HR’s continued role in mental health and wellbeing

person wearing face mask in the office

Updated on 4/4/23

In October, I attended the Mad World Summit for the 3rd year running. Only this time, I didn’t need to hop on the train to London. In fact, I didn’t even need to leave my kitchen table. You see, as with many things in 2020, the annual mental health and wellbeing conference went fully digital.

The event itself was nice - the digital platform was smoother than I expected, and the roster of speakers, workshops and roundtables was as impressive as it has ever been. But what struck me the most about this particular summit, was the overall mood of the content. You see, the state of mental health and wellbeing seems to have taken a huge plunge over the last six months, and the experts had a lot to say about this.

So I’ve decided to write some of my learnings from Mad World 2020. And it’s not all doom and gloom - there were some practical and positive lessons in there, too. But let’s start by looking at how the picture of mental health and wellbeing has changed over the last few months.

The un-ignorable impact of COVID-19 on mental health and wellbeing

We already know that this pandemic has taken its toll on mental health and wellbeing. It’s all over the news, and we’ve reported on it in previous posts.

Adults experiencing depression has doubled since the start of lockdown, and many experts and business leaders at Mad World 2020 had stories which seemed to reflect damning figures. Leena Nair, for example, who is the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at Unilever PLC, informed attendees that since the national lockdown, she has noticed a 55% increase in people accessing Unilever’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

Why should HR care about mental health and wellbeing?

I’ve talked about it before, and it was reiterated at Mad World 2020, but I’m going to say it again now: HR has a hugely important role to play in looking after the mental health and wellbeing of its workforce.

“We spend billions on ‘health and safety’” said Geoff McDonald, global advocate, campaigner and consultant for mental health in the workplace. “But we seem to ignore the ‘health’ part, and spend that money only on physical safety.”

For me, this was a very poignant lesson from Mad World 2020 - the fact that we often forget that mental health is just as important as our physical safety.

And even if you don’t personally care about the mental health of your workforce (although you should), then perhaps you can at least understand the fact that our supply chains are only operational because people can get up and go to work each day. And as Leena Nair told the audience at the summit, mental health and wellbeing is key to this - and the top table is accountable.

You don’t need to diagnose or treat your employees

A common misconception surrounding the promotion of positive mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, is that if you engage with it, it means you have to diagnose, treat, and psychoanalyse your workforce. You absolutely don’t - and I was delighted to hear psychologist John Amaechi, OBE, tackle this point during the summit.

“You don’t have to diagnose employees or colleagues to support their mental health and wellbeing” he told the audience. “You just have to be aware of their normal behaviours, and stay sensitive to any changes. If something feels off, you don’t need to diagnose what the problem is - but you should absolutely address it.”

And this is the part that many employers seem too scared to deal with: addressing the problem. There seems to be a misconception that talking about mental health will make the problem worse. So if you want to do something to make a small difference to the mental health and wellbeing of your workforce? Start by deleting those visions of Sigmund Freud, and by simply making an effort to find out how your employees are doing on a day to day basis. You can build it out from there.

Rolling out a programme to start understanding your employees

Of course, if you operate a business with thousands of employees, it’s unreasonable to expect that you’ll be able to ask every single employee how they’re doing each day. And it’s unreasonable to expect that you’ll know each employee on a personal level. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to help your workforce.

Many experts talked about how to do this during the summit. For Leena Nair, CHRO for Unilever, her approach to improving mental health and wellbeing across her organisation started by rolling out a programme designed to help employees simply understand each other better.

“60,000 Unilever employees went through ‘purpose workshops’” she told listeners at Mad World 2020. “This was to help establish what got them out of bed in the morning, which was a great starting point for embedding mental health and wellbeing as a strategic priority.”

After this, Unilever put 3,000 colleagues through their mental health championships programme, to support the effort across the business. But not before they’d helped the majority of their workforce open up the discussion with each other.

Top three things that can make a difference for mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

If you want to start making a difference with mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, Leena advises three important points to remember - especially if you work in a large organisation. And these points are based on her personal experiences, learned over the last five years working on this herself.

1. One size does not fit all.

You cannot simply take a mental health and wellbeing programme out of a box, apply it across the board, and expect it to work. Different countries, companies, and even teams, have a different social context - so while you may wish to direct the overarching principles, you’ll need to let local leaders adapt these principles to suit the people they are responsible for.

2. Senior leadership needs to own this.

“You can’t do this as a side project and hope the needle will shift” says Leena. “You need real people and real resources” - and this means getting the top table onboard. I’ll be writing more on how to do this in a subsequent blog post, so remember to subscribe by scrolling to the bottom of this article.

3. You must measure your results.

If you want to continue making a difference, you need to measure the results you’re achieving. Whether that’s tracking engagement with your Employee Assistance Programme, recording the feedback that employees deliver during your annual survey, or just monitoring overall productivity and engagement across the business. Measuring results will help you secure further buy-in, and will become a big part of your HR strategy. See how our HR reporting software works.