Building Workplace Culture for Mental Wellness - Rebecca Brune

This month is mental health awareness month in the United States, and we’re kicking off a series on mental wellness and work. Today we discuss how mental wellness connects to faith, barriers to mental wellness at work, and what you can do about it.

Our guest Becca Brune is the executive director of this Congregational Collective, a new nonprofit funded by the H. E. Butt Foundation aiming to make San Antonio's faith communities safe places for people seeking mental wellness. Previously, Brune was an executive leader with Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, a Dallas-based organization focused on building equitable mental health systems. Over the past 24 years, Becca's work has spanned a broad array of multi-sector institutions. She has assumed leadership roles in philanthropy, local government, private sector and nonprofits. As a trained mediator, she has facilitated community conversations around natural resource management issues, healthcare, economic development, strategic planning, and community engagement.

We'd like to thank the H. E. Butt Foundation for supporting this series. You can find out more about their work by visiting

Scripture References

  • Psalms
  • Isaiah 26:3-4
  • Philippians 4:6-7

Additional Resources

Congregational Collective:

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Transcript - Building Workplace Culture for Mental Wellness - Rebecca Brune

Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

This month is mental health awareness month in the United States, and we’re kicking off a series on mental wellness and work. We'd like to thank the H. E. Butt Foundation for supporting this series. You can find out more about their work by visiting

Today we're discussing how mental wellness connects to faith, barriers to mental wellness at work, and what you can do about it.

Our guest Becca Brune is the executive director of this Congregational Collective, a new nonprofit funded by the H. E. Butt Foundation aiming to make San Antonio's faith communities safe places for people seeking mental wellness. Previously, Brune was an executive leader with Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, a Dallas-based organization focused on building equitable mental health systems. Over the past 24 years, Becca's work has spanned a broad array of multi-sector institutions. She has assumed leadership roles in philanthropy, local government, private sector and nonprofits. As a trained mediator, she has facilitated community conversations around natural resource management issues, healthcare, economic development, strategic planning, and community engagement. And we're so grateful to have her on the podcast today. Becca Brune, thank you so much for joining us on the Making It Work podcast.

Rebecca Brune: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

LA: So I wonder if we could just start by defining our terms. When we talk about mental wellness, what do you really mean?

RB: So if we think about mental wellness, this includes our emotional, our psychological, our social well-being. It affects all of us. How we think, how we feel, how we act. It helps us determine how we handle stress, how we relate to others, how we make our choices in life. And so mental wellness is this important facet. That all the way from child hood to adolescence to adulthood, it really determines our thoughts and our moods.

And see, what I think people don't understand is, what really, the factors that impact mental wellness, that makes my mental wellness different from yours are things like my biological factors, my genes, my brain chemistry, my life experiences. Did I grow up in a childhood where I suffered from trauma or abuse? Do I have a family history that affects people's mental wellness? And so these factors are really what makes the distinct factor between my mental wellness versus yours, but we all have it. And part of that is influencing how do we handle the stress? How do we adapt? Are we resilient? So to say that it affects us all is true.

LA: I love the term wellness, and it's not the first term that I go for, and I wonder... And Mark, you've worked in this space for a long time, and we've mostly heard the words mental health. Is that your experience, Mark, as well?

MR: Yeah, there's been a shift in language. It'd be interesting, Becca, to hear your thoughts on that. I have my own suspicions, but you know it. So tell us more about that.

RB: Sure. I think there's a couple of things. And your first, like back in 2006, the Robert Witt Johnson did this extensive research study. And when they looked at mortality and morbidity, they said, what's really affecting our health? And what they found was it's not about access to health care or clinicians, it's about your lived experiences. It's about your social networks. It's about the environment you live in, your education, your earning potential and power. And so it really began to change the conversation at a national level around wellness, and what are those factors that determine wellness?

