Mental Health Is a Workplace Issue. It Shouldn’t Get Overlooked.

Asking for help is harder than it seems. HR leaders can make it easier.

Written by Sunny Betz
Published on Nov. 02, 2021
Mental Health Is a Workplace Issue. It Shouldn’t Get Overlooked.

One morning, Danielle Boris, CEO and founder of New York-based HR tech company ConnectFor, was woken up at 5:30 a.m. by a text. When she checked who it was, she realized it was a California-based developer on her team. It was 2:30 in the morning for him. 

The next day, Boris reached out to that employee not to reprimand him or talk about the project, but to ask how he was doing. 

“I said, ‘you know, I want you to know that even though you told me you were going to get this out at the end of the day, it was absolutely not that necessary. You could have done it in the morning, and prioritized your well being and sleep,’” she said.

 

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How HR Leaders Can End The Mental Health Stigma

  • Treat mental health just like physical health
  • Provide mental health specific benefits
  • Take advantage of tech tools that support wellness
  • Emphasize the importance of a healthy work-life balance
  • Check in with employees before they’re struggling
  • Take care of yourself as well as your employees

At ConnectFor, Boris said her employees are encouraged to set their own hours and are given the autonomy to work when it makes sense for them. But she wanted that employee to know that, while the project he was working on was important, his mental health and personal needs shouldn’t have to take a backseat. 

Mental health is one of the biggest workplace issues and it isn’t talked about enough. Anxiety, burnout, depression and problems with concentration are all issues that can intensely impact both individuals and teams, and they’re sensitive issues. The stigma around mental health prevents many people from seeking help. So, when mental wellness isn’t prioritized by leaders, it can result in poor morale. 

As a leader, Boris believes that it’s her responsibility to make sure that her employees mental health is taken seriously, and that HR has a role to play in creating acceptance around mental health issues.

“I believe that organizations need to realize everyone’s on the same team,” she said. “HR can implement a lot of policies, but things aren’t going to change unless managers uphold them, give their employees space to breathe, and really treat them like humans.”

 

How Does Mental Health Affect Work?

Tech is known for it’s all-or-nothing attitude. Founders put thousands of hours of work into their startups and tech workers join companies for mission-driven work. All this makes for a thrilling environment of endless possibility, but it can cause self-care routines to take a back seat.

Counterintuitively, the more hours someone works, the less productive they actually are. According to a Stanford study, worker productivity drops significantly when an employee works more than 50 hours a week. Employees that are forced to sideline their personal lives and health in favor of longer hours not only risk losing productivity but burnout as well.

Boris explained that while burnout is one of the most common workplace mental health issues, it’s not the only one leaders need to worry about. “We talk a lot about burnout in this country, and it’s a big topic,” she said. “But boredom is a big problem as well. When people are overworked on projects that they don’t care about, they don’t feel that same fire and energy at the end of the day as they do when they’re creatively using their minds.”

 

Understanding the Stigma

Mental health, just like physical health, is a major factor that can deeply affect someone’s work life as well as their personal life. But while most people feel comfortable letting their boss know when they’ve caught a cold or sprained an ankle, it’s a lot harder to bring up mental health challenges. Even though around one in five Americans live with some form of mental health illness, the negative perception around mental health has been cited as one of the biggest reasons why around 60 percent of people don’t receive care for their conditions. 

“There is a lot of stigma about expressing mental health concerns in the workforce because people don’t want to be seen as weak,” said Andrea Ippolito, CEO of New York-based virtual healthcare and lactation consulting company Simplifed. “They believe that it could impact their reputation and/or compensation.”

It may be hard to talk about, but the issue of mental health is simply too large to ignore. Even those who don’t experience mental illness deal with work stress and need wellness support to do their jobs well. Combating the stigma is the first step toward finding solutions that help your employees feel comfortable and understood.

“These myths can be dispelled by leaders being honest about their own mental health journeys to help set expectations and communicate that reaching out for help is critical,” said Ippolito.

More on Mental Health StrategiesSales Managers Need to Take Mental Health Seriously

 

How HR Can Help

The HR team at any company is focused on helping employees be their best selves at work. Because of this, HR leaders have perhaps the greatest power to set the tone for mental health and wellness at the office. Here are a few ways that they can fight the stigma around mental health within their companies. 

 

Adopt Mental Health Leave

Your employees might be insecure around their mental health struggles, thinking it reflects poorly on their character if they express anxiety, depression, emotional fatigue or other issues. But mental health is just that — a matter of health. It should be respected and cared for just like any other health condition. This means including mental wellness as a part of your company’s sick leave policy, so that employees understand that it’s okay for them to take time to care for their mental health.

