10 Ways HR Professionals Can Help Protect Employee Mental Health

Written by Rossina Gitto, Founder @ The Humans of HR, May 2020

Last year, I presented a Human Resources research project on wellbeing in the future of work and its impact on the HR function. When I reflected on the fact that this topic would gain importance in the future of work, and for the HR function in particular, I never would have imagined that “the future” was only a couple of months ahead. Fast forward time to the first months of 2020, and we are all seeing HR professionals and business leaders gain interest in wellbeing at work due to the side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 The positive consequences of taking care of employee’s mental health have been documented in thousands of research papers and academic books of psychological sciences and other related fields for many years. Despite this, it’s still one of the last remaining taboos of the world of work. Improving wellbeing & mental health at work has always been, and will always be, a very important aspect to keeping an organisation and its workforce healthy and efficient, even in the worst of times.

It’s no surprise that this has historically been an unpopular topic for HR. Speaking about mental health is difficult, it can be extremely uncomfortable, and most HR professionals are not trained to handle issues related to wellbeing. But COVID-19 has come to change that. This is one of the key elements that can be worked on during times of hardship and HR departments need to take action to foster a culture of wellbeing. But what can you do as an HR professional?

Here are 10 ways you can help protect employee mental health during (and after) the COVID-19 pandemic:

1)  Be transparent about big changes in your company

The biggest mistake any company can make is to not be transparent with their workforce in times of change and struggle. Everyone knows that tough decisions will be made. Everyone knows people could lose their jobs.

 The uncertainty of organisational change can bring on various health and safety issues, including the increase of psychosocial risks. This can lead to a decline in your employees’ mental wellbeing, resulting in a significant loss of productivity. Hiding the truth can cause even more damage than necessary and can generate long-term problems in your organisation. 

In order to manage change in an effective way, it’s always best to maintain an open and honest communication with employees.


2)  Remind all employees that it’s ok to take a sick leave if they need one

Workplace-related anxiety, depression, burnout and other issues could have already been affecting your workforce before the pandemic started and will continue to affect them after it’s over. For this reason, a decline in mental wellbeing is a great reason to encourage struggling employees to take a sick leave.

It’s important to note that companies’ sick leaves should have never been and should never continue to be exclusively for physical health issues. Explicitly stating that they can be used for mental health recovery is also a great way to promote an inclusive workplace culture and make people with invisible disabilities feel respected. 


3)  Set clear working hours, especially during the pandemic

In order to stay healthy and efficient, your employees have always needed time to:

  • Cook & eat healthy meals.
  • Practice physical exercise.
  • Rest & recharge.
  • Disconnect & refresh the mind.

This is especially true during the weekends. Setting clear and fair working hours can have positive results on the minds and bodies of your workforce. 


4)  Focus on developing psychological safety

People need to feel psychologically safe at work, meaning everyone should be able to express themselves without fear of facing any consequences. Delizonna (2017) explains that developing psychological safety comes with various positive outcomes, such as an increase in motivation to tackle challenging problems, higher levels of engagement, more learning & development opportunities and an improved team performance.

HR leaders should instruct all managers to hold meetings with the sole objective of improving the psychological safety of their teams. This can be done by asking individuals how they are feeling, what their level of energy is and what their level of motivation to work is. Together, teams should focus on finding solutions. This practice can also help people that are struggling feel less isolated. 


5)  Encourage managers to be flexible and understanding

Both the pandemic and working-from-home indications have triggered many issues. Some employees… 

  • Do not have a comfortable & quiet workspace at home.
  • Do not have a proper work-from-home setting. You shouldn’t assume, for example, that everyone has a stable Wi-Fi connection.
  • Might be facing co-habitation issues.
  • May have sick family members.

These (and other) factors could inevitably make productivity as well as physical and mental comfort decline. Be flexible, be understanding, and be mindful about the fact that it is very likely that many people in your company could be facing serious problems in their personal lives.

On the other hand, note that certain employees might be highly satisfied by working from home. Some employees could have recently discovered that they…

  • Might have a more comfortable workspace at home.
  • Feel more motivated & productive than in the office.
  • Appreciate being able to physically distance themselves when a work environment starts to get tense.
  • Value being able to take care of their sick relatives and work at the same time.
  • Have chronic illnesses that are easier to manage from home.
  • Waste too much time of their day commuting to the office, leaving them with almost no time to take care of their wellbeing. 

Most importantly…

  • All employees will continue to get sick and contract viral infections. Working from home can prevent the spread of diseases.

After the pandemic ends, consider changing your Home Office and Diversity & Inclusion policies to allow employees to choose their workspace if possible.


