HR's efforts to boost wellbeing could be failing its people

A worrying 41% of employees suffer from stress and burnout, despite 44% of HR workers believing that their staff are faring well mentally, according to Caba, the charity which supports ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) members. 

To mark Stress Awareness Month, Caba has taken the opportunity to highlight the mental health status of the UK workforce.  

Throughout the pandemic, HR respondents saw an 86% increase in mental health support at work, with a 42% increase in employees demanding support.

The most common way HR has improved support is to provide mental health training (61%).

However, 38% have staff still suffering with burnout. It was found that only 15% of their staff always take their proactive health advice, leaving 34% of HR feeling as though their efforts to help employees with their mental wellbeing is not valued.  

For employees not accessing the mental health support offered by their workplace, 35% admitted that they don’t feel their symptoms are bad enough to seek support, and 28% that they felt too embarrassed. 

 But there are ways for HR to make its wellbeing efforts go further.

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Strategise support 

Wellbeing is often treated as something of a bolt-on, with employee assistance programmes (EAPs) tending to be introduced without a strategy.

An approach like this might not have the impact you’re looking for, largely because an EAP ultimately has limited influence on culture.

If you’re turning to an external helpline because your demanding workload is causing you to feel stressed, it’s difficult to imagine how the person you’re speaking with is going to help.   

Instead, a strategic approach is needed. It must be data-driven, treated with the same importance as productivity and performance, and look at all aspects of a company’s culture. 

Firms need to invest time determining the root causes of the problem, where it lies and who it primarily affects.

Putting support infrastructure into place, with measures such as wellbeing agendas and mental health first aiders, can be incredibly helpful. But those in a position of authority must take care to listen to their people and design their support around what they hear.   


Introduce role models  

It can be difficult to talk about mental health when these discussions aren’t normalised in the workplace. 

One of the most powerful ways to put team members at ease is to have role models within the organisation who can talk about their own mental health journey.   

It’s important, however, that these role models are credible and trustworthy.

It can send a powerful message for senior leaders to share their experiences, but a junior colleague might struggle to truly relate to their CEO. There’s a real need for grass-roots movement, so members of the team can hear from someone they relate to.  


Develop line managers   

The quality of a team member’s relationship with their line manager can do a huge amount to mediate their risk of poor mental health. Line managers must feel confident in having open conversations.

They need to receive training and be able to ask questions about mental health when discussing normal management and development processes.    


Establish psychological safety    

Some of us might fear being stigmatised for seeking help, or having our credibility questioned. What’s required, before people can even accept their own difficulties, is psychological safety.

After all, if you aren’t in a safe place, it’s likely you’ll deny what’s going on around you, both to yourself and to others. 

A key part of this process is taking the time to understand why people feel unsafe. It’s easy to feel frustrated when people are reluctant to open-up, but their resistance is understandable.

The first step is to understand where the resistance is coming from and put measures in place so that team members feel at ease.  

Kirsty Lilley is mental health expert at Caba