How HR Professionals Create Safe Spaces to Support Mental Health
The cost of poor mental health is staggering. Research by Deloitte found that UK businesses lose £56 billion ($68 billion) a year because of poor mental health, and things don't seem to be getting better.
Just last year, a survey of 1,000 people conducted by Corporate Wellness Magazine found nearly a third (31%) saying their mental health had declined over the past year, a sharp increase from the 2020 figure of 24%.
Even more alarming is that 84% of those surveyed said they had experienced at least one mental health challenge in the previous 12 months. Some of the most common issues reported include stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and PTSD.
To help solve this crisis, HR professionals are being asked to find ways to better support employees' overall wellbeing. But is this a losing battle?
What Can HR Do?
According to the Corporate Wellness Magazine (CWM) survey, 92% of organizations say that employee mental health support is a top priority.
“I talk to quite a number of HR executives about workplace trends that they need to keep front and center, and employee wellness is always on that list,” said Jess Elmquist, CHRO at Phenom.
Elmquist said HR leaders are there to make a difference in employees’ lives, and most want to help.
The first step in tackling mental health is enabling open-ended communications in a safe and respectful environment. “HR teams need to be proactive when giving information about both mental health in general and the support that they offer," said Victor Anaya, co-founder and CEO of HR recruitment firm Serviap Global.
Anaya says employees should be encouraged to talk about mental health in a stigma-free environment — though, he says, HR leaders must be careful not to force anyone to talk about their issues, which could make matters worse.
The problem, however, is that while 62% of companies report having adopted these types of open spaces, according to the CWM survey, employees often don't realize these are available. HR leaders must do a better job at sharing the mental health benefits provided by the organization.
Related Article: Can Wellness Initiatives Wipe Out Employee Stress?
Utilizing Performance Review Discussions
Performance reviews are typically stressful moments for employees and may not seem like the ideal time to discuss mental health. Yet, they do provide HR leaders and managers an excellent opportunity to ask questions, pass out information and reinforce the idea that support is available when needed.
The proportion of employees who take advantage of mental wellness programs is on the rise, according to the CWM survey: 54% of employees said it was easy to get mental health support from their employers — an increase from the 2020 data.
While that number is climbing, it still leaves nearly 50% of employees who don’t find it easy. This is a great opportunity for HR to double down on its efforts to improve communications about the available benefits and how they can be accessed.
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Making it clear that the door is always open is another key component of these conversations, Anaya said. An employee mental health crisis can happen at any time, so leaders should be ready to discuss the problem at any time.
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Employers Are Over-Estimating Their Benefits
HR teams should review current benefits packages to ensure that they are fit for purpose and offer the intended value to employees.
A dedicated mental health support network can help. According to CWM, only 42% of employees believe their employment benefits offer the support they need; that figure climbs to 52% for employees at organizations with mental health support networks.
Investing into mental health benefits is also crucial to helping solve the crisis. Elmquist suggests HR looks at recruiting leaders with much-needed soft skills, such as empathy, curiosity and listening, which can help a company’s support system. By improving the skills of leaders and managers, mental health initiatives in the workplace can improve.
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Making Space for Safe Talks
In a remote workplace, the idea of a safe space that allows for open discussion on mental health may be difficult to grasp.
But a safe space is any location where the employee feels comfortable talking through issues without judgment or repercussions. It doesn't need to be a physical location. An employee does not have to be physically in the office to have an honest and respectful talk with a manager.
Making time to speak with employees even when the chat is impromptu is also important to reinforcing the "open door" policy mentioned earlier. If remote employees cannot get a hold of their managers or HR leaders when needed, the message loses its essence, and employees may feel unheard, further aggravating the situation.
HR leaders can support the company's message on mental wellness by ensuring they have team members who can be designated to receive incoming calls and messages for that very purpose.
About the Author
Kaya Ismail is a business software journalist and commentator with years of experience in the CMS industry.