Inside Hootsuite’s COVID-driven mental health strategy

When Tara Ataya joined Hootsuite in February 2020 as the firm’s vice president of people, she was only in the office for a couple weeks before COVID-19 hit. Then, everything changed.

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She was suddenly dealing with onboarding herself virtually and getting acquainted with the social media management firm’s benefits, policies and the like when the Hootsuite offices went remote. As one of the company’s HR heads, she quickly was figuring out how to handle the emerging pandemic and all of its complications.

The key was first transparency, authenticity, empathy–and then action, Ataya says. “I leaned into the fact that I didn’t know everything; I didn’t have all the answers. But I did a lot of listening to our people. I still do,” says Ataya, now the firm’s chief people & diversity officer. “It’s fundamental. A success factor for others is listening.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolved in the early months, one of the main themes she discovered from listening to employees became clear immediately: People were in crisis and experiencing all sorts of mental health issues.

“We were hearing that the pressure on employees–mental health [issues]–was higher than it’s ever been. And there was a strain,” she says. “We heard from our people that they were looking for ways to take care of themselves.”

Tara Ataya, Hootsuite

Parents were struggling with childcare issues; employees were trying to navigate a balance when working from home. People were worried about their health and the health of their families. They were isolated. Worried about their finances. And on top of everything COVID-related, social justice issues that became top of mind in the U.S. also took their toll on workers.

That’s when company leaders, including Ataya and the rest of the HR team, began thinking of ways to help employees. First up was deciding to talk openly about mental health, with leaders discussing their own feelings and struggles–and ideas for self-care.

“It’s one of those things that is unseen,” she says. “When you break your leg, people know you have a cast, they’ll help you up the stairs, open the door for you. But [mental health is] a silent struggle for people.”

Related: Burnout is soaring. Here are 7 ways employers can help

Hootsuite also turned to benefits and looked at beefing up its offerings. Like many other employers, Hootsuite expanded mental health coverage (for Hootsuite, that meant increasing its mental health coverage by six times); extended paid sick time (the company allowed and encouraged employees to use that for mental health days); rolled out half-day Fridays during the summer; added financial wellness programs and more. It also embraced a company-wide wellness week in the summer to give employees a collective break in an effort to alleviate stress and take aim at burnout. Collective time off is a trend embraced by other companies this year, including Mailchimp, Momentive and LinkedIn.

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“We would have re-assessed benefits and programs and initiatives [anyway], but the speed and agility with which we did that was catalyzed by the pandemic,” Ataya explains.

Related: One of the ‘very best’ new ways to combat employee burnout

Many companies stepped up benefits during the pandemic to help workers through the difficult time, but Hootsuite went further than most organizations. The firm decided to pay 100% of psychological and psychiatric care costs for employees. It added fertility treatments and gender affirmation surgery coverage and added a 401(k) program with employer matching.

And seeing how popular the wellness week was and how much employees needed to get away–as most employees weren’t taking their own vacation time during the pandemic–Hootsuite came up with an enviable idea: an incentive program to encourage employees to use their PTO that could result in paid-for vacations and other prizes. In 2021, employees who get their vacation balances to five days or less by the end of the year are entered into the drawing. The contest includes the top prize of an all-inclusive trip to Bali for two. Other incentives include trips to Lisbon, Portugal and Las Vegas. The top three prizes are trips, but several other rewards are being offered as well.

Related: Burnout is soaring. Here are 7 ways employers can help

“It’s really opened up the conversation for us around how important taking vacation time is,” Ataya says, adding that the contest, unsurprisingly, has excited employees. “We know that there’s such a richness that comes from having people come back to work recharged, and they’re far more productive and healthy. And it sets the tone, when you’re promoting people taking time off, that we believe that mental health and the wellness of our employees contributes to our overall success.”

Hootsuite’s innovative moves come in the midst of research that shows burnout and other mental health ailments are soaring as a result of nearly two years of the pandemic and its associated challenges.

The data–and the ongoing pandemic–continue to prove that company leaders must step up with creative solutions to help employees, Ataya says. It’s a lesson she hopes will continue post-pandemic.

“It’s about the recognition that we care about this, that we are putting programs in place to encourage mental health and wellness,” she says. “I think it’s really important for organizations to live into their people and recognize the responsibility that we have.”

Kathryn Mayer
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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