May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about mental and behavioral health issues and reduce the stigma surrounding the subject. Mental health is all-encompassing and affects how we think, feel, handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. 

The pandemic has placed extra attention on employee mental health. The heightened feelings of anxiety and depression among the workforce have forced companies to address the inadequacies in their approach to employee wellbeing

At Hibob, we conducted a global survey to understand the impact of the pandemic on employee mental health and productivity. 49% surveyed said their mental health over the past year had a major effect on productivity. 

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In 2019, even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization labeled employee burnout a medical condition. As the number of employees struggling with mental health continues to increase, employers and HR need to be proactive in their approach to helping employees cope. Here’s what HR can do to move the needle on mental health. 

1. Talk about mental health

The stigma around mental health makes it a difficult subject to bring up. Most people who suffer from anxiety or depression have years of experience of faking wellness, especially in the office. For so long, employees felt they had to leave their personal lives at home. If someone is feeling emotional at work, the impulse is not to let anyone know. But this behavior can make a stressful situation worse. 

The only way to reduce the stigma around mental health is to talk about it openly, honestly, and often. An open work environment and understanding can make all the difference in empowering employees to ask for help. How can HR have an impact here? It starts with a top-down approach. 

When employees see directors and executives speaking openly about mental health—their struggles, treatment, what’s worked, and what hasn’t—it helps everyone else feel secure in reaching out for help. So next time you hold a session to educate employees about mental health, ask a C-level or director to introduce the subject and speak about their own experiences dealing with stress and burnout. Not only will this make other employees feel comfortable to share without the fear of being misunderstood, or worse, fired, but it will also give employees dealing with mental health a role model within the company to look up to. 

2. Find ways to promote employee wellbeing

If your company offers flexible working conditions, keep it up! Our own global survey showed that flexibility is a key driver in employee satisfaction and that the flexibility of remote work has led to a better work-life balance

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Promoting flexible work schedules and giving employees the freedom to work the way they want can reduce stress and burnout. 

HR can also use May as a jumping-off point to double down on company initiatives to promote employee wellbeing. At Hibob, we created a 31-day mental health challenge calendar for our bobbers as a small but important reminder that taking care of our mental health requires daily effort. 

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The calendar is filled with best practices for avoiding stress and burnout. When the lines between home and work get blurred, it can be difficult to disconnect and step away—not great for mental health. Encourage employees to practice self-care however they see fit, whether that’s taking meetings outside, scheduling in break time during the day, or blocking out 30 minutes every day to meditate and stretch. These small daily habits, when added up, can lead to happier and healthier employees. Download the calendar PDF to print out and hang at your desk. Or, save our digital version as your computer background.

3. Create employee resource groups (ERGs) dedicated to mental health 

Talking about mental health in the workplace with coworkers who have shared experiences can help employees understand the triggers that heighten anxiety and stress and learn healthy ways to cope. ERGs are a great way for employees to find each other and create support networks. HR doesn’t have to lead the initiative, but it should provide resources and backing from leadership and let employees handle the rest. ERGs are an easy way to increase awareness, offer peer support, and sends the message to employees that it’s okay to talk about their mental health at work. And you can set one up right now.

4. Make it easier for employees to get treatment

In the U.S., most people receive their health insurance through their employer. Does the insurance your company offers employees cover mental health? The sad reality is that, for most employees, a therapy session is five times more likely to be out of network and more expensive than a visit with a primary care physician. What if companies started viewing mental health benefits as equal to physical health benefits? Speak to your health-benefits administrators to understand how your company can provide employees access to a broader range of behavioral health providers.

If your company can’t offer an insurance plan that covers therapy treatments, there are other options. The tech sphere around mental health is booming, and companies can harness these digital tools to provide at least some mental healthcare to their employees. Talkspace, BetterHelp, and Ginger make speaking to a therapist more affordable, which employers can provide as a benefit, free of charge. Meditation and sleep-aid apps, like Headspace and Calm, are also popular apps that can help employees develop healthy habits and remind them to take a break. Or your company can hire a mental health counselor who can help employees deal with stress and anxiety and provide real-time, anonymous support. 

5. Train managers in proactive and preventive measures

Employees need to feel comfortable sharing their struggles. Ultimately it’s managers who are in the best position to offer support and acceptance to team members coping with their mental health. 

In our global survey, of those whose mental health was majorly affected by the pandemic, over 70% said managers were supportive and took an active role in caring for their mental health. 

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Manager support can be the difference between an employee quitting and having a successful career. HR leaders need to invest in their managers and provide them with the tools and training to ask better questions, spot signs of stress and burnout and lead with empathy. Employees should feel confident to approach their managers and ask for help, and managers need to know how to react to an employee who’s asking for help. Make sure managers are setting time to speak to employees to check in on how they’re feeling, not just how their tasks are progressing. 

HR’s role in caring for employee mental health

There’s always more that can be done to care for employee wellbeing and mental health. When we stop seeing mental health as a weakness and start talking about it more, we can make real change. Think about your own experiences with stress or burnout or anxiety and how lonely it is to feel that there’s no one around who can relate. The truth is that there are so many people out there who can relate, if only it was okay to speak up. As an HR leader, think about one thing you can do today that will make a difference to the mental health of your employees and do it. 

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From Annie Lubin

Annie grew up in Brooklyn, New York. On a Saturday afternoon, you'll likely find her curled up with her cats reading a magazine profile about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.