Happy employees are 12% more productive than unhappy employees. However, productivity should not be the only reason companies prioritize their employees’ mental health. It should be a moral obligation, especially considering that most full-time employees spend a total of 90,000 hours at work during their lifetimes.
Mental health problems are pervasive in today’s workforce, and unfortunately, they often go unaddressed or are not addressed appropriately. Statistically, three out of 20 employees are suffering from poor mental health, and sadly, many are afraid to speak to their supervisors about it. This has resulted in 12 billion working days being lost each year globally as a result of depression and anxiety, costing businesses a colossal $1 trillion in lost productivity. Surprisingly, despite these numbers over half of employees feel that their employers are not doing enough to support their mental well-being, while 70% of managers believe there are structural barriers to providing such support.
Stanton Chase London undertook a project to investigate how companies are approaching the issue of mental health in the workplace. Consequently, we conducted interviews with prominent HR professionals from the Life Sciences and Healthcare industry to gain insights into the current state of mental health in the workplace. The objective was to learn how these professionals’ organizations deal with mental health concerns in the workplace and to understand their views on the HR department’s responsibility in promoting positive mental health. The identities of the interviewees have been kept confidential to promote honesty and transparency.
To this end, eight specific questions were asked:
During the COVID-19 pandemic, HR professionals noticed a significant increase in discussions regarding mental health in the workplace. This trend continued and even intensified post-pandemic. There are several reasons why there has been a heightened focus on mental health in the workplace, according to these professionals:
One HR professional observed that “times have changed, and a major factor is the way we now work, which has now been turned on its head.”
The interviewees who were asked this question concurred that the COVID-19 pandemic has not only triggered conversations about mental health in the workplace but that poor mental health in the workplace could emerge as a new pandemic in and of itself.
The data seems to agree with them:
“We’re scratching the surface at the moment. I do think there will be a mental health pandemic,” one HR professional confirmed.
The normalization of discussing mental health at work has sparked a debate about who should be responsible for addressing and supporting employees’ mental health. Should it be their direct supervisor, HR department, colleagues, or the employees themselves?
To explore this question, HR professionals were asked to provide their insights, and their perspectives varied:
“The responsibility for employee well-being in the workplace can be divided into two aspects: the employer’s duty to ensure a suitable environment and not worsen any existing issues, and the individual’s responsibility to take care of their own well-being,” one HR professional said.
During our interviews with HR professionals, we discovered that all the organizations they represented had implemented some form of wellness policy or program. However, there were differences in the extent, benefits, and level of commitment to these policies and programs across the companies.
Below are some of the benefits that were reported to be part of their organizations’ wellness programs:
“We have a full-time dedicated person who creates and implements well-being policies to ensure consistency across all business units and geographies. We also provide an employee assistance helpline for confidential support, run by an independent company,” one HR professional reported.
The issue of employees not taking breaks, including annual leave, has become more prevalent. Shockingly, more than 20% of employees are too scared to ask for any time off at all.
To address this problem, the HR professionals who were interviewed were asked whether structural changes are necessary to compel employees to take breaks and time off. The responses were varied, with some expressing concerns about negative impacts on their organization’s profitability if structural changes were made to encourage employees to take their annual leave, while others were supportive of the idea.
Key takeaways from their answers include the need for:
“I work with a senior manager who has a terribly busy schedule and always says yes to everything. Despite her workload, she sticks to a strict 9:00 to 5:00 work schedule. If someone sends her an email after hours, they won’t receive a response until the next day. She leads by example and tries to discourage overworking,” one HR professional recounted. “Change needs to happen from the top down.”
During our interviews with HR professionals, the topic of whether HR is equipped to recognize and handle mental health problems came up. It was generally agreed that HR professionals are not typically trained or qualified to address such issues.
Despite this, some HR professionals noted that their companies were taking steps to establish systems to identify and address mental health issues in the workplace. These steps included:
“It worries me that HR professionals take on the task of piecing together employees’ mental health without completely understanding every issue,” said one HR professional. “We live in a litigious society, and identifying and addressing mental health issues may be best left to mental health professionals.”
Opinions on this question were divided. Some HR professionals felt that they had the resources they needed, while others believed that their mental health toolbox was still missing key tools. Some of the tools the HR professionals said they still needed were:
“Recently, an employee reached out to one of our external providers that manages our employee assistance program but didn’t receive the desired outcome. This employee was brave enough to inform the HR department about their experience and requested further help. As HR professionals, it is crucial that we ensure we remain accessible to employees regardless of the mental health tools on offer,” said one HR professional.
HR leaders are increasingly expected to handle severe and complicated mental health problems, as well as to create intricate identification and prevention programs. However, this can often affect the mental health of HR professionals themselves, prompting the age-old question of “Who rescues the rescuer?” In fact, the pressure of dealing with employee mental health has led 45% of HR leaders to consider resigning.
Unfortunately, many HR leaders struggle to set boundaries, indicating that companies need to support them in doing so. To address this issue, the interviewed HR professionals suggested several ideas:
One HR professional said, “It’s hard for me to set boundaries because of my personality. I always want to provide the best service to the people I support. However, I realize that I need to prioritize my own mental health more.”
Contributing positively to employees’ mental health is possible for any organization. However, to do so, HR leaders must add a new set of skills to their skillset. Chief HR Officers and senior HR management must possess both hard and soft skills to identify mental health issues, approach affected individuals with compassion, guide them to appropriate help, and implement structures to support employee mental health, such as flexible working arrangements and employee assistance programs. Nevertheless, achieving this goal requires the support of the entire C-suite and Board. Without their support, the HR leaders’ ability to effect change will be limited.
At Stanton Chase, we understand the significance of empathic leadership and its ability to create positive outcomes for both companies and employees. We recognize that businesses can play an essential role in making the world a better place. As leadership experts, we are committed to ensuring that companies have the right leadership to thrive and support their employees’ well-being.
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Şükran Tümay is a Managing Partner at Stanton Chase London. She specializes in the Consumer Products & Services and Life Sciences & Healthcare sectors and has extensive experience in cross-border executive search throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Şükran is a Co-Active Coach and an alum of the CTI Leadership Community. She is passionate about supporting women and actively works with charities which aim to empower women in confidently improving the trajectory of their lives, by helping them identify their values and create awareness of their skills. Şükran is also accredited in psychometric and behavioural assessments.
Gavin McCartney is a Partner at Stanton Chase London, and specializes in the Life Sciences & Healthcare business. Gavin is also Global Sector Leader for the Health & Med Tech sector for the firm worldwide. Gavin has extensive experience managing executive search assignments for global, regional, and local clients, and travelled widely interviewing in Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, South and North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Gavin enjoys undertaking fundraising challenges and volunteering in order to support those in the community who have mental health needs, largely with charities (including the Halow Project and Boaz) that provide a brighter future for people with mental health needs, learning disabilities, and autism.
Click here to learn more about Şükran.
Click here to learn more about Gavin.
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