And I think the second thing that, and having worked kind of in the healthcare industry for a while, the second thing that I think really, the confluence of this was that all of a sudden, hospitals were being incentivized to not keep people in the hospital, but to actually keep people out of the hospital. And there became a whole conversation around non-medical drivers that really began to look at, is it your housing insecurity, your food insecurity? What are those things that are gonna create a wellness? Not health care, not health, not physical, but overall wellness. And again, they looked at, who are your social networks? Do you go to church? So the genie is out of the bottle in some respects. We're not gonna ever go back. And I think that's been so healthy for this conversation around defining well-being and wellness.

MR: So whereas if we hear the word or the phrase mental health, we tend to have a narrower view of what that is.

RB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MR: And maybe you should see a counselor or find some medication. It's sort of that. And you're talking about really all of life and how all of life contributes. Yeah, that's great.

LA: So, Becca, you mentioned the faith component in this study, whether people go to church and how does that affect their overall mental wellness. What is the connection there?

RB: Well, interestingly enough, I'm just gonna say there's several places in the Bible where it really talks about joy, love, happiness. In fact, it's the whole book of Psalms. And so for us to say that there's not an intersectionality between our mental wellness and our spiritual wellness and health is to say that teachings in the Bible and biblical traditions are very much grounded in the sense that looking at something beyond and bigger than yourself to give you that sense of hope and that source of joy. And so oftentimes when people are dealing with huge life experiences and challenges, where do they go? They lean into their faith. 85% of people lean into their faith. 65% of people who have an emotional or mental issue, whether it's anxiety, depression, mild to moderate, they go to their clergy. So whether we like it or not, that intersectionality is there.

LA: Hmm. There's so much there that I wanna touch on. But let's go back to the Bible. Let’s talk about the Bible before we move on to bringing this back to the work place, I am just so struck by your first mention of Psalms, which are this book of prayers in the Bible, which is really a very expressive book about mental wellness. Both the joy sides of life and also many Psalms express a deep sadness, a deep anger, deep frustration, even anger at God. And yet I also sense that for some people, there's a reticence to go to the Bible with all the emotions that make up mental wellness.

RB: So it's interesting you said that because I think the dichotomy to this is that as much as in Psalms there's a sense of joy and hope, what's found in the joy and hope is to say, look, I'm gonna lean into this space of darkness. I'm gonna lean into this space and be okay and comfortable because I know that you are with me, God, like you are gonna guide me through this. And so I think that's where the balance of hope comes. 'Cause you're absolutely right. Most of the books were written by people who were very dark. In a very dark space. David, Solomon, the sons of Korah. So it's interesting because while I think it's giving us permission almost to be in that space, to be in that sense of darkness, but then what's beautiful about it is it brings to that sense of, but you're with me, God, you're gonna get me through this.

MR: Yeah. As I'm thinking about wellness and also wholeness, and that word shows up a lot, too, in this conversation. Either of those could actually be a very defensible translation of the biblical word usually we translate as peace, shalom. Because shalom isn't, first of all, it isn't just about the absence of conflict, we'd often read it on that, it is about that. But Shalom is about sort of all of life functioning in the way God intended it to be. Shalom is about wholeness, and it's about wellness. And there's so much in scripture that speaks of peace and including what we would call a mental peace. I think of, like Isaiah 26, it says, you will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in you. That's absolutely about wellness, and it's about minds. It's about mental wellness. We're then called to trust in the Lord forever. So if you think about peace in these terms, and I think it really is. Again, you got Philippians 4 where Paul talks about praying about everything, and the peace of God that transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. So we've got this sort of promise in scripture of God's peace. And that's really what you're talking about. And what so much of the work you're doing is meant to advance in real ways in real communities with real people.

LA: And so, Mark, where you're pointing to the word peace in the English translation of these verses, you're saying we could really think about wholeness as a word there.

