Is Employee Mental Wellbeing Suffering? Here’s How HR Can Help

February 26, 2021

In August 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found anxiety symptoms had tripled and depression had quadrupled when compared with their 2019 report. The events of the past year have been completely unprecedented, and so has the large-scale impact on emotional and mental wellbeing.

In other words, employees need mental health support now more than ever which creates an incredible opportunity for HR professionals to lean in and make a big impact. Because of the large-scale mental health strain employees have faced this past year, businesses are more engaged and discovering how whole employee wellness impacts the workplace.

The 2020 Mental Wellness Reckoning

Frankly, an increased focus on mental wellness has been overdue in U.S. workplaces since long before 2020, but the crises the world faced certainly put an exclamation point on an often unacknowledged part of employee wellbeing.

COVID-19 Pandemic: Employees have likely had many sleepless nights worried about their own health and the health of loved ones. And if health worries aren’t enough, they’ve likely stressed about everything from grocery shopping to job and financial security.

Political Turmoil: In the United States, 2020 brought a contentious presidential election—an election that 68 percent of U.S. adults said was a significant source of stress in their life.

Collision of Work and Family Life: Many people have been working remotely, and some of them have partners who are doing the same—completely disrupting regular routines. Many parents have lost childcare or have children doing school from home.

The Fight on the Front Line: Frontline workers have experienced constant stress from demanding hours, covering for sick coworkers, pandemic precautions, mask enforcement and new behavioral expectations for customers, and feeling isolated and unappreciated.

Societal Unrest: Between concerns over racial injustice and political unrest creating divisions at home, at work, online, and in communities coast to coast, 2020 seems to have brought conflict into every corner of our private and public lives. It was a year when the struggle for equality exposed painful realities which caused us each to evaluate how to affect real change.

As HR and business professionals, we understand and see the difficulties employees are facing on a daily basis. For some, last year was one of the most taxing, emotional, and stressful years of their lives. Even after we define what the “new normal” looks like for our businesses, it will take time for individual employees to heal and find their new balance going forward.

The Silver Linings and Not-So-Bright Sides

You know employees don’t drop their emotional baggage when they walk in the door for work; some of them may still be sitting at home with baggage piling up around them while they’re trying to focus. All this baggage will definitely make your job more complicated, strenuous, and crucial for the foreseeable future. With the right tools and mindset, HR can turn the struggles of 2020 into an opportunity to advocate for employees and find ways their organizations can better support the mental wellness employees need to thrive.

The bad news: It’s unlikely that mental wellness has ever been as poor across the board as it is right now. A Boston University School of Public Health survey conducted in April 2020 found that levels of depressive symptoms were triple the levels measured in 2018. “These rates were higher than what we’ve seen after other large-scale traumas like September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, and the Hong Kong unrest,” says Catherine Ettman, lead author of the study.

Know How to Maintain Employee Mental Health in the Workplace?

The impact of an employee’s mental wellness on their personal life and happiness alone should be enough to make you care, but there are also serious business implications of poor mental wellness. One study in 2019 found that 61 percent of people said their productivity was affected by their mental health. What’s more, the American Psychiatric Association reports that “employees with unresolved depression experience a 35 percent reduction in productivity, contributing to a loss to the U.S. economy of 210.5 billion dollars a year in absenteeism, reduced productivity, and medical costs.” Poor mental wellness is financially expensive.

The good news: This is the perfect opportunity for HR and business leaders to strengthen mental wellness support and offerings and doing so will help you curb the detrimental impacts of poor mental wellness on productivity. You’ll also be able to improve your employer brand and company culture—86 percent of employees say it’s important that a company’s culture supports mental health.

While more difficult to measure, employees may have grown in emotional intelligence as well as social and self-awareness as a result of the difficulties they encountered in 2020. For example:

  • They may re-enter the workplace with greater inclusive behaviors and engagement in company culture.
  • They may be more likely to be considerate of their co-workers’ health and stay home when feeling under the weather.
  • And with the obstacle courses they may have endured while working remotely, employees may find it much easier to tune out the noise and focus once they get back to the office.

While qualitative, these lessons learned certainly shouldn’t be overlooked as silver linings of the past year.

So, there’s good and bad to be had from 2020’s mental wellness reckoning, but what matters is how HR and business professionals play the hand they’ve been dealt.

HR’s Employee Wellness Opportunities

For some HR and business leaders, now might be the perfect time to make a business case for adjusting offerings and budgets to make more room for benefits that serve better emotional and mental wellness. For others, especially those whose bottom lines were hit hard by the pandemic, the only option may be to maximize what’s already in place. Here are some ideas for both.

Making the Most of Current Mental Wellness Offerings

There’s always room in the budget for better, more helpful organizational communication. You may be offering more than employees realize, and communicating what’s available to them can make a huge difference.

  • Benefits Education: Use an email, internal company website, or company announcement to explain mental wellness benefits to employees. Explain what’s covered for therapy appointments, how to find in-network mental health professionals, resources provided in the Employee Assistance Program, the appropriate way to request time off for mental health days, and anything else that might help employees navigate what you already offer.
  • Culture of Compassion: A positive and sympathetic attitude toward mental wellness can go a long way in helping individuals get the help they need. Communicating that your organization cares about employee mental wellness will help everyone treat each other with a bit more compassion. Talk about how your company values promote compassion, provide manager trainings, and ensure that what you’re preaching is also being practiced.
  • Laying Out the Plan: The unknown is scary. Help employees feel more stability by giving them an outline of company plans. Whether it’s helping them understand the financial state and direction of the company, letting them know about company initiatives aimed to increase equality, or telling them how you’re planning to safely bring people back into the office post-pandemic, a peek behind the curtain can bring a lot of peace.
Check Out Our Employee Mental Health Webinar

Changes to Consider

Although individuals faced unique and personal challenges during the events of 2020, we were still all in it together. As such, now might be the time to push for organizational changes that will better support employee mental wellness. While each organization has different needs and deficiencies, here are some changes to consider:

  • More flexibility in work schedules or work-from-home opportunities to support employee wellness
  • Increased attention to diverse, equitable, and inclusive hiring practices
  • Improving access to mental healthcare and increased benefits offerings or awareness
  • Evaluating your sick and mental health time-off policies to see if you are getting the mental wellbeing outcomes you want
  • Adjusting or specifically outlining company culture to focus more on helping employees feel supported and respected

Improving mental wellness can’t be done overnight and HR and business leaders certainly can’t fix all the issues themselves, but even small changes like communicating more clearly or making it easier to request time off to stay home and get healthy matters. Employees will see your efforts to improve and they’ll feel better cared for during the aftermath of a difficult year.

Looking Back as We Move Forward

While most wouldn’t say they’re grateful for the events of the past year, a mental wellness reckoning has been long overdue since mental and emotional health is essential to employee success. As we move forward and look to a return to normalcy, organizations will be well served if HR and business leaders take the opportunity to design the “new normal” with a central focus on emotional and mental health in the workplace and overall employee wellbeing.

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Cassie Whitlock
Director of HR

Cassie started her career in the accounting world, but in her work with small and medium-sized companies, the HR function was always handed to her. She loves the intersection of business and humans and believes that when companies focus on their people, the people, in turn, focus on the business needs. She enjoys her work most when she can take her talents in data, processes, and human psychology to make someone's day better.