HR Management & Compliance

How HR Can Support Employee Mental Health During Difficult Times

The COVID-19 pandemic, recent mass shootings, and current political climate have workers experiencing increased anxiety—at home and in the workplace. What role do HR professionals play in supporting employee mental health during these difficult times? How can HR professionals improve workers’ mental health? Are there mistakes they should try to avoid during the process?

I spoke with several leading mental health and HR experts to get these questions answered. Here’s what they had to say:

What Is the Role of HR in Supporting Employee Mental Health?

To begin, Zamena Ladak, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and business development at Assemble, an HR consulting company, says, “HR’s focus should always be about people—all aspects of people, which includes mental health/well-being.” She explains that “during times of difficulty, that focus on people becomes even more important, because employees need to feel as though they have a resource and/or safe space to turn to.”

Similarly, Brandon Staglin, president of One Mind, a brain health nonprofit, says that “of all an organization’s ‘resources,’ humans are the most important, and as such, deserve care during difficult times.” With this in mind, he believes that “HR, working with leadership, can play a major role in preserving team well-being by nurturing a culture of mutual openness and support around mental health, offering generous benefits and insurance plans with strong mental healthcare coverage, and offering opportunities for personal and professional growth.”

David Song, executive director of The Stability Network, a mental health nonprofit, believes that “HR departments have a critical role in supporting employees at a time when many employees are not feeling supported and leaving companies during a pandemic and economic uncertainty.” He encourages HR practitioners to “work with leadership to make sure that there is psychological safety and to create a company-wide culture of mental health and emotional well-being, from top to bottom.” According to Song, this “start[s] with clear messaging, vulnerability, and storytelling from the top.”

How Can HR Improve Workers’ Mental Health?

One way to improve employee mental health is by continually refining your company’s onboarding and training programs. Song argues that it’s important for leaders to be “trained about best practices in their legal and supervisory responsibilities to employees who face mental health challenges. This includes flexibility and acknowledgment around differing employee needs.”

Beyond employee training and development, Ladak explains that “HR can direct their employees to available resources while also serving as a sounding board.” However, she cautions against always jumping into problem-solving mode, as “sometimes people just want to talk and feel like they’re being heard.” Instead, she advises HR “to simply listen to their employees when they’re sharing some of the challenges being faced.” Sometimes the best solution is a listening ear.

What Workplace Mental Health Mistakes Might Organizations Be Making?

As you develop a strategy to better support and improve your employees’ mental health, are there any common missteps you should look out for? First, Ladak says it’s important to distinguish between HR professionals and mental health therapists.

While HR professionals are sometimes labeled the “company therapist,” as she explains, they are not licensed mental health professionals and do not have the proper credentials to engage in mental health therapy. Song agrees and says that employers “should avoid having well-meaning but untrained people attempt to ‘diagnose’ or advise colleagues about treating mental health challenges, often complex and personal, in an intrusive way that obliterates professional boundaries.”

Next, Song explains that it is important to avoid generalizations when talking about mental health. Each person’s story is unique, so speak from personal experience and use “I” statements. The ultimate goal, Song says, is to “show solidarity and community for everyone’s individual mental health story.” While HR’s urge to help employees is well meaning, companies must also avoid encouraging staff to self-disclose a mental health condition before they feel psychologically safe to do so. As Song shares, “every employee should be able to set their own boundaries around what to disclose or not disclose, and privacy must be respected.”

On a final note, Staglin reminds us that “HR professionals and leaders are people too!” As such, be sure “to tend to your own well-being while supporting that of your team. Well-being is contagious. Your personal self-care can not only help you feel and work better but also inspire better team morale.”

Dr. Kyle Elliott, MPA, CHES (he/him/his), is the founder and career coach behind CaffeinatedKyle.com. He is an official member of the invitation-only Forbes Coaches Council, a member of the Gay Coaches Alliance, and a Stability Leader with The Stability Network. Elliott’s words have been featured in Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company ,Forbes ,Fortune, and The New York Times, among dozens of other leading publications. You can find him on Twitter at @CaffeinatedKyle.