Mental wellbeing has never been more important to HR than it is right now
Mental wellbeing has never been more important to HR than it is right now. As we move further into 2020, and remote work continues to dominate, employees are feeling more disconnected and alone than ever before. As such, employers need to practice compassion and empathy with stressed out staff – and manage expectations when it comes to productivity.
HRD spoke to Howard Sloane, a globally recognised chief human resource officer, who revealed the best ways to deal with depression in COVID-19 – and explained how to avoid becoming the ‘mental wellbeing police’.
HRD: What is some advice for employees to deal with anxiety and depression at work?
HS: This is a serious topic and one that requires serious discussion. There are plenty of statistics that show that mental health issues are on the increase and it is having a catastrophic impact on everyday lives.
Current generations have never been so busy, nor wanted so much, nor had so much given to them without having to work for it. And this perfect storm means that people are less prepared for the bumps and bruises that life inevitably gives.
In my experience as an HR practitioner and having dealt with many cases of colleagues being affected by mental health, there are some simple steps which can help both employer and employee.
Read more: Are employees on the brink of burnout?
First of all, mental health issues are not rare. One out of every three people will suffer with mental issues whilst at work - yet only a third of all managers have had formal training in how to deal with mental health issues.
Having a clearly defined policy and role document is vital. Setting up Mental Health First Aiders and promoting them with your business is also a necessary step in supporting colleagues and therefore reducing the impact that stress and anxiety can have.
For those employees who are trying to cope with mental health issues, I can simply say that not only does your employer have a moral and (in part) legal obligation to support you, it also knows full well that a healthier, happier workforce is more productive.
I think that many countries are quite late in getting their respective societies to not only accept but actively support mental health issues. Thankfully, those that are playing catch up are doing so with significant resource and this is a good thing.
Read more: How to safeguard mental health in a prolonged crisis
HRD: Isolation is a huge issue for employees during COVID - what do you suggest would help in terms of fostering a remote culture?
HS: This is an interesting challenge because for many years we have become much smarter at including remote workers in our businesses. I remember the efforts over ten years ago by a former employer in ensuring that wind turbine operators who do incredible work in the middle of nowhere are included as much as possible in the everyday business. Giving them updates and a voice. Crucially, it is about making sure that voice is heard.
But this is different. Lockdown was total isolation. Followed by a relaxing of rules. But with so many offices and buildings nowhere near their capacity, isolation is a term that many will now completely understand. Me included.
Fostering a remote culture is, I believe, an opportunity to embrace new technology, embrace the lifting of this incessant need for presenteeism in work and ensuring that inclusivity is discussed as part of the wider business agenda. So, for example, investing in employee engagement activities should not be HR led but seen as every leader’s responsibility to focus on and deliver against.
Video calls, online chats and WhatsApp will never replace face to face ‘catch ups’ but given that this is not possible we now have to move to a new paradigm and a new way of working.
Once a business has developed its technology footprint to support all employees with this, it then needs to think long and hard about its organisational design. Simply put, some organisations are setup not to share information and this needs to change. Flatter structures are not always the answer before anyone mentions it!
I have seen a bigger and better change in recent years where complex businesses have gone against the tide and have created more layers with much greater individual accountability which has led to better inclusivity and stronger lines of communication.
HRD: How much is it HR's responsibility to safeguard employee mental wellbeing?
HS: When I started out in my career, HR was often seen as the ‘policy police’ - over time this changed to a more business partnering approach.
However, whilst I think that policy should always be owned by the most senior person in the business as it drives accountability, when it comes to mental wellbeing I really like the idea that HR should act in a safeguarding way.
HR should not be the ‘mental wellbeing police’, but it is really beneficial to have the HR function in a business being responsible for safeguarding mental wellbeing. In this way, decisions that are made that can affect mental health can be openly challenged and HR should be actively encouraged to do so.
Getting the balance right for shareholders between pushing performance to get the best possible return vs pushing so hard and so fast that it damages employee mental wellbeing, will always be a struggle. However as I’ve said before, businesses know that a happy, healthy workforce will always deliver more and so provided this is re-enforced and measured, HR should be able to maintain responsibility without detaching itself entirely from the business responsibilities to its shareholders.