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Is HR neglecting its own mental health?

Mental health is firmly on employers’ agendas. But are HRDs taking on too much while neglecting their own mental wellbeing?

There’s no doubt that HR is playing a crucial role in ensuring that mental health as a serious business issue rises up senior management’s agenda, driving through policies and initiatives to tackle the growing challenges on this front. But by consistently putting the needs of others first in their working lives, is there a tendency for HR professionals to neglect their own health and wellbeing?

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Group HR director at CCS Care Services Lucy Dodd, who left her previous job after an episode of severe depression, thinks the answer is an unequivocal “yes”. “As HR people we spend so much of our time looking out for other people and solving their problems that we forget to look after ourselves. We often feel almost selfish putting ourselves first,” she says.

HR professionals are by no means immune to the wider situation, in which mental ill health is now the primary cause of long-term sickness absence for more than one in five (22%) UK organisations. And deprioritising their own mental wellbeing could be particularly dangerous for HR professionals because of the typical type of person that goes into the profession.

“While I was poorly and going through group therapy at The Priory we talked about the kind of people and characteristics that can make you prone to mental health problems like depression,” says Dodd.

“Things like selflessness, wanting to solve other people’s problems and feeling like you want to help. Basically everything we do in HR.” Indeed this was a factor uncovered in research by 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester Cary Cooper (in association with the CIPD), which found that caring for others is having a detrimental impact on HR’s health.

Adding to this is a tendency for line managers to defer to HR on (or, more accurately perhaps, HR to unquestioningly take on) a range of management issues, including around mental health. Hardly surprising when a CIPD survey recently found that less than one in three organisations (32%) train managers to support staff with poor mental health.

As well as this potential predisposition for HR professionals to struggle with mental health, the difficult external business environment is also a potential trigger. Whether it’s Brexit, rising stress-related illness, the need to make redundancies, the ‘always-on’ culture, or HR’s burgeoning remit to be proactive around high-profile topics such as diversity, there is plenty for professionals to worry about. It’s no wonder many feel a lack of control over their workload and career.

“The expectations on HR have never been higher,” says David D’Souza, membership director at the CIPD. “People feel stretched, challenged and quite often unsupported. Budgets continue to be tight. Pressure on HR is increasing. HR is being expected to engineer solutions to profound cultural problems [like mental health and diversity and inclusion] at the same time as their day job.”

Alex Arundale, group HRD at tech firm Advanced, agrees, saying the role is much more stressful than 20 years ago. She adds that her head “can [feel like it’s going to] explode some evenings with the amount of things you’ve got to think through”.

Another unhelpful pressure often heaped on HR is the expectation that, because they are the ones implementing wellbeing strategies, they must be in tip-top mental health themselves. And if not they are in some way failing.

“People expect HR professionals to be perfect, to be ‘on it’,” says Arundale. “To give great advice to others [on mental health] and to be living and breathing it ourselves. There’s this expectation that we don’t need help.”

This obviously makes it harder for HR professionals to speak out should they experience mental health problems. But it also exacerbates a ‘them and us’ culture where HRs are seen as the people who implement and create policy for others, not for themselves.

An even more alarming situation can be borne of this disconnect and policy-focused approach: HR loses the human touch when faced with a colleague encountering mental health problems or in crisis, particularly if that person is in their team.

This is exactly what happened in Dodd’s case. “My self-harm was becoming more and more prevalent as things got worse at work,” she recounts. “I found the words to tell my line manager, the HRD, that I’d been self-harming as a way to cope with the stress. She made no attempt to ask how I was. It was pushed to one side and we immediately went into a big meeting. I don’t think it was that she didn’t care; I think she just didn’t know how to deal with me.

“We’re good at caring for the rest of the workforce, signposting them to help, but we don’t do it in HR when it’s our own people. After all, if we show signs of weakness ourselves then who can the business trust? We are supposed to be the strong resilient type. We don’t feel comfortable in HR putting our hands up and saying ‘do you know what, can I have a bit of help here?’”

