Psychology alumnus Jake Knapik ’09 BS, PsyD has created a professional niche helping companies—particularly those in the entertainment and technology industries—prioritize well-being in the workplace. He develops customized action plans that address mental health issues impacting productivity and performance, and help employees reduce and more effectively manage their stress. After serving in various clinical and consulting capacities, Dr. Knapik accepted a full-time offer from Netflix last July to serve as the company’s first and only well-being manager. From his base in Rome, he focuses on enhancing the emotional well-being of Netflix employees around the globe.
“Often my first step with any company is to work with leadership on normalizing conversations about mental health to reduce the stigma associated with it,” Knapik said. “Some still consider it a taboo topic, others are relatively new in the space of talking about it, and some companies are much more advanced and invested. At the end of the day, every person has mental health just as they have physical health. We should be able to freely discuss workplace chronic stress, burnout and imposter syndrome the same way we talk about body pains and injuries.”
A company typically identifies an area of need related to mental health or well-being, and Knapik partners with the Human Resources division to design relevant educational and practical engagement programs. At Netflix, some of his work has focused on helping employees build a better relationship with stress and anxiety.
“Once you become aware of what’s happening in your brain to activate biological responses in your body—whether stomach issues, an accelerated heart rate or sweating—it takes away some of the power because individuals can learn techniques to counter those reactions. We want people to start thinking about being in the driver’s seat when it comes to managing stress rather than passengers with little control over the journey. Stress can be utilized rather than vilified.”
Knapik says it takes time to determine whether content is being delivered in the most effective way, and through an appropriately inclusive lens. For example, he is mindful of adding subtitles to videos for the benefit of employees whose first language is not English, and of making sure materials do not contain examples that are overly American-centric so that intended meanings are potentially lost.
The emphasis on inclusiveness was nurtured in the culturally diverse environs of Los Angeles, where Knapik spent a decade after earning his NMU degree. He had traveled there to pursue a doctorate at the L.A. campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. During his grad studies, he worked extensively with the Latin American community. He also participated in “externships” that included supporting the chronically unhoused at the Los Angeles Mission on Skid Row, and assisting veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom through the U.S. Veterans Initiative.
Knapik completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Renewed Freedom Center, which specialized in rapid relief from obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety symptoms. He had interned at the facility during graduate school and served nearly two years as its director of clinical training. Because of the facility’s L.A. location and close proximity to the entertainment industry, many of his clients were high-performing, creative individuals. They were typically struggling with anxiety that would manifest itself in behavioral issues, causing problems within their family dynamic as well as in their careers.
“I started drawing a certain clientele during my fellowship that was comprised mostly of producers, writers, actors and musicians. They have an interesting relationship with mental health because pain often inspires their creativity, so they worry if they talk about their problems and the pain goes away, they’ll lose their creative inspiration as well. I acknowledge that concern, but challenge people to have both. It is possible to increase mental health and creativity. ”
Upon relocating to Amsterdam, Knapik helped companies incorporate well-being and mental health materials into their relocation packages for expats. He also worked in private practice with clients from the city’s creative industry. He ventured further into the entertainment arena when he and his wife settled in London. Knapik served as an employee well-being consultant for “some of the world’s largest and most progressive technology, media and production companies,” including Netflix. When the subscription-based streaming service offered him the full-time position he now holds, Knapik relocated to Rome.
“My experiences abroad have expanded my view in terms of the different approaches to mental health worldwide,” Knapik said. “In the Netherlands, for example, there are employee benefits and protections built around it. Employees get two years of paid mental health leave, provided it is deemed appropriate by the occupational health doctor that major employers are required to have on staff.”
Working with creative industries has reinforced the value of neurodiversity, which Harvard Health defines as recognizing that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways. There is no one “right” way of thinking, learning and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.
“It’s important to be mindful of that in order to get the best out of your employees,” Knapik explained. “When I worked with animation companies, I discovered those individuals tended to be introverted. The usual approach of personal engagement or interaction would not have been successful because they preferred online chats, so we modified it. Or with tech companies that produce video games, I would talk much differently to the engineers who use numbers and code to create something unbelievably artistic than I would to the sales people.
“You’ll never successfully meet employees where they’re at if you use the same approach all the time or only do things you believe are right. I started learning that in college at Northern. I would go from a creative writing class, where the professor talked while hiking and describing trees in unique ways, to a behavioral psych class with unique stories tapping into another part of my brain.”
It was the Chicago native’s first behavioral psychology class with Professor Paul Andronis that led him to switch his major. He was hooked by the notion that humans function and act differently based on variations in how their brains are wired. A psychology degree seemed like the perfect conduit from his original interest in special education to his newfound passion.
“In that degree track, we had practicums within the realms of psychology and special ed,” Knapik said. “One of mine involved shadowing a nurse practitioner in the psychiatric unit at [the former] Marquette General Hospital two half-days per week for two years. I also shadowed a teacher at North Star Academy. These motivating experiences helping individuals launched me on this trajectory. They were also unique, as I learned in grad school. Most of my peers never participated in structured practicums as undergraduates.”
When Knapik expressed an interest in continuing his education beyond NMU, Andronis tactfully suggested he pursue a doctorate in clinical/experimental psychology because his skillset was not as well suited to a research-based program. He followed his mentor’s advice and has never looked back.
Knapik offers his own practical advice for Northern Magazine readers on the following topics:
Choose your discomfort. Setting boundaries is really hard. It’s not easy to say you can’t do a task because you’re overwhelmed or have family obligations. But if you keep saying yes, prolonged chronic stress might lead to burnout. Working on mental health is just like physical health: it’s hard, uncomfortable and exhausting. Over time, as you flex that muscle and practice setting boundaries and taking care of your mental health, it’s easier.
Suicide and mental health issues among young adults:
We have some responsibility as a generation of individuals in the current space to set examples of how we deal with mental health and take care of ourselves. It’s not that the younger generation is more sensitive and need more. We need to meet them where they’re at rather than wagging a finger and saying, “Back in my day…” We’re not asking businesses and schools to become community mental health centers; only that they make it a priority and normalize the conversation so individuals can seek the right treatment and help.
I developed training for a few companies related to this, especially around the pandemic. The term has evolved because we can be physical caregivers for aging parents with dementia or limited mobility, emotional caregivers for friends, and financial caregivers if someone loses a job. I try to equip people to take care of themselves, and to know when enough is enough—when we need to ask for help, set boundaries and have limitations. Caring is what we do, but it can be a huge burden that can result in compassion fatigue. Acknowledge the difficulty and take care of yourself first
You can easily find a laundry list on the internet, from eating and exercise to mindfulness and meditation. It’s not so much what to do, but how and why. If you want to set aside time each day to prioritize self-care, start off with something easily attainable, like 10-15 minutes so you can practice feeling the associated guilt that can come with prioritizing self-care in the moment.
Written by Kristi Evans
Photos by Sara Furio