MR: Yeah. The Isaiah, it could be, you will keep in perfect wholeness those whose mind are steadfast. And you could even use wellness there, too, if you wanted, in perfect wellness. That really is the sense of the... shalom is the a Hebrew word, of course, but that's the sense of it. It isn't you'll keep in perfect lack of conflict. It's you will keep in perfect being in the way that God has intended you to be in. And so yeah, I think this whole notion of wellness, well being, wholeness, and then the mental dimension, it's all over in scripture.

RB: Well, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on this because there's oftentimes people say, God never gives you more than you can handle. And so I also think there's this element of permission to be in a space of owning that, that it's okay, that this is a disease, this is not me and I'm okay, and God is with me, and he's saying it's okay. And I think there's some incredible empowering perspective to that because I do think sometimes because of stigma, people still feel like I can't talk about it, especially in church. I'm not gonna talk about it, everything is perfect. But I do think there's this offering to say it's okay. It's a disease, it's not you. And there's an element of thankfulness because you're growing and learning through this journey.

LA: Let's talk about this stigma that often stifles conversations around mental wellness, both in the workplace and at church. What is it... In your experience, what is it... I wanna say, how can it be combated? But let's talk about what does it look like first of all?

RB: Yeah, I think it's that. It's this sense of uncomfortableness to be able to have the words to describe how you're feeling, or that if you do describe how you're feeling, that somehow you're gonna be judged. And I think this is for the workplace, and I also think it's the church. That one of the things, and I know this sounds like I'm making this so simple to combat, but it does have to do with building a culture that supports the conversation. It has to do with building a culture to support the space and the conversation. It has to do with taking intentionality and time to create shared language and understanding about what this is, this whole distinction between mental health, mental illness, versus wellness and wholeness. And so that's a lot of the work that we're doing. And I think it's the same thing for the workplace: culture, leadership to support it, permission and dialogue but shared conversation and words, is important.

LA: So you're a mediator. You're a trained mediator, and you've worked with a lot of organizations and companies on how to have these conversations. How do you start a conversation that's structured in a way that it can lead to everybody's wellness and wholeness at the end, rather than fragmenting stigmatized individuals that feel more separated from each other?

RB: One of the ways that we've started in the past that is so, like no one can argue data. And I know this sounds interesting and kind of strange at the same time, but no one can argue data. And when you go into a company or even to a place of work and you say, “do you pay attention” to the HR people? “Do you pay attention? Do you provide supports around mental wellness, mental health?” Interestingly enough, one study that we did, 87% said, oh, yeah, it's a top priority, especially after COVID. We're all on this. We've got this and this and this. Well, when we asked the same question in a survey to their employees, less than 42% said, we don't see it, there aren't supports here. And so the first thing we do is point out the disconnect in what companies organizationally think they're doing and what people are needing. And I know that sounds like an odd approach, but it's the best way to begin to start a dialogue on what is needed and what is being provided to address those needs.

LA: And what is it that you feel that's needed in companies or in that conversation?

RB: Again, it has to do with this ability to have a space, a knowledge and information. And just the simplest thing of providing information, if you think about it, just as a mother and someone who is so... So much of my time is thinking about my young children as they're growing through this space and coming out of COVID in schools. And one of the things that employers can do for their employees is to begin to have conversations about how to create early intervention, early prevention around children's mental health. They did a study and they said that over 65% of the people who are going into the workplace are thinking about their children's mental health. And so why not as a company, which you begin to provide information, workshops, seminars, begin conversation, because you are then providing tools for a parent to then begin to alleviate some of their own mental health, their concern, their anxiety, their worry. I had shared this that when I was in my older position, we were having a conversation.

This was right on the edge of COVID, right as COVID was really taking off. And we pulled together Fortune 500 companies, and there was this conversation. And these were Bank of America, and Amazon, Wells Fargo. And they were like, what do we do? And they said, “I'm not worried about the woman who's coming into work or the man who I know is on the verge of a psychotic break, I can see that. I can see their behaviors, their actions. I know there's something wrong. What I'm worried about is the woman or the man that's coming into work that sits behind a computer, and while they're looking like they're working and they're plugged in, I know in their head they're thinking about their spouse at home who's about to lose a job, or their kids are having to do homeschool. And so what do I do about that? Help me figure out the interventions for that.” And so that's where we went down this whole conversation and exploration of sharing information, creating space to have conversation and shared language just so that it becomes freeing to begin to own that space.

