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The Safety Guru_Dr. Keita Franklin Supporting the Mental Health of Your Workforce



Mental health is a safety issue, yet its importance in the workplace is often minimized. Dr. Keita Franklin is a leading expert in workplace mental health and suicide prevention. This week, she discusses the mental health challenges faced by workers everywhere, relating it to her experience working with active duty armed forces. Take a listen to learn about useful practices that people at all levels of an organization, from the CEO to front-line supervisors and workers, can use to shift organizational culture and lessen the stigma surrounding seeking help.


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Hi and welcome to The Safety Guru for today. I’m very excited to have with me Dr. Keita Franklin, as he is a subject matter expert in workplace wellness and suicide prevention, also the chief clinical officer for Government Services. Welcome to the show.

Thank you so much.

So, I’d love to start out maybe if you could share a little bit more about your background and your passion for the work that you do around workplace wellness and also suicide prevention.

Sure, again, thank you so much for having me. I am a clinical social worker by training, and I spent a good part of my career working with active-duty military and veterans in the area of mental health and suicide prevention, particularly during the, you know, the entire ramp up for the war effort. So, it provided a great learning opportunity for things related to wellness and resilience and just really focusing on trauma and suicide prevention. And so, let’s talk a bit about how you can keep people well in the workplace. So, if you could shift to ideas, some insights into work in this space.

Yes. You know, for years, I think that we focus on mental health as a sort of we in the field as sort of a hospital-based issue. And the idea was that when people were struggling with mental health, they know, they go into a hospital setting and they get care or they get cured or something like that. And really, you know, fast-Forward, many decades, what we’ve learned is that mental health is really the same as physical health. And we have to focus on prevention. And one of the ways that you get after prevention is really outside of the hospital system. In many ways. You focus with people were what I like to say, where they work, live and thrive, really, you know, focusing on the workplaces is, I think, an intuitive place to begin because people spend so many hours in a week actually engaged at work. So, it provides a perfect forum for recognizing signs of distress and others and really providing a nice opportunity for people to get help or for people to support each other through difficult times.

So, what are some of the tactics that workplace that a more progressive workplace wants to address well-being and a broader sense, what are some of the tactics that they can leverage to make a difference?

It’s definitely a multiple, multilayered issue. And there are things that like leaders at the very top Hindoo, like CEOs, can sort of set the culture for it being OK if you’re not OK and that this is a place to support each other. They can issue policies. We can have organizations that will even have like a mental health day, CEOs that push out their own workplace balance or that let people know, look, I’m taking a day off.

It’s OK for you to take a day off. It’s OK for you to focus on your career, focusing on yourself matters. And then, you know, there are a series of things that front line supervisors can do. Definitely in the field. We advocate that front line supervisors get training and recognize signs of distress, that they know how to engage. If an employee is struggling, they know what it looks like and then they know how to help people get actual care if needed, know. And then there are also things that we recognize individuals do for their own well-being. Individuals, equally so, should know their limits, should try to continue to challenge themselves and be engaged in meaningful work, but at the same time, not overdo it, not take on more than they can handle and recognize their own limits as well.

So, I think that’s a very helpful, helpful tips as well in terms of setting the record for different culture. We’ve all read and I’m aware that covid-19 had a very sizable impact in terms of mental health and wellbeing from many different facets for both people that continue working in person and those who move to working remotely. What are some of the lessons that we can learn from what happened, some of the learnings that can help us create better workplaces as people start returning back to workplaces and to something that seems more normal?

It’s such a good question, right? Because after 12 months or more, really, I guess of covid where the workplace drastically changed. We did. We absolutely did. We learned a lot. And, you know, one of the things in the field in mental health that we saw was just great increases to call centers. So, we had, for example, people we had objects and people calling out to for help from the distress line. We had people calling in, increased people calling in for domestic violence hotlines. And so, we know that, you know, covid-19 definitely impacted people’s mental health. I mean, we also saw during Kofod, you know, just great periods, especially early on, of isolation, of loneliness, which is, you know, on the surface might not seem like a big thing on your home. You’re alone. Maybe you feel a little lonely. But, you know, across the board, one of the things we in the literature is just how detrimental loneliness and isolation can be to people.

