. Companies that weren’t meeting the issue head-on are looking for ways to do so now. 

One company that got ahead of the challenge is SAP Brazil, a division of SAP, the software and computer services company with 101,150 employees across 140+ countries.

When former SAP CEO Bill McDermott challenged his company to tackle mental health issues in 2019, SAP Brazil answered the call. Headquartered in Sao Paulo, CEO Christina Palmaka and the HR and Communications departments created the “Mental Health Matters” campaign. 

“SAP believes in a culture of well-being,” says Luciana Coen, director of global corporate affairs at SAP Brazil. “It really affects the business. But we didn’t know how to approach it.”

They decided on two goals for their campaign: to reduce the stigma of mental health and to produce better self-care among employees.

To test the waters, the team put together a mental health panel at the most significant company event of the year, the Sapphire 2019 conference in Orlando in May of 2019. The panel consisted of a doctor, an expert on mental health programs, and a representative from SAP’s branding department. Lady Gaga sang during the conference, and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, joined the panel as a representative from their Born This Way Foundation for mental health. Coen described the risk, saying, “This is a business and tech convention, it has nothing to do with mental health.” 

To their surprise, it was a hit, even drawing attendees out of other sessions. The audience even engaged with questions, confirming the interest in mental health discussions.

Challenging the stigma 

Gaining traction on a mental health dialogue, they gathered internal research on their managers’ comfort level with mental health topics. 

Beginning with onsite informal breakfast meetings, they asked managers how they felt discussing their own mental wellness issues and how they would cultivate a stigma-free environment for their employees. The meetings became a monthly gathering with Palmaka, marketed as “Tea with the CEO.” 

“We want people to be more vigilant and pay more attention to each other,” Coen says. “We got the managers taking responsibility for pushing the agenda.”

The campaign also featured mental health content placed in the company’s weekly newsletter and the intranet. Videos aired on the internal television, with topics like the difference between sadness and depression or how to avoid burnout. 

The communication team created banners and mobiles in the lobby and around the offices. They also distributed campaign-themed stickers for notebooks. 

The communication team also marketed the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This HR tool assists in legal, financial, and psychological circumstances. Underused for some time, the EAP was mentioned throughout the campaign materials, reminding employees of its existence. Over the course of six months, usage went up 300%.

In January 2020, they partnered with Vittude, a prevailing mental health provider in Brazil. With HR’s input, Vittude provided mental health doctors and experts to speak at webinars and on-campus mindfulness sessions. Vittude offers a network of therapeutic specialists, both online and face-to-face. SAP employees receive a 50% discount on sessions.

Better self-care

The response was encouraging. Despite cultural stigma around mental health, SAP Brazil found 20% of its 1,000 employees attended Mindfulness sessions. Around 100 people attended the webinars, and the company’s internal Mental Health page received more than 1,000 views. 

Employees shared the program on social media seven times, which gained the attention of media outlets. Seven newsletter articles received nearly 500 views and 120 comments over three months.

Arianna Huffington, Thrive Global’s Founder and CEO, reached out to Palmaka to partner with SAP Brazil. A new app by Thrive Global, called Thrive, intends to help companies support employee wellness and productivity. SAP Brazil is participating in the pilot program.

“We are in the world of reputation and sustainability, so the brand means a lot,” Coen says. “More and more companies are searching for products that make sense for them that bring purpose and companies that have the right culture. From a reputation perspective, (the benefits of the program are) really good.”

Advantages also include employee retention, attraction, and internal productivity, she says.

Shifting to work-from-home

Leadership at SAP Brazil had no idea their efforts last year would put them in a position to see their employees through a pandemic, but the Mental Health Matters campaign did just that.

“We had an advantage because everyone was wondering what was going to happen, with the economy, kids not in school,” Coen says. “The mental health and well-being conversations were already started, but now for all the company.”

The company has 100% of employees working from home this year.

SAP formed a crisis committee, consisting of the CEO, COO, CFO, Marketing VP, Communications VP, HR Director, IT Head, and Facilities Head. The committee decided to be “super open and transparent for the employees,” Coen says.

“Everyone was dealing with uncertainty,” Coen says. “We hired well-known psychological analysts to talk to all the employees about uncertainty.”

The campaign went fully digital, bringing its already low budget of $10,000 even lower. The content was easily adjusted to the work-from-home environment.

Tea with the CEO continued its monthly schedule, this time with Palmaka joining her employees from her breakfast table via Zoom, mug in hand. Sometimes the company would even send coffees to employees’ homes. 

The attendance at the online mindfulness sessions has tripled, from 100 to 300 attendees.

“People are more willing to attend things now because of the pandemic. People are more willing to talk about it (mental health) and do more,” Coen says about the increased participation. 

One issue the team noted was the necessity of communications between HR and the communications teams to make sure their message was aligned. They meet weekly. 

“Even when we thought we didn’t need it, we ended up doing it, and there was some alignment that needed to be done.”

Coen hopes to see the Mental Health Matters campaign evolve in 2021. 

“Because the mental health issue is addressed, and very well addressed, I envision it maturing into a kindness campaign. Be good, not only with others. Be good with yourself.”

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