LA: It's actually even freeing for me to hear that this is something that employers care about and are concerned about. Because I think for so many, that worker that you described going into the workplace who wants to hide a situation at home from their employer and their coworkers, I think that seems normal to me. Why would you wanna tell the people who are in charge of your paycheck that you are perhaps a liability or your mind is elsewhere? So it's very heartening for me to think that the people at the top of these Fortune 500 companies are concerned about the lifeblood of their business, which is their workforce having full access to the wellness that will allow them to be more present in their positions.

MR: Yeah. Becca, I'd like to... You mentioned the church, and the church has, I would say, a very uneven record at helping people deal with issues related to mental challenges, but then mental wellness overall. And you mentioned the stigma. I was a pastor for many years, and one of the things that was really almost shocking to me is people would come in to me, and with considerable shame share some of the stuff they'd been struggling with. And on the one hand, I felt glad that they could talk about it, but so distressed that the community that I had come to serve had been a place where people felt ashamed to say some of the things they've been dealing with.

And of course, there's a long history of that. I expect that's a lot of what you're about. That's why the Collective has this mission of helping churches to really help people in mental wellness.

RB: You say something that is really powerful. One of the things that I think, and COVID had a lot to do with this in terms of just uncovering an epidemic that we knew was already there. And churches, similar to businesses or companies, have got to remain relevant in society. They've got to remain relevant in community. And so we don't have a choice at this point for the church or the workplace not to lean into this space because this is being asked for by their constituents, whether you're at church or whether you're an employer. And even more so, this demographic of young people where they are all about wholeness and wellness. They're all about wanting to feel balance and having a life-work balance. And so they're going into their places of employment and saying, hey, my wholeness and wellness comes first, so you better create a space that's relevant and a culture that can address that.

Same thing with the church, we're losing people. We need to get people back. And same thing, a church doesn't have a choice at this point. You're in this space. So we are coming alongside---H. E. Butt Foundation and Congregational Collective---to say, we wanna be in the journey with you, and how do we help build the capacity and the tools for you to be able to do this work better?

MR: Yeah.

RB: How do we help with... We're not trying to turn you into clinicians, but how do we help create a space where there's compassion and grace and a lens of understanding that it's not a disease, it's you are a whole person, so anyway.

LA: I would love for you to talk a little bit about what this looks like. I know you've run a pilot program through the Congregational Collective. I would love if you could talk about what does that look like? What do those conversations look like? And maybe what can we learn from your pilot conversations that we can take into our own places of work?

RB: Yeah. So we are in the pilot. We have eight churches, and we've started with a couple of things. First is, as I said, we are using a survey, getting a baseline to say, you might think you're here, but where are you really? And it's interesting, some of the initial feedback we're getting is very similar to what I shared earlier. You have leadership thinks we're in a certain space and congregants think, well, maybe not. But it's really identifying where there's gaps and allowing us to assess some evidence-based tools to bring to the table. And a couple of those are what I've already said is some foundational training around shared language, shared knowledge. And more importantly, we're using a tool called Sanctuary. And it's been so incredible because it's a series that's full of testimonials, but it's all about people's life in the church and who are living in a journey and walking.

And it really helps to create a lens of compassion. And so now people have a conversation and a dialogue. And we've already heard feedback from people saying, wow, this has really opened up conversation. Or people with their own family members where before they... A woman shared with me that her son is married to somebody who is schizophrenic. And she basically don't bring her over for lunches, don't bring over for dinners, I don't wanna see her at holidays. And now it has completely shifted that into a space of we need to show compassion, we need to embrace her. I know that's a small example, but it's huge. The other thing we're doing is we're doing some trainings around peer support specialists. And what we're finding is the churches are choosing models. But we're finding is it's a very powerful tool because it's allowing people to be in a space to journey alongside with someone.