“I think we need to treat mental health similar to how we would treat any physical health condition,” said Ippolito. “If you have the flu or need surgery, your productivity drops and you take leave to help you recover. This is understood and respected in the workplace. The same should apply to mental health needs and team members should be given the space to recover as well.”

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Encourage Work-Life Balance

When a project is particularly exciting, it can be hard to stop working and relax at the end of the day. On the leadership side, steep OKRs can apply pressure to keep employees at work longer. Many companies refer to their teams as their “family” — and though close bonds make for stronger teams, blurring the boundary between work and home can make employees feel obligated to over-work themselves. 

“We set clear expectations about our goals and key performance indicators that we need to hit, then let them build their schedule to meet those goals. This helps give them protected time and space to execute [those goals] and also protect their mental health in the process.”

At Simplifed, Ippolito’s team consists mostly of working parents. Because of this, she says her coworkers really understand the importance of a healthy work-life balance, and they work to make sure both sides of their lives are respected.

“We like to meet our team members where they are at by giving them flexibility to both work from home and work hours that allow them to be both parents and professionals,” she said. “We set clear expectations about our goals and key performance indicators that we need to hit, then let them build their schedule to meet those goals. This helps give them protected time and space to execute [those goals] and also protect their mental health in the process.” 

There will inevitably be personal concerns that bleed over into an employee’s work life. In such cases, leaders should be empathetic to avoid making a challenging situation worse and to show their teams that they’re seen as people first. 

“Employees could have something happening at home that impacts their work environment. For example, maybe there’s a daycare issue, or an employee has a sick child,” said Christina Neider, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix. “Those kinds of stressors can really build, and if you don’t have resources available, they can snowball.”

Take Advantage of Tech Tools

Thanks to innovations in technology, it’s easier than ever to access mental health care once an employee has spoken up about their needs. In addition to traditional mental health benefits like wellness days and mental health insurance coverage, HR leaders can connect their employees to telemedicine platforms, meditation apps or other tech wellness tools to support their mental health journeys.

“I think a great tech tool that my organization has recently implemented is the Ginger app,” said Neider. “It allows us to reach out to mental health professionals anytime, day or night, as a part of our benefit package. It lets us feel that, if we’re in crisis and need it, we can reach out and get to a healthy space sooner rather than later.” 

 

Follow Through and Fix Issues

An employee’s mental health challenges can manifest in many different ways. They could be less productive. Maybe they speak up less at meetings. Or show up late to check-ins. They could even start to take more time off than usual. When leaders are able to recognize that their employees’ performance may be affected by their mental health, It’s crucial for managers to approach that employee with kindness and a desire to understand their situation. If someone is struggling, you don’t want to accuse them of slacking off or anything else.

“Start with yourself as a manager and ask yourself what you’ve done. Say, ‘Okay, if I think something’s not right, with one of my team members, have I spoken to this person recently? What projects have I put them on? What has their experience been like at the office?’” said Boris. “When managers start the conversation with an employee by saying, ‘I’ve seen your productivity has dropped,’ that puts them on the defensive and doesn’t allow for open conversation.”

“Go back and tell your employee, ‘I want you to know, this is what I’ve done. I heard you.’ Those are powerful words.”

If you find out that the reason an employee is struggling is due to a high workload or difficult manager at work, find a solution that makes day-to-day tasks easier for that employee. Discuss with your fellow leaders or higher ups if there is a better way to organize your employee’s workload or help them feel engaged at the office. But don’t stop there — keep your employee in the loop about the steps you’ve taken. Whether you’re able to affect a major change or not, you’ll show your teammate that their mental health and wellness is important to you.

“People don’t know what we’ve done unless we tell them,” said Boris. “Go back and tell your employee, ‘I want you to know, this is what I’ve done. I heard you.’ Those are powerful words.”

 

Take Care Of Yourself

As an HR leader, your whole focus is other people — making sure they’re happy and supported at work. When your job is about managing and taking care of other people, how do you take care of yourself?

Creating an environment where people feel comfortable talking about mental health is about more than just supporting your employees. Burnout affects managers as much as it affects employees, and a leader that doesn’t protect their mental wellbeing can hardly do the same for their teammates. If HR leaders want to create a positive perception of mental health, they have to start with themselves and lead by example. 

“If you can say, ‘I’m having a bad day today, I might just need a half hour to regroup,’ your employees will feel like they are empowered to do that as well if they need to,” said Neider. “They’ll model the behavior that you lead with, and they’ll know they’ll be accepted and won’t be thought of differently for needing help.”

 

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