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HR can help support employees' mental health, well-being

Employees are more worried and stressed than ever before. Here's a look at how business and HR leaders can get serious about mental health and well-being in the workplace.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on workers' mental health and well-being. A question that HR leaders must now grapple with is: How can HR now support employees' mental health?

To that point, employee well-being and mental health has taken the top spot in HR's strategic priorities, according to the "2021 HR Sentiment Survey" from Future Workplace, an advisory and membership organization; Boston University; and Lyra Health, an online digital platform based in Burlingame, Calif. The survey included more than 2,000 senior HR leaders in the U.S. Its focus on well-being and mental health reflects HR leaders' recognition of the pandemic's widespread ripple effects. 

Jeanne Meister, managing partner at Future Workplace, delves into why well-being is an important HR priority, concrete actions for supporting employee emotional health, and why leaders need to jettison the overwork culture.

Over the years, how have the HR strategies around mental health and well-being changed?

Jeanne Meister: It wasn't too long ago that companies gave out a Fitbit and had team challenges and said they were focusing on well-being. But what they were really focusing on was physical well-being.

We have really shifted our thinking on well-being so that it is much broader and much more holistic. For example, what we've really seen, especially during the pandemic, is that there is a real correlation between financial well-being and emotional well-being.

Difficulties such as worry, stress and depression are complex issues. What are some of the challenges HR faces in supporting employee mental health and wellness?

Meister: One of the biggest issues and challenges for HR is de-stigmatizing conversations about mental health and mental illness in their organization. Business leaders and HR leaders need to start building a culture where it's OK to talk about mental health and mental illness.

Jeanne Meister headshotJeanne Meister

There are a lot of bolt-on solutions, companies funding Headspace for entire families [for example]. But more focus needs to be on [incorporating] conversations about mental health into the culture and into the flow of work. Leaders need to feel comfortable having these crucial conversations with their employees.

People are really suffering, and Gen Z is hit particularly hard. It's not surprising that HR sees mental health as a strategic priority.

What does making mental health a priority in the organization look like in concrete terms?

Meister: One important thing is to have leaders role model the importance of mental health and work-life balance. This may require training on how to have these crucial conversations and how to lead with empathy. 

Organizations and HR departments have to do more with employee listening programs. I think most organizations by now are doing regular pulse surveys; they're no longer waiting for yearly surveys. But they have to do more.

Leaders have to over-communicate and check in. They have to increase [check-ins], because it can be lonely working at home. Now there's an added level of uncertainty with going back to the office since many leaders are reevaluating their return-to-office plans [due to the Delta variant]. That uncertainty is causing anxiety for employees.

Building well-being and mental health awareness into the flow of work, having it be okay to talk about it in team meetings and having leaders be trained to have the crucial conversations are priorities. Business leaders have to see the direct relationship between a workforce that is suffering from mental health issues, and their absenteeism, retention, staff morale and overall job satisfaction. There are business reasons, but more importantly there are human reasons.

HR's strategic priorities shift in 2021

The urgency of COVID-19 and long-standing cultural concerns that have been given new voice are dominating the list of HR strategic priorities.

That's according to the Future Workplace "2021 HR Sentiment Survey."

Pre-pandemic, the top strategic priority for HR leaders was employee experience, according to the survey. Employee experience remained important in 2021. But new entries into the top five HR strategic priorities reflect HR's complex challenges, arising from both the pandemic and from growing sociopolitical movements, such as the call for more effective workplace diversity strategies.

Here's a look at the 2021 HR strategic priorities:

  1. Employee well-being and mental health
  2. Diversity, equity and inclusion
  3. Leadership development
  4. Employee experience
  5. Manage remote workers

Compare those with the 2020 HR strategic priorities:

  1. Employee experience
  2. Leadership development
  3. Learning transformation
  4. Next generation leaders
  5. People analytics

How can HR and business leaders support employee mental and emotional health?

Meister: Maybe it's as simple as starting virtual focus groups, really focusing on issues around stress and anxiety and [finding out] whether employees feel supported by managers and leaders. Companies could also be open to having employee resource groups dedicated to this topic just like they have [enterprise resource groups] dedicated to other important issues like diversity. Those groups could also share national and local community resources on mental health.

HR also needs to build internal awareness -- in a variety of different ways -- of the resources the organization does offer, such as through employee newsletters and the employee portal.

What might HR and business leaders overlook in prioritizing workers' mental and emotional well-being?

Meister: Something that leaders can do is establish a culture that empowers the managers and the teams to really sense signs of mental strain in their team members.

With this culture of well-being, leaders can no longer celebrate long working hours. They can even celebrate rest and time off. We now have some companies paying people to take vacations -- PwC announced employees will get $250 for every full week of vacation they take off.

That never happened before.

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