And so again, initial phase of the study we launched in October, we're part of this foundational training. And then we'll step into this ability to be able to begin to measure more of the impact and identify what are the magic levers? What we wanna get out of this is, what's the framework? What are those magic levers that have to be put into place that allow churches to be in this space and be successful? And if we can just walk away with some sort of a rubric or a framework that can be shared, that's huge. That's huge.

MR: I was just gonna say, part of... I love what you're doing. And yeah, I expect there are probably quarters of the church that still resist this, but increasingly, I think, and especially as you mentioned the generations, the younger generation of church leaders and pastors would not, I think be resistant to it, but just not equipped, as you say, not given the language, not knowing what to do or feeling insecure about that too. And so I'm really excited about what you're doing.

And I think too the church has the opportunity with individuals, but then also through our influence on other organizations and businesses and all to encourage not just attention to mental wellness when there are problems, but how do we create a more health producing, life producing, whole producing environment? I’ve got a most amazing example. So I have a boss, Michaela. And I noticed on the agenda for our next staff meeting, she wants to talk about how we can plan to scale back our work some in the summer as an organization so that each of us can have a little more rest and refreshment. Now, I used to run the organization and I never thought about that. I just have to confess. I don't think I was a hard driver, but I think that's so right on. And again, I know that what you're about is also really trying to encourage that kind of vision.

RB: It's so funny that you said that because there's a recent study that came out that talked about strategies around what workplaces can do. And one of the things that they said was provide, empower your middle managers to be more lenient and flexible on work time and work schedules. That's exactly what they said.

MR: Yeah. Well, so Michaela’s a great example of the middle manager. And I would say there's support for that. So it's exactly that kind of thing that she has that freedom to work with us on how we can have healthier, better lives. So that's interesting.

LA: But it's a huge cultural shift, especially in the workplace where we've been conditioned to believe that our worth is directly related to our productivity. That's what we're there for. We're there to work, to produce something. And so any moment that we're not producing something, there's this anxiety in the background. I'll only speak for myself. I have an anxiety in the background if I'm not directly seeing results from the fruits of my labor, that maybe I'm doing something wrong, and heaven forbid I share that information with anyone else. But we came into this conversation, Becca, with you saying we really need to shift the language that we use around mental wellness to talk about how we integrate our makeup into all the activities of our lives. And it seems to me that the workplace where we spend so many hours of our lives needs to be a place that also prioritizes rest. You mentioned the word sanctuary, even not... We don't have to say rest, we don't have to say something opposite from productivity, but the different factors that go into productivity, which include feeling supported in other avenues of life and emotions and expression.

RB: I don't know if you kind of would track the trend of the number of employers that began to offer reduced fees for gym memberships, or they carved out where they could, carved out rooms within their places of employment, like mini gym. Or now, a lot of places have a meditation room. So literally, it looks like a living room. A lot of 'em are warm colors, you've got pictures, you've got a table, a coffee table, and encouraging employees to go into this meditation room. To your point, they seem subtle, but they're huge indicators that their words in their mouth and their thoughts are aligned. Because you're now investing in me, in very subtle ways, but those are cultural. They show a value, they show a warmth, they show a caring.

MR: Yeah. And there seems to be a greater awareness of how things rest and even play can be helpful even in terms of productivity. Leah, you mentioned this concern for how much we're able to produce, but it's like about twice a year now, a Harvard Business Review will have some article called... One was, “why young professionals should prioritize rest over work.” It was just one, and the other things like that, “the benefit of vacation” for... And part of their argument is that companies that do this will actually do better. So it isn't only care for the individuals, a company needs to watch its wellbeing, its own wellbeing, and its bottom line. But they're discovering that this concern is actually good for companies, and even their productivity, unlike the world that many of us grew up in, which was really about just do more, do more, do more.