There’s just there’s this one study, that loneliness being the same, having the same consequences to your health as. Smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and so now people getting back into the workforce. I mean, I just say that we’ve got to focus on peer support, like people helping people. And one of the biggest sorts of we call it protective factors are buffers to mental health is social support. And just the impact of having someone else you can lean on and someone that can recognize if you’re struggling and can help you get into care is critically important.

And the other thing I would tell you is that, you know, when you look at the just the prevalence rates of people, they were impacted by covid either individuals themselves that struggled with their own health care or people that took care of others like parents and grandparents and struggled with it kind of one step removed, so to speak. They’re still greatly impacted. And so, you know, now that these people are returning to work, we really were getting a group of people back in the workplace that have been through quite a bit of grief and in some cases lost.

I’m not recommending that workplace sort of turns into this many clinical mental health environments for say. But I am saying that we should focus on employee wellness with an extra level of energy post covid for sure.

All right. It sounds like a very timely message that a lot of workplaces think about how they come back to more normal work environment. But we can’t forget what happened over the last 12 months. So, I think your message here is incredibly important. What are some of the things beyond kind of what you’ve talked about from a peer support, social support? What are some of the things that leadership really put into reopening plans to make sure that the right support comes in and people acknowledge what’s happened?

I mean, I definitely think it will be like a new normal for people coming back, like it won’t go back to the way that it was before covid. But one of the things that I think leaders should keep in mind is just classic work that has been done in the field of workplace wellness. I think even long before covid. And it was just this idea of getting people involved in meaningful work and really focusing them on the mission. It can be an incredible boost or an incredible protective factor.

You know, there are all these studies in the field to talk about how people are willing to accept a pay cut or people are willing to, particularly millennials. People are willing to pay is not the driving factor. When you’re talking about employee satisfaction and workplace wellness, it’s really this idea of people finding meaning in their careers and feeling a part of a mission. And sometimes that mission can be bigger than themselves, like this idea that they know where they fit in and the mission and they feel like they belong.

You know, they we call it in the field like belongingness. It’s a big protective factor, like I belong in this group. I belong on this team. I know my role on this team. And when I do, my role is critically important for the mission of this organization. And I know that it results in this great thing is that carries the most meaning of anything at all when it comes to employee engagement and the workplace.

Well, I love that message and it’s not an incredibly hard thing to do, but it does require a lot of effort because even pre covid it was known this element of really getting people connected to meaningful work. And it wasn’t always consistently happening. But definitely, as this happens, people come back to the workplaces. I think it’s definitely something to consider as we transition to another topic you talked a lot about is suicide prevention in the workplace, and particularly when we think from it, from a safety context, it’s not a topic that’s getting a lot of as much attention as it should.

What are some of the elements that people should consider to have the right impact around reducing the risk of suicide and enabling their teams and their culture to have the right effect?

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You’re right. It’s such a good question too, because we should talk about it more. I mean, suicide is the leading cause of death in the nation. And so, it’s actually the second leading cause of death for people ages 18 to twenty-four. So, companies and organizations that have large numbers of young people, eighteen to twenty-four. And this is definitely a serious issue. And not only sort of the prevalence and how it sort of ranks and factions in terms of how it impacts our mortality as a nation.

I also offer that, you know, when one suicide happens in a unit or in a workplace or something, the literature which tells it one hundred and thirty-five people are exposed. And that’s not only like mothers and brothers and sisters, but colleagues and coworkers and it can really impact the workplace just as any other safety issue. You know, I, at one point, did quite a bit of work with the Marine Corps in the area of behavioral health. And as you can well imagine, there was a focus on all things related to safety, particularly military mishaps and airplane mishaps and things like that, and how that these safety issues would impact a military unit. And, you know, suicide was right in the mix. Not this idea of preventing suicides. And part of what makes it so complicated for companies is, is that there’s really not one reason. So, it’s not like somebody doesn’t die by suicide because they’re depressed alone or because they’ve felt shunned or they’re having some sort of individual struggle.