6)  Promote your company’s health-related apps & trainings

It’s always a great time to promote Learning & Development. But right now, it’s an even better time. If your company has health-focused applications (such as a mindfulness app), trainings or any kind of e-learning on mental health and psychological safety at work, promote it and encourage involvement. 

As Greenwood et al. (2019) clarify, training is essential to normalise talking about mental health in the workplace. The goal of training should not be for everyone in the company to become a therapist, but for company leaders (including HR) and employees to have some tools to learn how to handle complex situations and reduce the stigma around mental wellbeing. 


7) Promote your company’s mental health support services 

Some companies have trained specialists that are hired to support employees; others have external counselling and mental health services that can be provided online. If your company has neither, it’s a good time to reflect on whether it should have one. 


8)  Host virtual team building activities to boost employee’s mood & sense of belonging

This can be done remotely and it will give workers a positive event to look forward to. There are thousands of ideas for team-building activities online, but you can also be creative and make some up.

For example: launch a cooking contest. Tell employees to cook a great dish during the week and send in a photograph along with the recipe by Friday. Create a poll and have everyone vote the best dish and presentation. 


9)  If your company is downsizing, do it with empathy

I have seen many articles lately advising HR professionals to stop being empathetic when firing, since putting yourself in the shoes of others will make hard decisions more difficult. But the problem with leaving empathy behind is that:

  • You will show your employees that remain how little you care for anyone that is no longer beneficial to the company, leading to a loss of trust, engagement & motivation.
  • You will make the experience of being fired emotionally traumatic, going against fostering a culture of wellbeing.
  • It’s very likely that the people who you fire in a non-friendly way will wreck all your efforts to create a good employer brand by letting others know how they were treated.

As an HR professional, you should always reflect on how your own behavior can affect a company in the long-term, and therefore you should always treat everyone with empathy & respect when downsizing. 


10)  Offer outplacement services to employees that will be leaving

Outplacement is a service provided by some organisations to help former employees transition into a new job more smoothly. As O’Connor (2017) states, companies should invest in outplacement services because departing employees can become your biggest public relations officers. Additionally, receiving support when leaving really does mean a lot to individuals and outplacement services can help your soon to be ex-employees have a less emotionally draining departure.

If your company cannot or does not want to offer outplacement services, you should still consider investing some time in creating an “outplacement toolkit” with useful information such as where to find CV templates and where to find free online courses to improve hard & soft skills amongst other helpful job search information.


Above all 10 strategies stated above:

Remember to always be human, like the people you manage.


About The Author
About The Author

Rossina Gitto is the Founder of The Humans of HR. She is a Behavioural Scientist that is specialized in Labour Psychology and holds a Master’s Degree in International Human Resources Management from the University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas. Having a vast experience abroad in 6 countries, she is passionate about the global perspective of people management. She contributes content on a wide range of topics including Leadership Development, Change Management, International Mobility and Workplace Wellbeing.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of The Humans of HR.


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The Humans of HR is an Educational Media Company that is on a mission to humanize the world of work. We aspire to be recognized as a high quality International HR & Business learning outlet for a diverse body of professionals from all over the world. Our Magazine currently reaches readers in over 100 countries.

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Your contribution is highly appreciated.

The Humans of HR is a Digital Social Enterprise that is on a mission to humanize the world of work. We aspire to be recognized as a high quality International HR & Business media outlet for a diverse body of professionals from all over the world. Our Magazine currently reaches readers in over 80 counties.

We believe everyone is entitled to have access to professional content that is backed up by relevant sources, as well as the work of the global scientific community, no matter where they come from. That is the reason why we started writing, and also why we will continue to do so. In order to keep growing and keep our content open to our global audience, we would like for you to consider supporting our work.

Your contribution is highly appreciated.

The Humans of HR is a Digital Social Enterprise that is on a mission to humanize the world of work. We aspire to be recognized as a high quality International HR & Business media outlet for a diverse body of professionals from all over the world. Our Magazine currently reaches readers in over 80 counties.

We believe everyone is entitled to have access to professional content that is backed up by relevant sources, as well as the work of the global scientific community, no matter where they come from. That is the reason why we started writing, and also why we will continue to do so. In order to keep growing and keep our content open to our global audience, we would like for you to consider supporting our work.

Your contribution is highly appreciated.

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References


Delizonna, L. (2017, August 24). High-performing teams need psychological safety. Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

Greenwood, K., Bapat, V., & Maughan, M. (2019, October 7). Research: People want their employers to talk about mental health. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2019/10/research-people-want-their-employers-to-talk-about-mental-health

O’Connor, J. M. (2017, October 25). Three reasons your company should invest in outplacement. Forbes. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/10/25/three-reasons-your-company-should-invest-in-outplacement/

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