Mental Health & Human Resources: Prioritizing A More Resilient Workforce

Mental Health In The Workplace

It wasn’t all that long ago that the idea of expanding workplace wellness to go beyond simple physical health, to include mental health, was considered a progressive move. Today, after weathering what we hope is the worst of the pandemic, our understanding of mental wellness and it’s impact on the workplace has never been clearer: the mental health of your workforce is just as important as their physical health, and in times like these, businesses need a healthy and resilient workforce to succeed. Today we are joined by Kathryn Mayer, Human Resource Executive’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. Here, she explains:

  • How the pandemic exposed weaknesses in corporate mental health offerings
  • How what was once "too taboo" to discuss at work is now critical to moving forward
  • The importance of quick corporate response in light of the changing landscape; and
  • What leaders can do today to improve mental health in the workplace!

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The Pandemic & Mental Health In The Workplace

  • Largely, employers were not prepared for the pandemic, just as very few people were. 
  • Even through this unpreparedness, employers have been able to rapidly push forward innovations when it comes to HR through a pandemic. 
    • This included things such as adopting remote work, pushing out tailored benefits, or focusing on mental health at work. 
    • Simply being there for employees was and is important.


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The Current State of Mental Health At Work

  • Bluntly, it is not great. Stressful event after stressful event has created a situation in which most people’s “emotional tank” is running on empty.
  • COVID 19 has dramatically taken a toll on mental health rates of depression, anxiety, stress, burnout.
  • Even the social and political unrest we have seen in the United States added to the stressors that can trigger a poor state of mental health.
  • Overall, it is an unprecedented time for mental health struggles, and that’s why it is so important that employers now more than ever pay attention to their employees’ mental health.

Weakness Within Organizations

  • Many employers did not have adequate benefits, programs, or culture in place to support their employees’ mental health concerns even prior to COVID.
  • Some of these shortcomings included a lack of resources offered, lackluster communication about existing offerings, and a near-unanimous opinion that the topic of mental health in the workplace was too “taboo” to discuss.
  • In short, mental health at work was not being addressed properly by the employer.

The Deprioritization of Mental Health

  • Ms. Mayer’s article COVID-19 Strategy 101 discussed the deprioritization of mental health in the workplace.
  • Historically, mental health has been deprioritized both inside and outside of work.
  • American typically value working hard to the point of exhaustion and reward habits like coming to work early and leaving late early and working late. We don't get accolades for sharing vulnerabilities such as mental health issues and that is especially true when it comes to work ethic, because work is a “professional environment” where feelings, health, or personal issues are rarely discussed. 
  • However, there has been a shift over the past few years to become more holistic in our approach to employee wellness, and to include mental and emotional wellness alongside physical wellness.
  • While the stigma of discussing mental health issues has lessened, mental health care is still not prioritized as much as it should be at work. 

Corporate Response

  • Many employers stepped up in the wake of COVID, reevaluating their benefits and rolling out new ones. These offerings have included benefits like caregiving, financial health programs, and childcare solutions, all addressing specific employee stressors and pain points.
  • A quick response was critical! Responding quickly to employees’ needs was important, especially as the pandemic stress and uncertainty increased.
  • Many companies have also enhanced their EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs),adding more counseling sessions, and partnering with apps and software that help build resilience. 
  • The use of mental health days have also started to become more popular. 
    • Pinterest and Cisco both gave employees an extra day off during Memorial Day weekend, dubbing it a “mental health day.”
    • There has also been discussions among many companies regarding instituting an annual mental health day as a company holiday.
  • Starbucks has been a trailblazer of sorts when it comes to mental health in the workplace. 
    • In January of 2020, Starbucks began utilizing the mental health app “Headspace.”
    • In April, they began providing employees up to 20 sessions per year with a mental health coach or therapist at no cost to the employee.
    • And in June, Starbucks began implementing mental health training for employees.

Stress Management

  • Stress management programs are most definitely a positive way to begin recognizing and assisting employees with any mental health issues they may be going through.
    • That being said, companies cannot be “one and done” with these programs - a variety of different support programs should be offered, to allow employees to choose which approach might work best for them.
  • Apps and online support programs are usually fairly easy to implement, and provide employees with an ease of use.

