How companies can support their employees' mental health

Now more than ever, Columbus companies are making mental health a top priority.

Laura Newpoff
For Columbus CEO
Dave Grzelak (left) and Rick Milenthal (Photo courtesy The Shipyard)

Rick Milenthal and Dave Grzelak are long-time business partners who have developed a deep friendship over the course of 17 years. So, five years ago when Milenthal saw that his friend’s son was struggling with his mental health and dealing with suicidal thoughts he tapped all the resources and connections he had to get help.

Milenthal watched as David and his wife, Elizabeth, tried to navigate the mental health system. They’d find a bed at a treatment facility for their son, only to watch the system push him out in a matter of days. After using every resource at their disposal, the battle was lost in 2018 when Grzelak’s 17-year-old son took his life.

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Milenthal is chairman and CEO of The Shipyard, a digital marketing agency with offices in Columbus and California. Grzelak is its chief strategy officer. Six months after his son’s death he approached his business partner about being open about a topic so many people don’t want to talk about. Milenthal had intimate experience with suicide—his wife, Karen, lost her father during their first year of marriage. Milenthal and Grzelak decided they would use their skills as communicators to destigmatize the conversation around mental health.

The effort has become manifest in four ways: Proceeds from the WonderBus Music Festival, which The Shipyard helped launch in 2019, support Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health; The Shipyard is partnering with the medical center on the #EndSuicideSilence TALK campaign (Tell them you care, Act immediately, Listen without judgment and Know that treatment works); Milenthal hosts a podcast series called Voices of Resilience; and there are efforts within the marketing agency to help employees with their mental health.

“We decided we are in a business, the business of words, where we can actually do something,” Milenthal says. “We’re not medical professionals, but we do communicate. This has become a passion for us. Communication can cure. It wasn’t too long ago that this was a subject that wasn’t talked about.”

How companies can support employees' mental health

Grzelak’s son’s death preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put a spotlight on mental health as people struggle with social isolation, medical issues, the loss of loved ones, financial loss and other stressors. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, during the pandemic, about four in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a share that has been largely consistent, up from one in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019. A KFF health tracking poll from July 2020 also found that many adults are reporting specific negative impacts on their mental health and well-being, such as difficulty sleeping (36 percent) or eating (32 percent), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12 percent), and worsening chronic conditions (12 percent), due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. 

Within companies, Milenthal suggests three ways leaders can support the mental health of executives and employees.

Make mental health a priority each year during health insurance program design. A plan, for example, could offer employees three free sessions with a therapist and then a follow-on, affordable co-pay program that gives them access to therapists around the country.

Make a commitment as a company leader to show your own vulnerability. “None of us have a perfect life and it’s good to be open about that,” Milenthal says.

Make mental health time-off a policy and encourage and reward it. This also includes conveying the sentiment that mental health struggles aren’t viewed as a weakness.

“As a leader, sometimes you put on an outside shell almost as if you’re on stage,” Milenthal says. “Let your folks know you’re vulnerable, too, and that they’re not alone. People want to be connected. It’s a powerful thing.”

Self-care: What executive coaches say 

Regan Walsh is a Columbus executive and life coach who recently joined Renegade Global as chief renegade officer. The startup specializes in human development, leadership and innovation and offers an accelerator program that brings women entrepreneurs, leaders and founders together to level up, learn and hold each other accountable. During the pandemic these women have turned to each other to deal with a newfound duality. They are overwhelmed by the stressors of the pandemic and underwhelmed by a lack of personal excitement at the same time.

Executive and life coach Regan Walsh (Photo courtesy Regan Walsh)

The program curates peer circles of women who are like-minded and in similar positions. They open doors for each other, invest in each other’s businesses and share advice for personal and professional challenges. A tenant of the program is the concept of “Why not now?” The women are encouraged to act on the ideas they dream about every day.

“It all comes back to mental health, shaking things up and flexing different muscles,” Walsh says. “We’re conditioned to say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that right now.’ We are disrupting that and encouraging these women to go after these ‘Why not now?’ ideas.”

Artie Isaac has chaired CEO peer groups with Vistage Worldwide since 2011. He talks with his clients about mindfulness, meditation and being intentional about allocating time toward self-care. Diversity, equity and inclusion programs also are important to stop the needless suffering of others.

What he frequently hears from executives these days is that they are languishing. The rugged individualism of the way Americans practice capitalism has them always striving for something more. He’s encouraging executives to check out Juan Alvarez’s mindfulness coaching and Wise Humanity’s 12-week personal growth course.

He also recommends they find comfort and joy in what they’ve already achieved and “peace and delight in the small things.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.

Executive health resources


McConnell Executive Health and Wellness

Provides advanced, customized health care assessments, screenings and tests designed for members of the executive community.


Mount Carmel Executive Health Program

Provides customized health evaluations; physical, fitness and nutrition assessments, health risk profiles and quarterly follow-ups. (On hold because of COVID.)


Wexner Medical Center, mental and behavioral health

Confidential treatment in a caring environment at Ohio State Harding Hospital, Talbot Addiction Medicine and other Ohio State outpatient sites that help patients move forward toward a more enjoyable, productive life.