It’s very complex. I mean, we say in the field that people who die by suicide are often struggling with twenty to twenty-five different factors all at once the different risks. And they don’t have buffers against those risks. And so that’s part of the equation. And then also, in some cases, there is this element of impulsivity that can happen with suicide where someone is struggling and they just make this impulsive decision to end their life. And so, the workplace, again, 20 people spend 40 hours a week, sometimes more around one another who might be able to record.

For example, if someone were struggling with a relationship issue, if they were struggling with financial issues, legal struggles as a big I think a big risk factor as well, if people were struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues. And so, I think within the context of all of those struggles, if we were to create a workplace where people were actually encouraged to help each other and there was a message from the top again that says it’s OK if you’re not OK, you’re still on this team, you’re still valued.

I still want to want you in our group. And we’re going to be here for you and help you with these ups and downs of life in this thing. I think where companies struggle sometimes is they’ll think that this is like a one and done kind of environment, like, OK, I’ve trained everybody. We had a training on mental health and in training alone won’t solve it. It’s part of a bigger big has to be part of a bigger comprehensive plan where training is but one element with many other elements sort of bundled together like, you know, an awareness campaign coupled with improving access to care, improving access to mental health care, equally so, making sure that people that is OK, people don’t feel shunned if they take a day off or if they have to go to their therapy once a week or something like that.

So, it’s really a bundled set of practices that together will help us keep people well and not at risk for suicide.

That’s a very important theme. If I was talking to certain professions as well that are more that have a greater risk and often professions where there isn’t as much invested in a lot of organizations around the right conversations.

No, I appreciate you for bringing that up, because definitely we should talk about first responders, police officers, law enforcement people that are on the front lines of covid, I think are at increased risk after having, you know, over a year of being exposed to trauma literally. We in the field are particularly concerned right now about the health care profession. And what does it mean for nurses, for example, who have been experiencing quite a bit of grief and loss?

I think about this my own self. I have a daughter who has just finished her first year in the nursing profession and she’s been providing care in an ICU for her first year in the profession and just sort of making sure that all of these new young nurses who have not really been exposed to the level of death that you might think somebody might be exposed to in the course of their whole career have been exposed to it. And just in just one year, because you’re also in a profession where most people choose to join it, to help others to make a difference in other people’s lives.

So, they’re not expecting to have huge amounts of in a short period of time in many cases. I had a guest who was on the show earlier. I was talking about even how many of these issues were had had enough but didn’t have enough resourcing. So, all things that were contributing to added stress, fatigue, added pressures.

Yes, absolutely, I mean, I don’t they come into the field to help, and then when they feel helpless, that can definitely add an additional layer of stress and then couple that with no time during the workday to really debrief or to check in with colleagues and be part of a broader support system because they’re just meeting that demand that’s in front of them on a 24/7 kind of environment. It can be a recipe for, you know, distress if we’re not careful making sure we put in the right protective factors and the right support around them as a safety net so that we keep them well.

And I think that is a very important point. So, we’ve talked about some of the elements that are needed from a workplace standpoint. It requires a lot more than an AP program and a comprehensive view of it. What are some of the things that a leader can do if they see some concerning signs with somebody that’s perhaps a loved one, somebody who’s close to them or a colleague in the workplace?

This is also such a good question, because I think sometimes people think that it’s very complex and that they’re just not sure what to say if they see somebody struggling. And I just offer that is that it’s not that it’s often just a very basic conversation. And I think when people are struggling, what they want most is for someone to reach out to them and say hello. And they want someone to be there for them and they want someone to say, you know, how are you?

And I often will talk with frontline supervisors about just sharing what they see and then sharing how they feel about what they see. And so, this idea of, you know, in a careful way, certainly having good relationships with people ahead of time helps. But just like, you know, I see that you may you know, that you seem run down or I see that you’re tired or you know, I see some small things in you and I want to check in.

Are you OK? And I want you to know that I’m ready for you and that it’s OK if you want to talk about it and it’s OK if you don’t. But I do worry about you and I want you to know that you’re an important part of this team and we want to make sure you’re well. So just like break the ice and have that initial conversation, you will be surprised with what people share when you ask them how they’re doing.

