HR Needs to Prepare for the Mental Health Fallout from COVID. Here’s What They Are Up Against
From layoffs to (re)hiring to virtual culture champions to surrogate executive coaches, HR leaders have dealt with a lot throughout the COVID pandemic. Unfortunately, though, the real problem is just starting to boil: the impending challenges of mental health in the workplace as people deal with loss, isolation, and a fundamental shift to many people’s ways of life. Even as people are grateful to have their job in a time of historic unemployment, there is anxiety about how secure their job is and guilt for keeping their job while so many others suffer.
Unfortunately, while it’s not HR’s fault, it will become something HR needs to handle as employee mental health creeps more into the picture. While we’re in a good spot in the sense that more workplaces are attuned to mental health issues, we’re still facing an uphill battle.
At Bloom, we’ve seen a lot of workplaces and the people who power them go through the COVID pandemic — and here’s what we see fuelling the impending mental health crisis.
PS — Read this and still need help? Bloom’s here for you. Book a no-obligation intro call with us to ask more questions and learn how we can help you out as much, or as little, as you need. Book a call with me, Avery, here.
The key challenges we’re facing
While conversations about mental health are certainly improving, HR isn’t ready for what’s to come. Here’s where we are seeing the biggest gaps.
Mental health is not yet normalized in the office
While stigma is significantly reduced, talking about mental health issues is still not normalized in the workplace in the same way as talking about a physical injury or illness. If someone brings up a potential mental health issue, others may feel they have to sweep it under the rug — that may even be how they feel they can support a peer, worried that dwelling on it as akin to mocking it.
A big educational push is needed, both for bystanders and people dealing with mental illness, to better understand the facts from myths. In order for that to happen, the conversation has to be normalized.
Workplace initiatives focus on symptom management not root causes
Most workplace mental health initiatives fall into one of two categories:
- Embedding some mental health practitioners into benefits.
- Adding perks like meditation and yoga to the office.
Both of these things are steps in the right direction, but not quite enough. Instead of looking only at symptoms, mental health initiatives need to look at root causes such as cultural factors, leadership expectations, and more. Root cause adjustments, though, could be painful as it may hit the very core of some organizations and the ways they work.
Having the conversations about work structures won’t be fun, but it’s necessary to tackle some root causes of mental illness at work.
Workplace mental health perspectives aren’t holistic
Often, conversations about mental health focus on direct trade offs. For example, people are stressed because of long working hours, but leadership argues you can’t shorten the working hours because you’ll lose productivity. However, the real issue may not be working hours at all, but that long hours are causing feelings of isolation and a poor work-life balance. While adjustments will still need to be made to fix the problem, it doesn’t have to be a direct one-to-one trade off. Instead, initiatives can look at how to help people feel more connected, valued, and appreciated for the long hours they are putting in.
When initiatives focus only on the direct trade off, a massive opportunity for indirect benefit passes by. Since many direct trade offs either don’t make sense for every company or take a long time to implement successfully, these indirect wins are a lifeline for companies and employees alike.
HR isn’t ready
By design, HR professionals are not mental health professionals. The HR function was not built to be anyone’s therapist, nor should it. However, with the rise of conversations around mental health in the workplace — a direct result of increased work hours and employees staying digitally connected to work all day and night — it’s become a challenge that HR is not typically exposed to or prepared for.
How HR can prepare
A big part of your job going forward will be to plan for mental health conversations and initiatives so you’re ready to act as soon as it’s needed.
While you may not be a trained mental health professional, it’s highly possible that your leadership will look to you as the “local” expert. Here are some great resources to get you started on self-education:
- Mental Health at Work: How we’ve improved and where we need to go
- Mental Health Commission of Canada’s guide to mental health at work
- Canadian Mental Health Association’s primer on mental illness in the workplace
- 30 Useful Facts You Didn’t Know About Mental Health
The other part of this preparation will be getting your leadership on board and ensuring you have leadership support (especially since some initiatives, like expanding benefits, cost money).
- Supportive performance management strategies
- Harvard Business Review’s guide on how to manage an employee with depression
- Share insights from this CEO roundtable on mental health
- Harvard Business Review on CEOs can support employee mental health
The world is a bit frozen right now, but the thaw will come eventually. So if you are leading HR at your company, spend some of your time planning for what’s next. If you aren’t working for any reason but are an HR professional, think about these issues, read up on it, learn the issues and solution frameworks. The knowledge will serve you well because when you find yourself leading HR initiatives at a company again. Trust me, this will be a critical task on your plate as we shift to economic recovery.
One more thing — At Bloom, we support companies who aren’t ready to hire a full-time HR or Talent but need the leadership on an interim basis. We do the nitty-gritty foundational work like implementing the best tech, tools and processes that are infused with your org’s values. Read this article and still need help? Bloom’s here for you. Book a no-obligation intro call with us to ask more questions and learn how we can help you out as much, or as little, as you need. Book a call with me, Avery, here.