RB: Well, you mentioned productivity, but also I think to the same extent, companies being able to have a value proposition to offer talent, in recruiting talent. If you wanna hire the best and the brightest, and this is for this younger generation, something that is very important to them, then again, adapting your culture or adapting your environment to be able to recruit top talent is gonna be essential.

MR: Yeah. Well, I got a great illustration for you from your organization. So, years back when I was interviewing, before I was hired there, they wanted me... I was living in California, they wanted me to come to Texas for several days in June, but I had promised my son that he and I were going on a trip together in that time. And I'm thinking, oh my gosh, I'm just so torn. So finally I just said to them, I've made this commitment to my son, so I can't come for that week. And they said, well, bring him, let him... And it blew me away. I still have this, one of my favorite pictures of my son sitting at this amazing outdoor restaurant having breakfast down on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. But exactly what you said, I'm thinking, oh my gosh, this organization cares about family that much? And it was... One of the things that really drew me there in addition to the work and the mission and the vision and all that was, here's a place that really does value family and that kind of wellbeing. So, absolutely.

LA: So I'm hearing that organizations that do value the mental wellness of their employees, they get a lot of benefits in terms of buy-in from their employees. Mark tells a great story that he's still talking about his former employer years later because he got to bring his kid along to an interview trip. So I'm seeing that there are retention benefits, I'm seeing that there's employee engagement benefits, that is all very important in a market where labor is scarce, where you're trying to retain your top talent. All companies want to attract and attain and retain top talent. I wonder if there's a fear that companies would start mental wellness programs, and then these are the first things to get cut if there is an economic downturn, or if the labor market changes in a way that if market forces change and there's a disruption in terms of the supply of labor. I wonder how do we ingrain the attitude of supporting mental wellness so much in the fabric of our institutions that it's not a flippant program that can be cut along with the free bagels every Wednesday.

RB: Yeah. Yeah. I think it goes back to what we said earlier. It's about having a culture that supports it. That doesn't make it dependent on one leader or any one fad, or if it's part of that culture, that organizational culture with shared values and language wrapped around it, the holding pattern of that is pretty stable. It's hard to do. I'm not... That's not an easy shift. There's a lot of change management that has to come with that. There's a lot of leadership buy-in, there's a lot of intentionality. And it doesn't necessarily mean that a lot of money has to be thrown to it. This is about language, knowledge, relationships. But I do. I know it's not easy, but I do think embedding it in culture is what's gonna make it sustainable.

LA: And may it start with us. If Christians as a group are used to talking about the peace of God, the shalom, as Mark mentioned, that could also be translated as wholeness. Why not let a movement for wholeness, for mental wholeness in all of life come from those people who are already steeped in the scriptures and the words that have been so impactful throughout generations?

MR: Well, we who have a biblical understanding of life and personhood and work are well equipped, and rest, I should add, are well equipped. If we feel the freedom, and this isn't about bringing our religion into our workplaces so much as it is treating people in light of those deep convictions. And one of those convictions is that every human being is created in God's own image and ought to be considered in that and treated that way in the context of the workplace, whether it's a workplace that has some obvious faith like a church, or whether it has none, but still... So that's, yeah, what you said makes a lot of sense.

RB: Well, I can't say this enough, it's that lens of compassion. And I think it's also reminding ourselves and each other to lean into that lens. Yeah, whether it's in the workplace, or whether it's at church, or whether it's in our community, or whether it's at home. And that's one of the things that we're, as part of this pilot really focused on, is some of the series, the learning curriculum that I think could be adapted in the workplace easily, but I am seeing just small nuggets thus far that just that reframing and that re-envisioning of what it is to act out on your faith has been so powerful.

LA: Becca Brune, thank you so much for your work, and thank you for talking to us on the podcast today.

MR: Yes. Great to be with you, Becca.

RB: Thank you. Thank you. It was a pleasure. Thank you so much.

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