Ensuring the well-being of your team in a high-level, holistic manner.

CCBJ: Tell us about your role as Director of Health and Well-Being at Akin Gump.

Kimm Merkel: At Akin Gump, we believe that benefits play an integral part in a person’s ability to manage work and life outside the office. We have a team mantra that says it’s important to meet people where they are. Individual needs differ so greatly, so it can be a challenge, but it does guide us in our programming, as well as how I approach my responsibilities. We focus on providing high-quality, competitive programs that arm each individual with resources so that they can make informed decisions.

That covers traditional benefits, like medical, dental and vision, but over the last number of years, it’s also been coupled with a strong focus on well-being, which at Akin Gump is defined as one’s physical, mental, financial and social/community health. We must be balanced in each of these respects, or we could potentially suffer in all of them. For example, if we are struggling with our finances, stressing and worrying about money, that can take a mental or physical toll on a person, and it could even isolate them or cause stress in their communities, perhaps with their families or close friends.

My job is to take all of those holistic components into consideration: Where people are, what they need or want, how we can support their well-being – the high-quality, competitive programs that I mentioned early on. That’s really what my job is about, creating new and innovative programs to meet people where they are.

Let’s talk about the culture of the firm and its commitment to wellness and community. Can you share some recent initiatives with us?

Earlier this year, we launched a charitable-giving platform that offers all employees seed money. That’s an initial contribution from the firm that individuals can donate to a charity of their choosing through the platform. Additionally, the firm offers a matching program. If individuals make their own contribution, the firm will match those dollars. This is obviously in support of or in addition to other pro bono activities and other charitable giving the firm may do, but it’s to directly support our employees’ giving spirit. The initiative was prompted by our senior leaders, who recognized that we have very charitable individuals across our firm who give generously in response to needs throughout their communities. The initiative was launched as a way for the firm to foster that commitment and show its support for the incredible spirit of giving that is core to our firm.

Last year we also hosted our first global community service day, and we just wrapped up our second annual event last June. This initiative is very much supported by senior leaders. We have a task force that helps to generate and encourage participation and design some of the high-level considerations around our community-service days.

Specifically, our community service days allow each of our offices in the U.S., as well as internationally, to go out to a local school, community center or other similar group and give back to them in some way. For the last two years, we’ve primarily gone into schools or community centers. As we partner with those groups, we work on projects like painting hallways or building picnic tables, creating outdoor classrooms and gardens. In London last year, they even built a go-kart track for kids to zoom around on.

Akin Gump’s Be Well program launched in 2016 and has had great success, engaging nearly 60 percent of the firm’s employees in the last year. Can you tell us more about the program and any recent developments?

I joined the firm in 2011, and we’ve been hosting well-being events since that time. At first, they started as standalone, isolated topics – a cooking demo or flu shot clinic, always targeted at raising awareness and meeting people’s needs and increasing well-being. We continued to keep those goals and that philosophy in mind, as we continued to expand the program.

In 2016 we branded and launched the Be Well program you mentioned. That program was enhanced and supported by a third-party platform and app, and people have access to it 24/7. It offers them information, resources, one-on-one counseling or coaching, and various challenges.

Those resources all focus on the four pillars of well-being, which I mentioned earlier – physical, mental, financial and social/community wellness. And it’s self-guided. People can take a health assessment, which will highlight their strengths and also areas that they may want to focus on more. For example, a common one is the need for better-quality sleep. If we answer the questions in a certain way, it recognizes that it’s an area we could improve. Then the site will offer programs that are focused on those areas that need improvement. So maybe it offers more sleep-related challenges or resources and makes that info readily available to an individual – completely confidentially, completely privately, with no information shared back to the firm.

Let’s talk about the pilot program the firm launched last year in D.C. called Be Balanced.

Mental health and its accompanying stigmas have been an area of focus within the firm for a number of years now. In April 2018 we launched a pilot program in our D.C. office that brought in a Be Well advisor that is typically a licensed social worker into the office once a week – and that individual provided private, confidential, one-on-one counseling sessions to anyone in the firm who wanted them.

There’s a private scheduler set up with the third-party we work with. They own and maintain that scheduler. We started the program by having senior support and senior leadership, lawyers and business services working side-by-side to design this program and then help us launch it and encourage individuals that this was something they could take advantage of.

After we launched the program in April last year, very quickly our advisor had appointments scheduled right through June and beyond. It was supposed to be a six-month pilot – but halfway into that pilot, I got the green light to go ahead and continue with the program in the D.C. office and to expand into our other offices. Given that the program provides confidential access to the advisors, we don’t know exactly what individuals are meeting with the advisor about, but we get some aggregate high-level reporting that provides general categories such as family issues, financial concerns, elder care issues and so forth.

At the beginning of this year, we started to implement the program and expand it into other offices. We started in London, which now has an advisor on site once a week – the same model that we piloted in D.C. – and it has been going very well. On the heels of launching in London, we launched in New York. And our L.A. office has identified an advisor who will likely start in September. I’m also working on implementing advisors in our Philadelphia and Texas offices.

We know that our people are our best assets at this firm, and it shows in what we do. We care about them in a very holistic way.