HR and Mental Health: How to Help Employees (and Yourself!)

If you work in HR, a moment of applause for you. 

As HR leaders you already carry the weight of various company functions; compliance, payroll, training, benefits, recruitment, health and safety, to name just a few. And now in the midst of a global pandemic, with your office likely closed and perhaps re-opening soon (oh yeah, you have to spearhead that as well), and more of your staff working remotely than ever before, you are suddenly tasked with becoming experts in a new area: Mental Health.

Perhaps mental health and staff wellness have always a part of your HR blueprint, but with 2020 ushering in an unprecedented blow to many employee’s overall wellbeing, this is now much more than a trend and can have a real impact on the success and sustainability of your organization. And per usual, the responsibility of this falls on HR to address. Most HR professionals are not certified therapist or mental health experts, but yet we still look to you to keep employees happy and productive and the company running smoothly. No pressure, right?

If you’re not sure where to start or how to get the support YOU need, here are a few tips to help:

First things first, what exactly do we mean my mental health?

Mental health in the simplest terms refers to the health of the mind vs. the health of the body. It’s basically in the name…

Mental health impacts how we process and respond to our surroundings; how we make decisions, manage relationships, and handle stress; how we think, feel, and act. It innervates all that we do and is the filter through which we see the world. 

Mental health concerns, and illness, impact this filter and can in some cases dramatically affect our behavior and ability to cope with every-day situations. Naturally this affects our work performance and professional demeanor as well.

During the best of times, even the healthiest, most psychologically sound individual may manage ups and downs in their mental health. In 2020 all of us have been impacted in one way or another by Covid-19, and for many people, the new emotions and turmoil that came with this year are uncharted territory. Even though it may feel out of your expertise, HR can play a pivotal role in helping employees proactively be mindful of their mental health as well as cope with these challenges.

Squash the stigma with education, communication, and honesty

Sadly, mental illness often still holds stigma. Frequently it goes unaddressed or undiscussed for fear that it will be seen as something to be ashamed of or a personal failure. This usually results from lack of education and awareness. As HR professionals, making mental health a common and accepted topic that is met with support and empathy is an important first step in integrating this into your overall wellness program.

So how do you get people to talk about mental health? Great question. For younger generations this is less of a hurdle as they are more accustomed to broadcasting their lives over social media and being more open generally. But for the rest of your staff, that may not be the case. In fact, 62% of millennials say they are comfortable talking about mental health while only 32% of Baby Boomers feel the same (source: American Psychiatric Association).

Here are ways to help start the conversation for those who may be more reluctant to speak up:

  • Host educational sessions to aid your team in better understanding the facts and realities of mental health
  • As leaders, top down openness can also go a long way. Consider sharing your own experiences with mental health (as appropriate) with your team to champion the conversation 
  • Encourage employees to share their challenges and get support. Consider establishing voluntary support groups where employees can speak openly with others in the company who are likewise seeking connection and encouragement with mental health topics

Thankfully, the stigma with mental health is softening but it remains a dominant factor that you will need to be mindful of in your role in HR. 

Offer resources

Now that you have the conversation started, it’s vital to provide an outlet and practical tools for those employees who need assistance.

If you are a US based firm, mental health conditions are covered under the Americans with Disabilities act, so as HR leaders and employers you already have an obligation to make accommodations for those employees who need it. For the purposes of this article though, the intent is to focus on the value-add, voluntary, and proactive resources you can provide your employees to create an overall culture of acceptance, support, and mindfulness.

Here are 4 simple ways you can promote positive mental health in your office:

  • Provide access to free screening tools such as those offered by Mental Health America. Employees can anonymously conduct a personal assessment; and if they recognize the risks, they are more likely to seek help
  • Consider having a therapist on-site. Whether full time if you’re a large company, or a set time each week, this provides a simple way for employees to schedule time with a professional if they need it
  • Employee Assistance Programs – do you have resource through your health insurance provider or others that you provide employees? Make sure they know what’s available to them! Too often these great resources go unused. 
  • Proactively promote wellness and work/life harmony among your staff. This could be everything from movement/fitness competitions to assistance with childcare, to more flexible hours. Whatever is doable for your business to allow people the room to breathe and feel capable to deal with the various forms of pressure in their lives will add up to increased wellbeing and satisfaction among your staff and ultimately increased productivity and retention.

Don’t forget about yourself!

As leaders we often shift our focus to the needs of our employees and company and push our own wellbeing to the background. Especially now, your strength and mental fortitude are paramount if you are to continue innovating and showing-up for your team. Take advantage of the resources you put in place, set an example by taking a “mental health day” when you are having a particularly draining week, actually unplug when you are on vacation, and be mindful of your own work/life harmony. Ultimately, no matter what you say, or what programs you implement, your employees will follow your lead first and foremost. Make sure you are abiding by the same compassionate, accepting standards for yourself that you are striving to create for your staff. 

More than ever, we need to be talking about metal health. We are living through a global pandemic. Everything is harder this year. Every emotion is heightened. Mental health already merited our attention, compassion, education and support, but now as leaders, we need to accelerate that trajectory and make it a lasting part of our company cultures and vision. When we look back, hopefully that can be one of the good things that comes out of 2020.