Bennett Thrasher Team Takes a Hike to Destigmatize Mental Health Care

Leading a group of accounting professionals on a walk through the woods may sound like a typical corporate team-building activity, but Atlanta-based Bennett Thrasher LLP (FY19 net revenue of $61.4 million) put another spin on it.

The hike, covering about 80 miles of the Appalachian Trail in early June, may have improved collaboration at the firm, but increased efficiency was not the goal. Instead, the idea was to show how immersion in nature can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. It was part of a larger effort to offer firm members not only ways to improve their own mental health, but also education and resources on how to encourage others who may need help.

The hike was broken into seven sections that stretched from the North Carolina/Georgia line south to Springer Mountain in Georgia, which marks one end of the 2,000-mile trek to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Ninety team members, from interns to partners, picked a leg of the route and covered anywhere from six to 16 miles at a stretch.

Will Eckerson

COO Will Eckerson decided to hike about five miles, camp and then cover 10 or so the next day. Even though he had a couple of backpacking trips under his belt for the season and he enjoyed the company of his colleagues, he admits the thought crossed his mind (more than once), “I should just go back to the car.” The up-and-down hike should have been easier than it was, he says. “I didn’t listen this time as much as I did two years ago on how to best prepare.” In the end, though, the challenge, the camaraderie and the sense of accomplishment made “BT on the AT” an overwhelmingly positive experience, he says.

Studies back up Eckerson’s observations. A University of British Columbia study, among many others, shows that nature lowers blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is involved in the body’s fight-or-flight response. Nature sounds are calming and even a short walk in a park, or an appreciation of a dandelion growing through a crack in the sidewalk, can improve one’s mental outlook.

Recognizing that not everyone would be willing (or able) to hike, the firm added different educational activities. One was a 90-minute panel discussion on mental health awareness, which covered the resources available and how to encourage others who need help. Another program covered mental health in the workplace and the ways in which breaks, good nutrition and exercise can relieve stress.

The firm also sponsored two volunteer activities, one helping the Atlanta Community Food Bank and the other working with Canine Assistants, an organization that trains service dogs. Eckerson says research shows that helping others boosts well-being.

BT goes further by dedicating a percentage of top-line revenue annually to the BT Foundation, which is led by 11 associates who divvy up the money, which amounted to about $300,000 last year. Organizations can apply for grants or requests for firm members to volunteer their time. Grants have gone to Kate’s Club, which helps children grieving the loss of a parent, and time has been devoted to building and painting homes for Habitat for Humanity. “You get to see the passion of our people come out in a different way than just serving clients.”

Eckerson says the firm tagline “Better Together” was chosen because the firm is committed to helping clients and helping each other. That’s why the firm hires people who believe in service. “People don’t stay at a firm if they don’t believe in the other people. We’re very focused on providing outstanding people to work with because that’s what keeps people here.”

Focusing on wellness and developing personal skills helps the entire team, he says.

Although some of the hikers said the trek was a little TOO challenging, for the most part, they enjoyed it, Eckerson says. Even though he had a few fleeting thoughts about the comfort of his car – particularly during a deluge at mile 12 one day – he says he’s a better person for having done it. “Thinking back on it, the weather didn’t matter. I didn’t even get my rain gear out.”

Eckerson says the hikers returned to work with big smiles on their faces. “People walked back in the office and said, ‘I had a great day outside.’ ” Turns out that the adage ‘stop and smell the roses’ has some truth to it.

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