Encouraging The Use Of Employee Assistance Programs

  • Communication is vital to encouraging the use of EAPs.
    • Benefits are all too commonly a topic that employees do not know much about.
    • Employers cannot assume that their workers know every one of their companies’ offerings, like an EAP.
    • Research by Unum reported that while 93% of employers do offer some sort of EAP, 46% workers said that their employer does not offer any EAPs. 
  • Employers should continuously remind employees about the EAPs available to them and encourage the use of those programs to help address mental health in the workplace.

The Impact Of Good Leadership

  • Being a good leader and being “human” is one of the most important things any company leader can do for his/her employees right now. 
  • It is very helpful to hear someone else, especially a company leader, acknowledge that times are tough and it is “ok to not be ok” right now. This helps normalize conversations about mental health.
  • A number of experts say that asking your employees “how are you doing?” (as a deeper question as opposed to just a passing greeting) is very important, as it lets the employee know that you care and results in less people feeling alone. 
  • When it comes to checking in on mental health at work virtually, leaders can struggle to find the right way to go about communicating with employees on the topic.
    • Leaders should utilize little things like a one-on-one “coffee chat” or the popular “virtual happy hour” so many companies have started to implement. 
    • Even though virtual work makes the physical distance between employers and employers greater, the emotional and mental connection should remain just the same. 
  • Having a personal conversation or icebreaker can have a positive impact on employees mental health and can combat loneliness. 

Mental Health Support Strategies

  • In the same article linked above, Ms. Mayer writes about some of the best strategies to support employees’ mental health in the workplace. 
  • In addition to strategies already discussed in the program (evaluating and adding resources, looking at apps for support, giving employees an extra day off for mental health and making sure that employees are aware of EAPs and other resources), companies should also: 
    • Survey employees about how they are feeling and what kind of support would they like.
    • Create clear boundaries between work and personal time in remote settings.
      • Leaders should be flexible about employees schedules and encourage them to take time for themselves or their families.
    • Find ways to connect with employees in a genuine manner.

Communication Strategies That Really Work

  • Not everyone is going to remember what they have when it comes to mental health offerings, or even know how they work or how to access them.
  • Companies should use a variety of communication methods to ensure that employees are aware of what is available and how to access those resources.
    • This can include things like email, company intranet systems, physical mail, reminders in meetings virtually and in-person, etc.
    • Include phone numbers, websites, and any information to help employees know what is available to them in these communications.
  • Employees will also need those resources in the most dire of times when it comes to their mental health, so those reminders should be sent out often. 

Leadership, HR, and Mental Health

  • Historically, leadership and HR have not been the best at communicating the importance of mental health in the workplace. This is partially due to the fact that mental health was commonly a hands-off topic.
  • With the pandemic bringing more and more focus to mental health, companies are now trying to put the “human” back into Human Resources.
    • Employers can no longer choose NOT to address mental health, it is now essential. 

What If Employees Feel Uncomfortable Discussing Their Mental Health?

  • Research from Paychex showed that 30% of employees surveyed believed that discussing their mental health could lead to them being fired, furloughed or could cost them a promotion. 
  • Employees can be scared to discuss their mental health simply because they do not know if there will be consequences for doing so. 
    • This is where leadership and HR Departments must step up and communicate to employees that it is okay to discuss these issues openly, so that they may help the employee find the resources they need. 

Mental Health In The Workplace, Post Pandemic

  • The mental health concerns won’t magically disappear once the pandemic recedes, so employers must find ways to continue to support their employees, even after this crisis. 
  • Mental health can even be seen as a “pandemic” itself.
  • All of the strides made surrounding mental health at work and at home during the pandemic should not be forgotten, in fact, they should now become standard operating procedure. 
  • The better your workforce’s mental health, the more productive, happy, and energetic your workforce will be overall. 

Must-Read Stories About Mental Health For HR Executives

  • Ms. Mayer published a post containing 15 must-read stories about how mental health in the workplace has been addressed in the past, how it is being addressed now, and how it should be addressed moving forward. 
  • Ms. Mayer has written a “couple hundred” articles throughout 2020 about mental health and all of those can be found on her author page on HR Executive.

HR Executive

  • HR Executive is a publication for HR leaders and executives that offers insights from leaders, in-depth articles, and breaking news surrounding HR.
  • New content is published every single day online, and is also published in a print magazine and via e-newsletters.

Kathryn Mayer Background


Kathryn Mayer’s email:

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