If you’re like me, you’re nostalgic for the complaints of two or three years ago. Remember when it seemed like everyone was criticizing millennials for never looking up from their phones (when it turns out older generations were way more likely to staring at a screen)? How about comments claiming our only friends were online ones when we were actually friendless IRL? Ha. Now we’re all attached to our phones and haven’t seen our besties in real life for months. Lockdowns in 2020 changed almost every aspect of our lives. It also elevated the need for companies to address anxiety, depression, substance abuse and many other issues connected to mental wellness in the workplace. Here are five big ways HR can help.
1. Create a Safe Space for Conversation
Long before the pandemic, many millennials were struggling with mental health. Some studies suggested we really were friendless –– with one in five millennials saying they had no friends at all. Although there had been a widely reported rise in reports of depression and anxiety for people born between 1980 and 1996, those conditions aren’t limited to a single generation. In 2017, I wrote that one out of three people feel chronically stressed on the job. Last year those numbers increased with one study of over 5000 faculty, staff, and postdoctoral fellows at a university concluding that, “the pandemic has had negative effects on the mental health and well-being of both clinical and nonclinical employees.”
During a 12-month period ending in May of 2020, the CDC reported over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States –– the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in one year. Anecdotally those numbers are still rising. For HR, the key to a healthy workplace starts with communication. Employees should feel safe coming to you about their concerns. If they are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, you may have the resources to help –– but only if they feel comfortable coming to you.
2. Encourage Breaks and Vacation Time
If employees are working remotely, it can sometimes be even harder to take a break. In many cases we are our own worst enemy. According to Project Time Off, 43 percent of people the group considers work martyrs are millennials. Even worse, 42% of millennials are more likely to shame co-workers for taking time off. Americans accumulate nearly 700 million unused vacation days every year.
So take the time to discuss with staff how important it is that they take short breaks and days off. Simple email reminders or brochures with tips on de-stressing can help. Take note of how much unused vacation time employees have and encourage them to take a day or two away from work. With travel restrictions in 2020, many people banked their vacation time expecting that they would be able to use it later on in the year. Unfortunately, travel remains dicy. Sure, employees may want to use the bulk of their time when they can actually go somewhere. Still, taking a day or two to recharge even if it means just going to a national park or enjoying some outdoor recreation can help.
Companies that offer fitness plans or even have free exercise facilities available to employees can really impact mental wellness in the workplace. Health and Human Services reports that more than 80% of adults do not meet the guidelines for engaging in both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities throughout the week. Unfortunately, for many of us working at home exercise has become even more challenging. If you’re an HR professional you may need to be creative. Even if you’re in a state where fitness centers have reopened, some of your staff may be reluctant to go out of concerns about COVID-19. See if your company will invest in at-home online exercise sessions or even purchase equipment for home use. The money spent can save health care costs down the line and studies show exercise is important not just for physical well being but for mental wellness as well.
4. Incorporate Social Activities
Whether a Zoom happy hour or a shared online yoga session, try to bring together workers when they aren’t working. Schedule an outdoor activity (weather permitting) that can bring everyone together in a socially distanced way.
5. Prep the Office
Eventually some employees will return to in-office work (or work a hybrid schedule). When this happens, HR should take the time to transform the workplace. Hopefully management will already be implementing safety protocols. Your job will be to make it more inviting. Do what you can to increase the amount of natural light and consider getting some plants if there aren’t any in the office already. If welcome back parties include food, offer a selection of healthy options. Try to keep diet-friendly foods available. Mental wellness depends on many factors that aren’t in HR’s control. Take charge of what you can control and you’ll see how much the staff benefits.