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8 Min Read

Dealing with Mental Health in the Workplace: Insights from the HR Superstars Summit

Nicole Klemp

At 15Five’s recent HR Superstars Summit, an all-star community of strategic HR leaders came together to talk about the trials and tribulations of the last year, and to share their keys to success in 2022.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, HR leaders have been looked upon more than ever to support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. Because this topic is so top-of-mind for our HR Superstars Community, we decided to make mental health one of our panel discussions at this year’s summit. 

Led by Workplace Empathy Consultant, Liesel Mertes, the panel discussed the biggest mental health challenges facing HR leaders and their employees today, and what companies are doing to help. Members of the community also shared their own insights via chat during the event.

Liesel was joined by Stephanie Gott, VP of HR for Kreg Tool; Amy Campbell, CPO of Overhaul; and Jennie Yang, VP of People at 15Five. Read on for a recap of this important conversation about mental health and wellness and how HR leaders can make a difference for their teams.

Mental health obstacles HR leaders and employees are facing today

Disruptive life events that are out of an individual’s control — like a global pandemic — impact every aspect of life, and can take a toll on mental wellness. For employees, this carries into work and impacts our ability to perform.

According to research in Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report shared by Harvard Business Review, 76% of survey respondents said they experienced at least one symptom associated with a mental health condition in the past year and 77%  experienced a decline in productivity due to mental health. The most frequently reported symptoms were burnout, depression, and anxiety.

Struggling with outside-of-work stressors

As Amy noted during our discussion, work is impacted by life, and life is impacted by work. We don’t live in a work bubble where mental health is something that can be turned on or off. Whatever we’re dealing with in our lives carries over to work, and vice versa.

While the topic of stress at work is one that’s been discussed for years, the idea that the biggest stressors are now coming from outside the workplace is something that HR leaders must grapple with today.

As Amy noted, it’s never been more clear that taking a humanistic and holistic approach to work is the right thing to do. Data shows it’s also highly correlated to better performance, which should make business leaders take note. 

As Stephanie added, it can be difficult for HR professionals and people leaders to know how to respond when what their employees are navigating is outside of work. She says we must get to know the entire person, what they’re dealing with, and how to best support them with the services and flexibility they need.

Lack of personal connection for remote workers

Especially for the increasing number of remote employees, work can be isolating and further impact mental health. There is no water cooler time to socialize, and video calls only allow a short window of time for colleagues to develop meaningful connections. 

Jennie shared that taking a “whole person approach” to HR can help employees connect with one another and allows companies to support their people physically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. She notes that two of 15Five’s core values help address gaps in relationship building: 1) being and becoming your best self, and 2) cultivating relational mastery (i.e., building strong interpersonal dynamics with others.)  

This focus on the whole person and relationship building — rather than just employees and their duties — creates an environment in which people feel comfortable opening up about any challenges they’re experiencing and lending support to others.

HR professionals in the therapist chair

A hot topic on the panel and in the chat was how many people in HR are feeling like they now have two jobs: HR professional and therapist. 

With the toll the pandemic and other current events have had on employees’ mental wellness, many HR leaders feel like they must toe a new line. Some even worry they’re on a slippery slope, and could be penalized for doing too much or too little to help employees who are dealing with mental health challenges. Luckily, the panel had some great advice to ease concerns.

Liesel recommends thinking of yourself as a workplace first responder. She says first responders know what they are and what they aren’t equipped to handle. If someone just needs an ace wrap on their leg, that’s something they can take care of on the spot. If a person needs brain surgery, there are other people trained for that. As HR leaders, we should respond to the things we’re equipped for, and provide resources for employees to seek out for things we’re not. 

As Stephanie added, HR leaders don’t need to be therapists, we just need to give people a safe space to open up. There’s nothing wrong with being empathetic and caring for people. But we’re not professional counselors, so we must make sure people have access to those resources when they need them. 

Stephanie also emphasizes the importance of equipping managers so they also know how to help connect their people with the right help when needed — and how to set appropriate boundaries.

Examples of real HR benefits and initiatives from the panel

There’s nothing better than hearing what other HR leaders are doing in their own organizations to make an impact — it’s what the HR Superstars Community is all about. 

Each panelist shared some things they’ve been involved in that are currently moving the needle on mental wellness in their companies.

Amy: We started what we call BAMM, which stands for Body and Mind Movement. We block employees’ calendars for 2 hrs a day so they can take that time to disconnect and do something to recharge their batteries. 

We also started a “Food for Thought” series, where we have conversations around mental wellness topics like depression and completing stress cycles. Most of our speakers have been internal people who are passionate about certain topics.

Stephanie: Our CEO and I spoke candidly to employees about our own mental health struggles during the pandemic. The leadership team has to be the example. This can be especially hard for male leaders, but it’s so important.

We also partnered with Sylvan to offer free tutoring to our full-time employees who were helping their kids at home with e-learning.

Jennie: We want 15Five to be a healing organization. It starts with healing our own selves and the relationships we have with others. We started offering unlimited therapy with Better Help for all employees and a dependent. We are also providing access to Headspace, Wellness Coach, and online fitness subscriptions.

If you could wave a magic wand, what would you ask for?

Liesel asked the panelists to share what they would make happen to improve mental wellness for employees if they had a magic wand. Many of you can probably relate to their wish lists:

Jennie: If I had a magic wand, I’d love to equip more people with the tools to effectively process their feelings… more emotional awareness. Stuffing it down and not allowing feelings to be expressed can lead to more medium- to long-term impacts.

Stephanie: I’d like to see benefits offered not just to people of a certain group (e.g., people with children), but instead create a package of benefits that could help different employees in different life stages or lifestyles. A lot of people want to see more well-rounded benefits that don’t cater just to one group.

Amy: I would love to see more free resources for team members and their families. More focus on the importance of connections, meaning, and purpose and talking about those in a more in-depth way. I would also want to see HR leaders with a strategic seat at the table at every organization. We have important voices to add!

Join the movement

Add your voice to our supportive community of HR peers. Join the HR Superstars community to get timely resources, connect with peers and experts, and continue growing to make an impact in your organization. By joining the community, you can also watch the entire HR Superstars Summit on demand.