This lack of confidence in feeling able to speak out, and this tendency to put process above people, appears to be more prevalent in large corporations, particularly those in the consultancy and finance sectors. While such firms are clearly committed to tackling mental health given the amount of investment often put behind campaigns, there’s a sense some are falling down on implementation.

“They let you down in those moments of truth when you admit you are struggling,” recounts one HR employee of a large bank who recently admitted to her boss that she is suffering from anxiety. Because of the lack of a compassionate response, and despite her 20-year tenure, she is now looking for a new job.

Amy McKeown had a similar experience when she was seconded to the employee relations team of EY where she worked on mental health and wellbeing strategy – initiatives that have since won awards. After her secondment into HR she moved to EY’s people advisory service, where she was made redundant a few weeks later while on sick leave following a traumatic miscarriage.

“EY is a very patriarchal, masculine organisation and a lot of people working in HR are run by policy and process and systems,” she says. “In dealing with difficult situations I found them quite transactional.

“When it came to mental health it was as if they were implementing policy for someone else,” she continues. “Some of them were going through tough times, like divorces, but no-one ever wanted to have a conversation about themselves or had the self-awareness to know the impact of their situation on their work and colleagues. Most people implementing the mental health policies didn’t think they were doing it for themselves. HR needs to look at itself.”

When HR magazine approached EY about these criticisms the firm responded: “Overall the feedback we receive from our people is that our approach to mental health is positive. EY has made significant investments, many of which have been pioneered in our HR team, to ensure that all our people have access to the help and support they need… We remain committed to helping tackle the stigmas that are often associated with mental health in the workplace.”

The bravest most game-changing action that HR can take for the rest of the business when it comes to mental health is not role modelling perfection but imperfection; showing the workforce they are vulnerable and then showing them that it’s OK to be and that there is support on hand, says the CIPD’s D’Souza.

“We actually need to role model those things we are asking organisations to do, which is be open about their own health and wellbeing,” he says. “Protecting our own mental health is paramount because if you can’t look after yourself you’re in no position to look after others.”

This is what Arundale did seven years ago when her mental health deteriorated following an abortion due to problems with foetal development. Although difficult, she chose to be open about the situation and her emotional state.

“Being open was a great source of strength. Everyone was aware of it. I allowed myself to say ‘I’m just going to close the door, I just need a minute’ and I’d literally close the door and cry, and deal with how I felt in that moment,” she says. “Because I’d been open I could give people a look and they’d look back. Sometimes it’s the unspoken support that helps.”

Since then she’s continued to cultivate a culture of openness in her team, making a point of talking about her own “stress points” and when she is experiencing symptoms of stress such as sleeplessness. She believes because so much is demanded of HR emotionally by the nature of the work, that it’s vital to find ways to prevent being overwhelmed, such as talking honestly to colleagues.

“You’re not human if you don’t take some of the emotional impact from difficult situations,” she says. In the vast majority of instances she’s found that being honest first prompts colleagues to reciprocate and, ultimately, builds a stronger working relationship with a deeper understanding of one another. “Take the leap of faith, be brave and vulnerable” is her advice to other HRDs.

The courageous HR professionals increasingly coming forward with their stories, such as Karen Beaven (see box-out below), are paving the way for better, more resilient, positive cultures in future. They are not only smashing stigmas but the barriers that have been built up between HR and the rest of the business when it comes to mental health.

“Last year I ran an HR conference for 170 people. Not one person knew that I’d spent all night awake, most of which was spent self-harming. I stuck a smile on and got on with the job,” says Dodd.

“We must remember that behind the mask everybody has a backstory. HR has been so focused on metrics and AI and robots etc. But actually we need to be talking about how our organisations are about relationships, for which we need trust and humanity. How a company looks after its people is what will define it moving forward.”

Check back tomorrow for one former-HRD's personal story of dealing with a mental breakdown