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How to handle employee mental health pressures

There is a stigma attached to revealing a mental illness, so many individuals hide this for fear that they may be judged unfavourably and treated differently.

The public health measures that governments and organisations have taken to combat Covid-19 have increased the stressors on many individuals. This has exacerbated the conditions that adversely impact mental health. Therefore, it is not surprising, that adverse mental health outcomes have increased among members of the workforce.

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This combination has led those suffering from mental health issues to turn to their HR colleagues for support. There is also additional pressure on line managers who want to manage these individuals sensitively but feel ill-equipped to do so; they also turn to HR for advice and guidance.  

Recent research by Wellbeing Partners demonstrates the burden that HR staff are carrying: 45% HR managers have considered leaving their current roles due to the pressure of dealing with employee mental health and burnout and 38% of HR staff were having conversations with staff about mental health issues outside working hours.

Not only are HR staff concerned about employee burnout, but also it seems that they are in danger of suffering the same fate.

HR staff are wired to help others in need so they may find it difficult to take care of themselves. They may feel that they are letting people down by not being available. It is important to remind HR staff that, to be effective, they need to take care of themselves.

It is the oxygen mask analogy; you need to put on your own mask first before helping others. HR professionals need to resource themselves so that they can effectively support employees and line managers with mental health issues.  

The foundation of this is practising 'self-compassion'. Often HR professionals are party to distressing information which they can ruminate on. HR staff may hear their inner critic telling them that should do more to support each individual and fix their problems.

Adopting self-compassion allows HR staff to, firstly, notice their feelings of inadequacy, then recognise that others are dealing with similar situations and, finally, treat themselves as they would a friend. This builds their resilience and frees them to think more constructively about how to deal with these mental health problems. 

Establishing clear boundaries is an important aspect of self-care. HR staff often feel that they must be available for employees and line managers who are struggling and guilty when they are not.

The Wellbeing Partners survey shows that HR staff work extra hours to cope with the extra workload arising from mental health concerns, which means that they do not get time to rest. Without this, HR staff are in danger of burnout. They can establish boundaries by limiting the number of hours they are available, for example, establish a rota on-call system with their colleagues, prioritising existing tasks.

Having a support network is also vital, not only for HR staff to discuss cases and get different perspective on the situation, but also to talk through what is going on for them. This support can comprise supervision sessions, one-to-one counselling, specialist training, etc.

In addition, many organisations are establishing employee resource groups (ERGs) focused on mental health. These groups are for individuals who suffer from mental health issues and their allies.

They help to normalise the discussion of mental health in the workplace by sharing stories, providing practical support, education, access to professional support, and so on. ERGs also ease the load on HR professionals to cope with mental health issues in the workplace.

HR staff are critical in enabling organisations create the right environment for individuals with mental health problems to work to their full potential. Organisations must support them to be resourced physically, psychologically and emotionally to continue the vital work that they do.

Joan van den Brink is executive coach, management consultant and founder of Araba Consulting