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Maternity leave during the early days of the pandemic was an isolating experience for Vancouver’s Amanda Marshall, a performance coach at Novo Nordisk Canada.Darryl Dyck

Amanda Marshall and her husband had just started adjusting to life with a newborn and a preschooler when the pandemic hit. Ms. Marshall, a performance coach with Novo Nordisk Canada, had already been through some recent challenges: a difficult pregnancy, a son born early at just 3.5 pounds and the worsening illness of her beloved grandmother.

“Maternity leave can be isolating, but it was much more so because I couldn’t see anybody [due to COVID-19],” she says.

To amuse her daughter, who missed her preschool friends, Ms. Marshall painted rocks and hid them around their Vancouver neighbourhood. Then, they went for walks to find “rock monsters” and messaged their friends to do the same.

Ms. Marshall – a former art student who says creative work lifts her mood – decided to self-publish a book called Rock Monster Friends based on the game she had created. Via the book, a website and an Instagram feed, she shared how to play (think of it like a non-digital Pokémon Go). Each differently-coloured monster represents different pandemic-related suggestions such as wash your hands, thank front-line workers or look on the bright side.

The game took off. Soon, she was fielding kind words from around the world, while raising thousands of dollars for charity through book sales. The endeavour had become more than simply a side project for Ms. Marshall.

Amanda Marshall hid “rock monsters” around her Vancouver neighbourhood to entertain her daughter, and the game soon took off with other families looking for fun outdoor activities.Supplied

“It ended up being what kept me sane,” she says. “It gave me purpose and meaning. I got hundreds of messages from people telling me that seeing rock monsters in their neighbourhood was keeping them and their kids going.”

But after her grandmother died in June 2020, Ms. Marshall found herself overwhelmed. She reached out through Novo Nordisk to get help from a therapist. She said it was a relief that, as an employee, she had access to whatever she needed for her mental health.

“It could have gotten bad, but I was lucky to have all the support I needed at home and at work,” she says.

Employee resource groups (ERGs) at Novo Nordisk Canada “make a difference in how we operate," says John Burrows, vice president of biopharmaceuticals.SUPPLIED

Empowering employees to take the lead

While the company has always supported all aspects of employee health, in recent years the executive team has put even more emphasis on mental health, making it a strategic priority.

“It came out of us talking about what our current challenges were related to people. We realized that if people aren’t aligned and don’t feel supported, that’s going to affect the company,” says John Burrows, vice president of biopharmaceuticals at Novo Nordisk.

The company increasingly takes a holistic approach that embraces prevention through overall wellness and inclusivity, empowering employees to take the lead to get what they need.

“We realized that a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health problems was not going to work,” says Mr. Burrows.

In keeping with that philosophy, in spring 2020 the company moved quickly to support employees. That included giving everyone $500 for their home workspace.

“Maybe you needed a desk chair or a mouse. Whatever you chose, you could get,” says Angie Ng, director of human resources. The team had an ergonomist at the ready and people could send in pictures of their work stations to have them assessed.

This year, the company increased its mental health benefits for all employees and family members to $2,000. The company also changed its fitness subsidy program: instead of reimbursing 50 per cent of expenses up to $500, it started paying for them dollar-for-dollar.

Even though she was on maternity leave, Ms. Marshall was kept apprised of what was going on with the company benefits program, and reminded of features like the company’s use of the Limeade app, which tracks wellness activities such as fitness and healthy eating and offers rewards.

Angie Ng, director of human resources at Novo Nordisk Canada, says the company’s executive team has made mental health a strategic priority in recent years.SUPPLIED

Fostering connection through conversation

The leadership team also realized it needed to increase communications with staff. “To know what’s going on, you have to be close to your employees, so you can be ahead of the curve,” says Ms. Ng. “Our employees are getting a chance to know us so much more than they ever did.”

Mr. Burrows initiated regular Zoom calls with his team, just to check in. They started casually, but when he started suggesting more complex topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement and residential schools, conversations got deeper. Team members began sharing their personal stories regarding their struggles with immigration, acceptance of their same-sex relationships and more.

Ms. Ng says she also heard from people expressing their pandemic-related challenges, such as trying to teach their kids math and juggling elder care. Across the company, managers host virtual small-group discussions with their teams, in addition to larger chats such as the regular “Drinks with Béatrice,” a session held every two weeks with company president Béatrice Clerc.

These conversations underpin the rising importance of employee resource groups (ERGs). For example, Ms. Marshall is part of a gender equity ERG at Novo Nordisk Canada and participates in regular virtual meetings to explore ways equity could be better furthered at the company. Another popular ERG brings together LGBTQ2+ employees and allies.

Mr. Burrows says these groups have driven real change at the company. For instance, ERGs spearheaded a change of parental leave policies. The updated policies include language about gender and sexuality that reflect the complexity and beauty of today’s families. “The purpose of these ERGs is not just social. They have a strong focus and they do make a difference in how we operate,” he says.

The leadership team at Novo Nordisk is still in a learning stance, Mr. Burrows adds. They’re learning to balance the importance of community and collaboration with the acceptance of differences, as well as balancing a focus on high performance with empathy around different lived experiences.

“We’re still learning by listening and that’s going to make us a better company,” says Mr. Burrows. “We’re going to come out stronger. We’re definitely not going back to the way we were.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Novo Nordisk. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.