Over the past several years, workplaces have seen a growing awareness about mental health issues. This awareness has been influenced by mainstream celebrities, national media outlets, social media platforms, and brands that are speaking up about personal struggles, growing trends, and strategies around improving mental health, in an effort to help with an issue that affects people of all backgrounds.
There’s also been increased focus on mental health because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even those who have maintained employment throughout are reporting higher levels of stress and burnout. One study showed that about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, which is up from 1 in 10 in 2019.
Though mental health has been more at the forefront of our collective consciousness lately, generating awareness is not a new effort. Mental Health America (MHA) started its first Mental Health Awareness Month (or Mental Health Month) in May of 1949, an observance month that has continued in the U.S. since that time.
While we all want the best for our workforce, there’s also a business case for focusing on and investing in mental health programs. Studies have shown that healthy employees cost less, stay with your company longer, have increased productivity, and less absenteeism.
Workplace mental health initiatives – including making the case for programs, surveying well-being of employees, responding to issues, leading by example, and more – often land on the shoulders of the HR team. During a normal work week, that’s a lot of pressure. But the pandemic compounded those pressures, causing employees to turn to HR more frequently. These teams have fielded questions about layoffs, job security, changes to benefits, sick leave, and more. People teams suddenly had to manage the emotions, needs, and worries of employees at their company, while still processing their own. They were also on the frontlines of change as employers leaned on them more than ever to roll-out new policies and restructuring brought on by the pandemic.
We decided to check in with our own talent team, to hear first-hand from them about what it’s been like over the past year, how they’ve been coping with stress and mental health issues, and what tips they can offer other talent teams.
As an HR professional, what mental health challenges have you faced over the past year?
Elaine Yang, Manager, HRBP: Over the past year, being a part of the team that serves as a resource and support for transforming how everyone works – and inevitably, quality of personal life, too – has been an incredible privilege. But also lonely and exhausting. Everyone was struggling, and our job was to help give the team something that did feel controllable, fill in the gaps where we could (e.g. new benefits, team social events, ensuring folks took PTO even though there was nothing to do, etc.).
Caitlyn Metteer, Senior Manager, Recruiting: The biggest challenge for me has been trying to take care of everyone else while also needing to take care of myself. It’s a difficult thing to do, but you really have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, you know? Recruiting is already really reactive and can feel sort of thrashing at times, trying to nail things down when there is a lot of change. Adding lots of uncertainty in the world at large on top of that just exacerbates things.
How would you describe your level of stress over the past year?
CM: HIGH. I am pretty resilient and work well under pressure and in moments of crisis, but this was a really long moment and it wore on me at times. Taking breaks and leaning on the rest of the team was crucial.
Sarah Britton, Senior Manager, Employee Operations: I tend to work well under pressure and find it rewarding when we’re able to come up with solutions to a problem during a stressful situation. But a pandemic was definitely a situation that compounded my stress levels. We went from all being in the office together, having brunch with friends indoors, hugging family members goodbye to – overnight – working remotely, isolating and quarantining, and watching as the entire world shut down. A year later, my stress levels are still high, but they are more manageable. Vaccines are rolling out rapidly and the world is starting to open back up again, so my stress is now shifting to how to welcome people back into the office and cautiously return back to socializing in real life.
What is something you’d like other teams to be more mindful of as they work with you/your team?
EY: Remember that everyone needs something different. The HR team is here to listen and advocate for what is going to be most effective and strategic long term, for as many employees as possible. This means that your needs may not be satisfied, but they are heard.
CM: We do a lot of things that you probably don’t see. There are a ton of competing priorities and we’re doing our best to prioritize what’s best for the business as a whole.
How do you prevent or manage burnout?
EY: Ask. Individuals should develop self-awareness around this. There is research and surveys to help you frame questions like, “Do you feel angry or frustrated often after ending a call?” or “Do you react more emotionally to what normally would have been something you would overcome quickly?”
What has Lever done to help support the mental health of employees?
SB: We’ve offered new benefits and perks to support mental health such as personal development reimbursement that can be used towards therapy, Headspace, gyms, additional training, etc. We’ve also started providing telemedicine services for virtual care visits from the comfort of someone’s home, and we’ve been promoting our Employee Assistance Programs. Additionally, we consistently optimize our health and wellness program to assist our teammates with living their happiest, healthiest lives.
6 Tips to Help Manage Stress and Protect Your Mental Health
When it comes to mental health, everyone’s needs are different. But here are a few strategies from our talent team to help protect your mental health at work.
1. Prioritize Your Own Self-Care
While we may instinctively want to put others first, remember that you will be better equipped to address challenges and find solutions at work if you address your own needs first. Put on your own oxygen mask, as they say. “Seriously, you have to take care of yourself if you want to take care of others,” says Caitlyn. “You won’t be able to show up for others if you’re run down. Take time off, lean on your team, and make sure to laugh when things get tough.”
2. Create Boundaries
While the physical boundaries of office life may not be there anymore, or less often, it’s still important to create that sense of division between personal life and work life. “One way I manage my stress is by creating boundaries and trying to hold myself accountable to them,” says Sarah. “It’s too easy to stay connected to work, even more so over the last year – checking every email or Slack, to make sure you are staying up to date with any changes.”
3. Ask Your Team to Keep You Accountable to Those Boundaries
Creating boundaries is one thing. But following through on them is another. Sarah also suggests leaning on your team for extra accountability. “I set up my calendar with breaks and ask my team, as well as myself, to hold me accountable to stop checking work after a certain time,” she says. “That has helped me manage my stress as well as create a healthy work-life balance.
4. Prioritize Fitness
It’s not surprising that better physical health can lead to better mental health. “Working out and cooking are my two happy places,” says Sarah. “Over the last year, I’ve been able to level up my cooking abilities and pick up a few new recipes along the way as well as build out the garage to a function gym that helps me destress and unwind.”
5. Use Your Vacation Days
Your vacation days don’t need to be used exclusively for travel. Everyone needs time away from the screens and the to-do lists and endless zoom meetings, even if the only trips you’re making are to the local donut shop (as long as you’re also following tip four). “Schedule PTO even if you’re not going anywhere,” says Sarah. “It’ll give you something to look forward to.”
And, when you’re off, stay off. This applies to leaders, too. Actually, this especially applies to leaders. Set the expectation for your team by showing them what PTO means: an opportunity to disconnect and refresh. “You don’t need to react to slack messages or reply to emails,” says Elaine.
6. Make Time for Long-Term Plans
To-do lists and checkboxes can really help with the day-to-day tasks that require you to act (and re-act) quickly. But there are also benefits to taking a step back from daily responsibilities, thinking proactively about the big picture issues, and brainstorming solutions for the future. “When I get overwhelmed, planning also really helps me wrap my head around what we need to do and how we’re going to get there,” says Caitlyn.
We rely heavily on our HR teams when it comes to mental health initiatives at work, which means they have great insight into programs, resources, and tips that can help. But it also means they’re under a lot of pressure to get it right – for themselves and all employees. Checking in with your HR team regularly can help bring more awareness to mental health issues and ensure they have what they need to support the rest of the company.