The View from the Top: Anna Mittag – Senior Vice-President, Product and Services at LifeSpeak

Anna Mittag is the Senior Vice-President, Product and Services at LifeSpeak and has been with the company since 2005. Anna is based in Montreal, is bilingual, and as such has always overseen all French-language aspects of the company’s business. She is responsible for all of the company’s operations and manages its staff teams: client services, product development, content, and sales and partnership support. Prior to joining the company, Anna practiced insurance litigation law with Lavery de Billy, L.L.P., and was in-house counsel for Cirque du Soleil. Anna holds a BA in English Literature, as well as LLB and BCL degrees from McGill University.

You have a background in the legal field. How did you come to work in the field of employee health and wellness?

I ended up at LifeSpeak and in the field of employee health and wellness totally by chance. Prior to joining LifeSpeak, I was a lawyer – an insurance litigator and then in-house council for Cirque du Soleil. I then took a few years off when I had my children.

As I was getting ready to go back to work, a former colleague of mine attended an in-person, expert-led LifeSpeak workshop in Toronto. This was in the early days of the company, before we became a digital platform. She got to chatting with our founder and CEO, Michael Held, who mentioned that he wanted to expand the company into Montreal. She recommended me as someone who could help lead that initiative. Like Michael, I’d become interested in mental health and wellness after seeing the impact of daily stress on my colleagues. I flew out to meet him shortly after and that was the beginning of the last 17 years of my life.

You have been with LifeSpeak for over 17 years. Demand for the platform has grown steeply over the past year. Do you think that growth is all related to the pandemic, or perhaps a more general growing interest from employers on supporting their employees?

The pandemic has certainly illuminated the need for employers to provide mental health support and resources for their employees. Among our clients, the usage of our platform has increased more than 60% in the past year. But mental  health challenges were very common before the pandemic, and they will continue to be common after it. As one of our experts Dr. Adi Jaffe says, as many as 50% of us will struggle with a mental illness or a mental health disorder at some point in our lives. He says at any given point in time, 1/4 to 1/5 of us are struggling with a mental health difficulty.

And so, we were already seeing increased C-level recognition of the need to provide employees with better support and the pandemic just accelerated it. The past year has put so much stress on people, it helped push us to a place where talking about mental health issues is no longer taboo. Because everybody needs help with something. And it’s not just becoming more acceptable to ask for that help, people are starting to expect their employers to provide it proactively. At the same time, employers realize that while it is the right thing to do, it’s also essential to productivity and, therefore, key to success.

LifeSpeak offers modules on a wide range of issues. What topic is most accessed on your platform? Does it differ by country/industry/company size, etc.?

The LifeSpeak platform includes expert-led educational resources on a wide breadth of topics including mental health, addiction, stress management, physical health, relationships, financial health, parenting, caregiving, leadership skills, and more.  These are really universal experiences, and we’ve found the majority of our content applies to everyone, regardless of occupation or geographic location.

Each year, resources on sleep, stress management, loneliness, mental health, anxiety, and work-life balance are consistently accessed the most. In the past 18 months, the pandemic has created new, unique challenges and we’ve developed content to address them.  Diversity and inclusion is also a growing focus for a lot of our clients, and while we already had content on it, we’ve been expanding the topics available in this category. We also recently did a full day of expert-led live web chat sessions for our clients covering a wide range of diversity and inclusion rated topics. But by far, sleep is our most accessed topic over the past year.

What I find interesting is that all these topics are connected. For example, someone might not be able to sleep because their mind is racing. Maybe their mind is racing because of stress and anxiety about something at work. Over time, the burden of these problems can lead them to feel alone or to engage in unhealthy and addictive behaviors. These problems in turn continue to fuel their inability to sleep, and so on.

How does LifeSpeak support the health and wellbeing of their employees (apart from offering them access to LifeSpeak modules, of course!). What types of activities or programs do you offer to your employees?

The mental health and wellbeing of our team members is critically important, so we strive to provide them with as many resources as possible to make choices that will help them be their best selves in both their personal and professional lives. And yes, that does include access to the LifeSpeak platform.

It’s no secret that the pandemic has blurred the separation between work and life. At LifeSpeak we aim to provide an environment that empowers our team and allows the many facets of their lives to be nurtured. We encourage volunteerism, setting aside time for exercise, and practicing self-care.

We’ve also created an environment where employees know it’s okay to let us know when they are not feeling okay. We check in with our team members regularly to see how everyone is doing. This is especially important during remote work since we do not have the same ability to easily gauge stress levels and wellbeing through body language.

Our people are the core of what we do. We use the same approach to support the mental health and wellbeing of our own employees that we use to help our clients support theirs. When people are happy and healthy, they’re naturally more present at work – and that environment creates success for everyone individually and for the company.

We were recently recognized by the Great Place to Work organization, with top placement awards for Best Overall Workplace, Mental Wellness, and Diversity & Inclusion. That’s something we take very seriously and we’re proud of it.

As a leader within your organization, how do you personally protect your own health and wellbeing amongst what is undoubtedly a very busy professional life?

I think I have been essentially using the same strategies my whole life, and can ultimately thank my South African parents for teaching them to me (whether they meant to or not!) – but it’s only more recently that I have become conscious of the self-care practices I engage in.

They’re nothing exceptional: making sure I get good sleep (harder and harder the older I get), good exercise every day, time with my kids and family, and LOTS of time outside. My boys and I retreat deep into nature whenever we can – backcountry backpacking and camping, cross-country skiing, hiking, walking – really whatever we can manage, as often as possible.

I am prone to withdrawing during times of stress, and I have a great couple of friends who force me out from time to time. And when things feel overwhelming, I stop reading the news for a while (I already don’t really use social media) and make myself read and play my cello, activities which draw me completely outside of myself.

And maybe the most important thing? Humour. I crave it. My sister and I and a few select friends (I count my boss among them) crack each other up every day even if it’s over text, and I WILL ALWAYS travel far and wide for a good comedy show! bh

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