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How HR Can Support Employee Mental Health and Wellness

Many employers offer employee assistance programs (EAPs), which typically give employees immediate phone access to a counselor, a limited number of free sessions with a mental health care professional, and referrals to therapists. However, EAP utilization averages below 10 percent, according to multiple studies, consultants, and human resource professionals – likely due to the stigma around mental health. 

While people might have mental health challenges for many reasons, the pandemic has undoubtedly been a factor. A Recovery Village survey of 2,000 U.S. workers found that 74 percent experienced mental health symptoms, such as anxiety or depression, in January 2021. Less than six months later — in May 2021 — the rate had increased to 87 percent. 

On the other hand, because more employees have had to turn to employee-sponsored programs for mental health during the first two years of a global pandemic, and things like stress and work-life balance were making headlines, the pandemic may have helped destigmatize getting help. One-third of working Americans say it’s more acceptable now than before the pandemic to ask their employer for mental health support, according to a LinkedIn survey of 2,000 Americans in February 2022. And while 45 percent of Americans say they would have taken a “mental health” day off before the pandemic, 65 percent of working Americans now say they would.

2021 American Psychological Association survey reports that nearly three in five employees experienced negative impacts of work-related stress in the past month, and 87 percent of employees think actions from their employer would help their mental health. Perhaps as a response, some 39 percent of employers updated their health plans since the start of the pandemic to expand access to mental health services, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2021 Employer Health Benefits Survey

HR Takes the Lead on Employee Health and Wellness

According to a Paychex survey, an overwhelming majority — 96% — of HR leaders believe employee mental health is an employer’s responsibility. Roughly half say the number one change they’re making to support employee mental health is promoting awareness of resources, but that’s only part of the equation. The use of mental health benefits must be encouraged, modeled by senior leaders, and easily accessible. 

As HR leaders, we’re usually the ones at any company driving policies around employee wellness. We can’t possibly know what our workers have endured, so we need to start first by asking them so that we can then build and acquire resources to support them truly. 

Posting a list of available resources on your employee portal isn’t enough. Focus on balance, mental health, and providing training and resources to your specific employee population based on a series of pulse surveys. An employee pulse survey is a short questionnaire shared with employees regularly. It takes the “pulse” of employee morale and engagement and can help HR teams understand the issues their employee population is facing. For example, you might discover from a pulse survey that managing finances is the most significant stressor for your employees right now. You can put together educational resources on how to do so more effectively. 

RelatedHow Pulse Surveys Can Help Improve Employee Retention

This isn’t just for white-collar office jobs. Burnout and stress rates are even higher in industries that typically hire hourly employees, like restaurants, retail stores, warehouses, and hotel staff. One great example: When Denver-based Bonanno Concepts, which has ten restaurants, was having a hard time hiring in 2021, the owners put out a survey asking what its employees wanted the most from their employer. Mental health support topped the list, followed by job security and higher pay. The company hired a wellness director and now offers free one-on-one counseling, group mindfulness, and yoga sessions to the company’s 400 employees.

Even if your company doesn’t have a budget for a wellness director, providing employees with resources specific to support mental health can be a good step. Because mental health has been a critical issue for hospitality and food service employees, many advocacy groups provide free mental health and well-being resources for restaurant workers, like Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness (CHOW).

It’s up to HR leaders to model the behavior they wish to see in their employees and to encourage the rest of the leadership team to do the same. If a team lead or manager takes a mental health day, it can be a good idea to share this (“just need a day” without the details), so their team members feel they can do the same. The same goes for programs hosted online or on-site, like financial wellness or work-life balance workshops. If your company leaders attend, they set an example for employees.