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How COVID-19 taught HR ‘a valuable lesson’ on mental health

Limeade’s Reetu Sandhu sounds off on how coronavirus is changing employers’ approach to emotional wellbeing.
By: | May 20, 2020 • 3 min read
(Photo credit: Getty Images)

Before coronavirus entered the picture, companies were just starting to see the importance of employees’ emotional wellbeing and providing them with resources. But now—as many more employees struggle with a slew of problems and look for mental health support from their employers—it’s become an area that cannot be ignored.

So says Reetu Sandhu, a manager at the Limeade Institute, which conducts research about wellbeing.

“Historically, it hasn’t just been a taboo subject within the workplace, but has been a taboo topic in our society in general,” she says. “Leaders or employers may have not known how to address mental health. It’s been, all too often, pushed under the rug.”

Related: Is COVID-19 a turning point for workplace mental health?

“Now, businesses are checking in and asking colleagues how they are doing as well as lending a helping hand to offer care and support during this time,” she says. “This has been a valuable lesson.”

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Sandhu recently spoke to HRE about the need for mental health resources, what’s been missing in employers’ mental health efforts, and what she hopes will change for good post-pandemic.

HRE: How is our current situation spotlighting employer-provided mental health resources—and do you think that focus will continue post-pandemic?

Reetu Sandhu

Sandhu: Employer-provided mental health resources have always been important, but many organizations are now realizing the direct benefits these resources can have on their employees. While addressing these issues is important now, mental health issues won’t just go away post-pandemic. Our mental health is always, and will always, be a part of who we are, so it should continue to remain a focus for all going forward.

HRE: What are employers doing differently right now to address these issues?

Sandhu: Employers are offering tools and training to ensure employees and managers are equipped to create a psychologically safe environment that enables genuine conversations. From there, HR departments are providing their employees with playbooks in order to appropriately and sensitively take action when a mental health issue is disclosed. This includes thoughtful ways to support others on their mental health journey, as well as providing employees with the right resources and support to put their wellbeing first. Additionally, organizations are surveying their employees to make sure their needs are met, and they are actually taking the time to listen and make necessary changes.

Above all else, authentic care is the most impactful resource an employer can offer. Only when these efforts are genuine will organizations see the direct benefits these offerings and open conversations have in supporting employee mental health.

HRE: Do you feel that enough attention was being paid to addressing employees’ mental health issues prior to COVID-19?

Sandhu: The desire to put more attention and support into employee’s mental health was always there, but previously it was easier to be distracted by the transactional processes of HR—veering away from the more human aspects of work. The day-to-day responsibilities of HR matter, and are important to all organizations, but in our current circumstances—where we are forced into a position where we go back to the fundamentals like taking care of each other and treating each other like human beings—we realize that the stuff that maybe used to be viewed as “extra” or “nice-to-haves,” like mental health, is absolutely necessary and foundational. Simply put, mental health and our fundamental human needs are no longer aspects of work that can be deprioritized.

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HRE: What would you say has been one of the biggest flaws in employers’ approach to mental health?

Sandhu: [It’s been] this notion that when it comes to issues like mental health, the onus is on employees to navigate and figure it out themselves. This comes from these old-school perceptions like “That sounds like a personal problem,” or “Leave your personal issues at the door.” We simply cannot divorce our experiences in life and our experience of wellbeing from our work world. It’s all interconnected, so of course my organizational experiences and the care I feel or don’t feel is going to impact my emotional wellbeing. Organizations need to acknowledge their role in mental health.

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.

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