Did Elmo just light a fire under HR to confront the employee wellness crisis?

Elmo, one of the furry stars of Sesame Street, is beloved by kids and parents alike for his sweet, wholesome nature. But things took a dark turn on Elmo’s social media last week—a situation that, employee wellness experts say, should raise the alarm for HR leaders.

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The character took to X, formerly known as Twitter, on Jan. 29 with a simple question: “How is everybody doing?” And followers did not hold back.

“Every Monday, I can’t wait for Friday to come,” wrote one commenter. Another said: “Elmo, I just got laid off.” Comments included phrases like “existential dread” and “grief” and touched on topics from abortion to anxiety about the upcoming presidential election.

“Elmo, we are not OK,” one poster summarized.

The post generated more than 20,000 comments—compared to an Elmo post the day before that garnered 60 comments.

The team behind the Elmo profile seemingly didn’t anticipate such a reaction. The next day, the account acknowledged the firestorm: “Wow! Elmo is glad he asked! Elmo learned that it is important to ask a friend how they are doing. Elmo will check in again soon, friends! Elmo loves you.” The post also included a hashtag about emotional wellbeing.

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While the post generated plenty of humorous fodder, it highlighted the ongoing challenge for HR leaders: addressing employee wellness in increasingly uncertain and unstable environments.

“The lesson from Elmo is clear: People want to be supported and listened to,” says Nebel Crowhurst, chief people officer of employee engagement platform provider Reward Gateway. While the social media firestorm was “funny and light-hearted on the surface,” she says, “it truly demonstrates the poor state of wellbeing and mental health today. This viral moment reminds us just how important wellbeing is at work and how adequate support can make all the difference in a productive and happy workforce.”

Let the wellness ‘floodgates’ open

This lesson couldn’t have come at a better time, Crowhurst notes: According to a recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General, more than three-quarters of working U.S. adults report that they have at least one symptom of a mental health condition.

And the Elmo situation suggests that people want to talk more about those mental health challenges.

“All it took was one Twitter check-in for the floodgates to open, and people across the globe had no hesitation to open up about their current state of mind,” Crowhurst says.

Nebel Crowhurst, Reward Gateway
Nebel Crowhurst, Reward Gateway

Yet, many Americans don’t feel comfortable doing so at work. A recent report from Reward Gateway found that just 53% of employees feel they can discuss their mental wellbeing in the workplace. That suggests employers need to be more proactive in asking about employee wellness—and taking action based on the feedback, Crowhurst says.

“This starts at the top—with the company leaders, who set the tone for the rest of the company,” she says, noting this will be especially critical this year, given building global tension and ongoing social and economic aftereffects of the pandemic. “These leaders should take active steps to check in with employees consistently to ensure they are getting the support they need. Those who are open with their mental struggles still may face stigma or discrimination from peers or societal pressures, so empathy and understanding is key.”

Elmo wellbeing
A screenshot from X

Yet, when leaders “simply ask the question,” as Elmo did, it sends the message to employees that they can safely discuss mental health at work—while keeping HR tuned in to potential widespread pain points.

“Inviting dialogue,” Crowhurst says, “is key to staying ahead of employee sentiment and needs.”

Tying employee wellness to company culture

While the viral Elmo post highlighted that many of employees’ stressors are coming from outside of work—i.e., the economy and politics—the workforce itself can also play a role in dragging down employee wellness.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s report, 84% of employees surveyed said the conditions in their workplace have contributed to their mental health challenges. What’s more, Reward Gateway found that just four in 10 people rate their companies’ support for employee wellness as “good” or “excellent.”

Laura Putnam, wellbeing expert and author of Workplace Wellness That Works, says that, too often, the programmatic employee wellness focus is on the individual—think, step challenges to help workers develop healthier physical habits. However, that approach presumes humans are “creatures of habit”—when really, she says, we’re “creatures of culture.” So, to truly improve employee wellness—including mental health—leadership needs to look at the broader picture.

Laura Putnam
Laura Putnam, author of ‘Workplace Wellness That Works’

“I liken it to the analogy of the water we’re swimming in: Is it pushing you toward better health or doing the opposite?” Putnam says. “Our focus needs to be much more directed toward optimizing environments and cultures—focusing less on the fish, per se, and more on the water that surrounds those fish.”

Like Crowhurst, Putnam says a comprehensive listening strategy is critical for embedding an employee wellness focus into company culture. Ask employees frequently and frankly about their daily experiences at work, she says, including whether they contribute to or detract from their wellness.

Such conversations may highlight deep, structural issues, and HR needs to address the root causes that could be contributing to poor employee wellness. This could include everything from heavy workloads and workplace incivility to more nuanced influences like how meetings are run, the degree of belonging and fairness people feel at work, and how performance reviews are conducted, Putnam says.

Confronting these issues may necessitate broader organizational work, such as revamping benefits to include wellness stipends, strengthening paid leave programs and ensuring workers are encouraged—including by modeling from leadership—to take time off, Crowhurst says. Recognition can also be a tool to marry employee wellness and company culture: Reward Gateway’s recent research found that nearly half of workers surveyed said they hadn’t been recognized by a manager in the previous year.

“The power of recognition is strong and should be used often and consistently to support workers,” Crowhurst says.

This work to uncover “deeply entrenched working practices that inadvertently undermine people’s sense of wellbeing” can be a heavy lift for HR, Putnam says; however, such intentionality will ultimately strengthen both employee and organizational wellness—which can positively drive the organization’s business outcomes.

“It’s the systems,” adds Putnam, “the broader organizational culture and how teams work together that can uplift people and move them closer toward being their better selves.”

Managers: the ‘wellspring of wellbeing’

As an organization works to confront effectively such systemic issues, Putnam says, HR also needs to empower leaders and managers to become the “everyday heroes” for their teams. She notes that people leaders can be coached to build empathy into their leadership style, for instance.

However, HR must ensure managers and leaders are supported in this work, Crowhurst says. Reward Gateway’s research found that nearly 80% of people leaders feel responsible for employee wellbeing, which she notes can put “pressure and stress” on those in management positions, exacerbating their own mental wellness.

“With managers as the wellspring of wellbeing,” she says, “HR executives should prepare and arm managers with the tools and resources they need to support their employees.”

Likewise, HR professionals can’t forget about their own wellbeing. A recent survey by HRE found that more than three-quarters of HR leaders surveyed said their stress levels increased in 2023—with many citing rising employee stress and anxiety as factors.

Katy Conway, RGP
Katy Conway, RGP

Katy Conway, chief people officer at global consulting firm RGP, advises fellow HR professionals to be “deliberate, mindful and planned about how we’re going to fill our own cup back up.”

She acknowledges the “fatigue” that can come with helping an organization tend to the wellbeing of hundreds, or even thousands, of individuals.

“You have to make sure you’re creating boundaries,” she notes. Conway, for instance, intentionally builds in wellbeing-focused activities like taking a walk or reading in between particularly taxing meetings or work tasks.

“And I’ve been really focused on this with my HR leadership team,” she adds. “At times, we’ll spend an hour just connecting and talking about non-work things, taking a little step away and then coming back. Those small moments do tend to help change your mindset so you can come back more energized and focused on work.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].