And you really mean the question. And like, right away, I mean, what we don’t want to happen is for people to just say, oh, I’m fine, thanks. We really want people to start to unpack and to know that it is a safe place and that you as a supervisor or a leader are approachable and that your organization is a good place to share what’s going on and to get help. Like you won’t be in trouble. You wouldn’t be there’s no punitive action if you’re not well from a mental health base like you would, there would be no punitive action if you broke your wrist on the job site.

We would help you and we would want you back. And there’s no punitive person. And equally so if you’re struggling with depression or anxiety or panic or anything like that, and this is what you’re proposing is very simple to do, is somebody to there, but just really create a forum where people can open up, which is such an important topic. Thank you. Thank you very much for all the work that you’re doing in terms of bringing awareness around workplace wellness, but also in suicide prevention.

What are some of the resources that a leader that’s looking to make a difference? The record particularly is returning from Bouvard and you can invest in creating the right environment, the right culture for the mental health and wellbeing standpoint. What are some of the resources that that are available that they should consult?

I mean, I definitely think people should have make sure that everybody in their workplace has access to the lifeline. And we can push that number out through your podcast. And this is really like it’s a crisis support lifeline for the nation. And so, it’s a one-stop shop where folks can dial in and they get right dispatched to their local area and they then have a host of resources. But it is a crisis line and I offer that we should not wait until people are in extreme and dire crisis before we reach out and get help.

And I know you mentioned a plan. Most companies have access to any capability, and that’s another resource. But again, it’s never just one single resource that house we should have. I’ve seen organizations that will have, like every small unit, every small workgroup or whatever, could have a mental health ambassador or somebody that’s trained in the skills of recognizing people in distress and that are sort of the conduit to making sure that they get the help they need equally.

So, organizations that have mentorship programs where they match people to not only help with the workplace but also how to balance all of the demands of work in the context of the broader life. So, these are just a few of the examples that I think we could people could stay tuned to in order to try to help improve workplace wellness overall.

Excellent. So, I really appreciate you. Taking the time to you, come on the show, share a little bit of some of your insights around workplace wellness and suicide prevention, but broadly speaking, really the effort that you’re putting awareness around such important topics.

Terrific. Thank you so much. And I appreciate you talking about this, particularly in the context of safety, because it is a safety issue. So, thank you for your leadership on this issue as well.

Excellent. Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day!

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Dr. Keita Franklin serves as the Chief Clinical Officer at Loyal Source Government Services. In this capacity, she leads the company’s Behavior Health line of practice. An experienced senior executive with a proven record of success, Dr. Franklin joined the Loyal Source team in May of 2020 to formalize work in the mental health, suicide prevention and substance abuse areas. Expanding Loyal Source’s already impressive service portfolio, she is responsible for designing, implementing, and overseeing contract mental health programs focused on prevention and treatment services for at-risk individuals. A compassionate leader and agent for change, Dr. Franklin is keenly focused on improving access to care and ensuring the delivery of evidence-based services across the Nation. A nationally renowned suicide prevention expert, Dr. Franklin also serves as the Co-Director of the Columbia Lighthouse Project, a Columbia University NY State Psychiatric Institute initiative focused on reducing suicide risk.

Prior to joining Loyal Source, Dr. Franklin worked extensively with military and Veteran populations serving in several senior positions within Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In her role as Senior Executive Director, Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, Department of Veteran Affairs, she led a U.S.-wide team of subject matter experts in the development and execution of a national public health program targeted toward advancing care for 20 million Veterans. Dr. Franklin is widely credited with implementing an innovative public health approach to suicide prevention in both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs. A fierce advocate for effective mental health programs for Veterans, military service members, and their families, she has testified often before both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate on matters related to Health Care, including mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention.

Dr. Franklin earned her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Maryland and her PhD in Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University. She also has received executive leadership training at Harvard University School of Business and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. Currently residing just outside of Washington D.C., Dr. Franklin spends her time outside of work enjoying the outdoors, reading, and writing.