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RfH Insights: 5 Tips for Supporting Employee Mental Health

June 17, 2020
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The workplace is in the middle of a different kind of health crisis. Last year, two-thirds of US workers reported feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and burnt out — and that’s without a global pandemic weighing on their minds.

Employee assistance programs
(EAPs) have long been HR’s go-to when supporting employee mental health. But while these programs are able to help employees once they seek help, they aren’t suited to support them beforehand. We asked HR professionals in the Resources for Humans Slack community to share how they’re proactively addressing employee mental health right now.

1. First, remove the stigma.

This first step in getting employees to take mental health seriously is to address it directly— be it at an all-hands meeting, in a company-wide email, or both. In doing so, you’ll send a signal that it can be openly talked about without judgment.

Jessica Harless, HR Generalist at Epidemic Sound, went further by rolling out an initiative to empower her team to have those tough, personal conversations. “We launched StigmaZero for our US offices to help eliminate that stigma in the workplace. We coached employees, managers, and leaders on how to communicate more effectively on mental illness and how we can support employees that suffer from it,” Harless said. And rather than limit the scope of the program to current employees, her team generously extended some of its benefits to past members of the team.

“Soon, we’ll be launching three months of BetterHelp for 24/7 therapy to all current U.S. employees, including those we recently laid off,” she said.

In addition to training managers on how to hold those conversations, HR teams also equipped managers with the information they needed to proactively spot mental health risks. “We hosted a company-wide manager workshop focused on noticing mental health warning signs and helping employees write their own wellness action plans,” said one community member.

2. Emphasize meditation and mindfulness. 

Once considered a fringe perk reserved for Silicon Valley tech companies, meditation programs have been pushed into the mainstream by the COVID-19 health crisis. Most Resources for Humans community members referenced meditation (or mindfulness) as a valuable tool in supporting employee mental health.

“We held a 14-day meditation and mindfulness challenge led by one of our in-house meditation experts. It was very hands-on and we shared a bunch of guided meditation videos for people who want to start meditating,” said Samiha Nusrat, People Operations Coordinator at Flybit.

Physical distance wasn’t an issue for Flybit, which like many companies was working remotely due to COVID-19. “We jumped on a Google Hangouts call every day at 5 p.m. and the presenter would share her screen and we’d listen to the meditation together,” Nusrat said. An HR leader at another company shared that she personally leads weekly “zen in ten” sessions over Zoom.

In addition to conventional training, community members shared that they were sponsoring employees’ access to meditation apps like Balance and Headspace. “We've hosted and continue to host company-wide meditations and we will be releasing one-year access to all employees to a meditation app. We've also gathered a list of resources employees can leverage that come from our payroll provider, health insurance carriers, and third parties we researched,” said Carla Mariotti, People Operations Senior Manager at Motherly

3. Encourage employees to disconnect. 

We all know that taking time off is important — hence the term “mental health day.” But getting employees to actually take a break isn’t just a matter of giving them the option. Pandemic or not, HR teams and managers need to actively encourage teams to make use of a benefit that’s seldom used to its full potential.

“We’re encouraging team members to take a day or two every other week or so, asking them to completely unplug and shut off notifications to really be able to take a break, even if they can't travel far,” said Britney Pierini, Head of Employee Experience and DI&B at Bread. Companies had a variety of ways of doing just that, be it through manager conversations, “use it or lose it” PTO policies, and even enforcing new company-wide holidays.

“We are doing a mandatory day off per month right now. In two weeks after a big push towards a company virtual summit we're hosting, we're doing a company-wide ‘Refresh Week’ where everyone will be asked to take at least two days off,” said Angie Bergner, Director of Talent Operations at Ivy Research Council.

Other HR professionals were actively pushing leaders and managers to lead by example and disconnect. “Our leaders are proactively encouraging people to take more time off, and are communicating when they're taking time off for their own wellness,” said one community member. “We've encouraged leaders to be transparent and open about their own wellness troubles these days. People need human leaders, especially now.”

4. Leverage physical wellness programs.

Physical and mental wellness aren’t mutually exclusive. HR teams in the community leveraged group exercises, yoga, and other activities to give employees a much-need source of endorphins and stress relief.

“We have a series of wellness sessions each week, focusing on nutrition, sleep health, parenting...We also have two yoga sessions and a mediation session as well and have been sharing content in Slack every few days,” said Amy Knapp, VP People at Catalant.

Right now, most gyms were still closed due to COVID-19 — but that didn’t stop community members from sponsoring employee wellness through online services like Classpass. Others were leaning into recurring group activities as well. “Our employees are hosting little yoga or stretch breaks on Zoom,” said Shannon Ferguson, Head of People at Blueboard. Others had even made stretching and physical activity part of their companies’ meeting culture.

“We're doing a bunch of stuff. This morning during our all-hands we had everyone do 25-star jumps,” said James Driver, Director of Talent Management at Freespee.

5. Make self-care fun and interactive. 

While mental health is serious business, that doesn’t mean employees can’t have fun making it a priority. In addition to some of the formal HR initiatives already discussed, community members had employed more lighthearted tactics to get employees’ attention.

“We created a self-care bingo game for employees to play with 20 different ideas for self-care. The first three people to fill it out won gift cards to their favorite wellness spot,” said Pierini. Self-care bingo squares might read, “talked with a friend,” “took quiet time,” or “ate something delicious.” Another community member shared a website that individuals could use to generate their own companies’ self-care bingo cards.

Through contests and challenges, HR teams and managers can create additional “social incentives” for self-care. For example, encouraging employees to take time for themselves and subsequently share an update or photo via Slack suddenly makes disconnecting a social activity. “Encourage people to regularly block off a half-hour for lunch, for their walk, for exercise, or for meditation. Leadership has a huge opportunity here to do this themselves and lead by example — which is a secret key to building company culture in general,” said Sarah Lowe, Manager at BetterSpaces.



What’s your team doing to promote employee health and wellness? Share your experiences and see what others are saying by joining the Resources for Humans Slack community.