Google is running an employee mental health project without any metrics

Feeling blue.
Feeling blue.
Image: Getty/Jose Luis Pelaez Inc.
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Google’s data-driven approach has long applied to its own workplaces. It has crafted onboarding and maternity leave practices around insights derived from employee statistics, gathered figures to investigate what makes the best teams, and designed its cafeteria around finely documented observations, like the importance of making dried figs easier to reach than chocolate.

But now it’s supporting an employee-led program for which it is not collecting any metrics whatsoever.

The program is called Blue Dot, and it’s something akin to peer-to-peer counseling, though Google will never call it that—partly because it doesn’t want to suggest that Blue Dot could replace professional therapy or medical care, and because Blue Dot volunteers don’t coach people or even offer opinions. Rather, they practice compassionate listening, promising openness and kindness to co-workers who come to them.

Blue Dot was started by employees, but once it started growing, the benefits department jumped in to put structure around the project and ensure the listeners were given training. That was three years ago; now 400 people are Blue Dot listeners, having completed a 30-minute video course that can be supplemented by workshops for extra development.

Listeners are asked to make themselves available to colleagues who feel like they need an ear for whatever reason. They’re identified by a blue dot sticker on their name tag or laptop. It may sound low-tech, but the sticker works, says Peter Corcoran, a program manager for Google Shopping and previously one of the global leads of the Blue Dot program. “A lot of contact happens organically, where someone will say, I know you’re a listener, do you have five or 10 minutes?” says Corcoran, a former British military officer who lives with PTSD.

The blue dot, a spokesperson said, was selected as a symbol simply because it was the best idea that came out of an early meeting, and is not connected to that blue dot that represents “you” in the directions mode of Google maps.

Google has given the program its blessing even though it has no analytics on who is using it, why, where, when, and how. Not collecting data was a core principle when Blue Dot was founded, says Corcoran, a nod to the volunteers’ interest in maintaining psychological safety for everyone involved in the program.

The goal of compassionate listening is to allow a person to feel heard without offering to fix anything. As Greater Good Magazine explains, “It requires giving up a self-centered view of the world, focusing and paying attention, and setting aside biases or distorted thinking to connect with another person’s emotions.” Thanks to the popularity of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and Oprah, the idea has caught in popular culture.

The steps seem simple enough—for example, ask questions, express empathy, and avoid offering judgment or advice—but it’s not easy, whether at Google or in  serious conflict resolution efforts or between intimate partners. We’re accustomed to sharing our opinions all day long; social media has further conditioned us to do this without any prompting.

Blue Dot representatives say the listeners have been effective and popular, although they don’t have stats to prove it. Amy Costello, a listener who works on Google Cloud in the Mountain View, California, office, and uses her 20% time to handle administrative aspects of the Blue Dot project, says employees need a space to say, “In this moment, I’m not okay, and that’s okay.” They might talk about a work issue, or a family situation, anything that needs to be voiced.

The volunteers are taught when a complaint needs to be escalated to human resources (in the case of something like discrimination) or when to call Google security because of an possible crisis, or when to ask if a person would be willing to speak to a professional counselor in that moment, rather than a peer.

Yu-lin Gardener, who works with Google’s benefits team, says her team hasn’t had a need to run Blue Dot recruitment programs yet because the program has grown organically, even in places where there’s typically a stigma around therapy or anything like it. In Google’s Asia-Pacific offices, says Costello, Blue Dot has been particularly active, perhaps because the difference between peer listening and counseling makes the model more palatable.

Programs like this are meant to be a low-barrier way to relieve some of the pernicious anxiety that appears to be a concern in workforces everywhere, and is thought to be a particular problem with millennials. A Quartz and SurveyMonkey Audience poll, for instance, recently found that 18% of US workers report experiencing anxiety or depression to the point where it disrupts work “all the time” or “often.” The rate was nearly twice as high (30%) among millennial and Gen Z employees (aged 18-34).

Stats like these have prompted more companies to open their office doors to naturally therapeutic pets and to consider basic mental-health training for managers, which research shows may reduce their employees’ work-related sick time off.

Google’s Blue Dot leaders believe will the program will grow and become even more sophisticated, perhaps offering advanced training—but they’re not setting any targets or KPIs to make that happen, either.