HR’s Role in Supporting Mental Wellness in the Workplace

Despite living and working in the rapidly evolving digital age, neither employees nor employers were ready for the sudden changes to everyone’s daily work routine that occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects have been sweeping, from involuntary transitions to work-from-home roles, constant adaptation to fluctuations in health-related guidance, and in some cases, even job loss. 

Change can be difficult even under the best of circumstances, but when people aren’t prepared, the effect on mental health is often profound. In this article, we will discuss the role of HR professionals in supporting mental wellness initiatives in the workplace.

Understanding burnout

The sense of uncertainty brought forth during pandemic lockdowns has heightened an overall sense of anxiety for many employees. For some, mental health conditions like anxiety and depression were present even before the pandemic began. 

The widespread uncertainty of the pandemic infiltrated nearly every corner of everyday life, from personal health and wellness to family relationships, employment, children’s education and beyond. It is unusual for uncertainty to be present in every aspect of someone’s existence, and to make matters worse, the usual coping mechanisms many people had in place — whether it was going to yoga class, grabbing a drink with friends, or attending church services — were no longer feasible. This double-whammy, along with an inability to escape the work-from-home environment, led to recognition of crushing burnout amongst the global workforce. 

In a 2020 study done by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, it was reported that nearly 80% of employees felt as though the pandemic was negatively impacting their mental health, and a similar percentage expressed the belief that employers should be “doing more” to protect it. More concerning was the 85% of surveyed employees who felt as though their increased work stress during the pandemic had begun to impact their personal lives.

Burnout has been described by the Mayo Clinic as “… a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” The effects of burnout go beyond the wellness of an individual employee; burnout can also affect interpersonal relationships and productivity at work. 

Because burnout has become so prevalent, the human resources community is taking a focused look at addressing the condition by supporting employee wellness. 

Role of the HR Department

So, how can a workplace HR department address stress and burnout in company employees, and respond supportively?

The best response is actually prevention. For this reason, many (if not most) workplaces nowadays have wellness initiatives. These can run the gamut from employee assistance programs (EAPs), to enhanced insurance coverage of mental health services, granting an additional day of “personal time” per year in addition to paid time off (PTO), and designation of in-house “wellness officers” to help lead wellness programs. 

EAPs are workplace-based intervention programs that can help employees resolve personal issues that might be affecting their performance at work. Examples include substance use disorders, marital or relationship discord, family stressors or financial issues. 

Workplace wellness programs, on the other hand, offer interventions aimed at ensuring employees are taking time for themselves. When employees are busy and stressed at work, spending extra time and effort trying to find personal wellness options like cooking or yoga classes, or, if new to town, social clubs and organizations through which to meet people, can be even more exhausting. After-work social gatherings have existed as long as employment has been around, but in recent years, employers have also begun offering intentional, wellness-focused courses and activities, organized through the workplace. 

However, even these events needed to change with the pandemic; in-person gatherings were no longer feasible, and many employees who spent all day on Zoom calls voiced hesitation at the prospect of additional screen time needed for virtual gatherings. In our new work-from-home world, it has become clear that a lack of pre-existing boundaries between work and home life has created additional stress and uneasiness for certain employees, demonstrating an area of necessary adaptation when planning wellness activities.

Since it would be impossible to completely prevent employee burnout, another role of the HR department is identifying employees who might be experiencing mental health issues. Common signs of increased stress and burnout include anxiety, depression,, decreased productivity, poor sleep and increased substance use. Less-familiar signs may include frequent physical complaints, erratic work hours, or lack of availability and unwillingness to participate in meetings and employee social events.

Responding supportively to burnout once it is identified, either by the HR department or employees themselves, can help ease employee anxiety about possible fallout from admitting that they are having a hard time. Actively listening to employees is a key step in figuring out solutions to help them better navigate challenges in the workplace and as well as at home. Sometimes employees just need to talk through their stressors with an objective audience, rather than addressing their feelings in the setting of a close-knit work team or family unit. Other employees may not feel comfortable bringing up their concerns with a direct manager, and it can be comforting to know that human resources will support them in requests for adherence to things like mandated break time, vacation requests or seeking time away from the workplace under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Providing employees with proper information and knowledge about the options available to them is a good way to help them feel as though they have control over an uncertain situation, which is often fueled by misinformation and fear of the unknown. 

Employee health is the priority

Human resources departments have the challenging, but rewarding, task of leading initiatives to support employee mental health. Through prevention and identification of burnout and related mental health conditions, as well as ensuring a supportive response to concerns, they can help demonstrate an employer’s commitment to the well-being of its employees.