‘Massive shift’ in HR leaders’ top 5 priorities for 2021

Forget digital transformation and developing next-generation leaders–mental health is now HR’s top priority.

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That’s according to new research out from Lyra Health, Boston University and Future Workplace, an advisory and membership organization that prepares HR leaders for the future of work. Their HR Sentiment Survey of more than 200 senior HR leaders across the U.S. finds a shift of priorities from the early months of COVID-19 in 2020 to where they are now, nearly a year and a half into the pandemic. HR’s focus has moved to employee wellbeing, mental health, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

Fred Foulkes of Boston University

“The pandemic has marked a massive shift in strategic priorities in the workplace,” says Fred Foulkes, faculty director of the Human Resource Policy Institute and a professor in the Questrom School of Business at Boston University.

This transition is evident when comparing the top five strategic priorities from 2020 and 2021. In 2020, the survey revealed that the top HR priority was employee experience, followed by leadership development, learning transformation, next-generation leaders and people analytics. Now, the top priority is employee wellbeing/mental health, followed by DEI, leadership development, employee experience and managing remote workers.

The findings come as several reports point to a growing mental health crisis. The pandemic has resulted in higher rates of depression, anxiety, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout among employees. Recent research from the Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition, for instance, finds that pandemic-fueled trauma is driving a dramatic decline in employee focus and contributing to continued worsened mental health, especially among the nation’s youngest and oldest workers. The risk of post-traumatic stress disorder was up 36% between February and May 2021 and is now 55% higher than it was before COVID-19.

Related: Pandemic-fueled PTSD is hijacking worker focus; Can HR help?

That’s causing issues in the workplace, and prompting many employers to take action. Scores of employers have added or expanded mental health offerings over the past year. Others have added mental health days and closed down the office for a week to give workers a collective break from work.

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Related: Inside Mailchimp’s burnout strategy: Collective PTO, summer hours

“Employers should strategically align their leaders, culture initiatives, management practices, and resources to specifically support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees,” says Joe Grasso, senior director of workforce mental health at Lyra Health.

Jeanne Meister of Future Workplace

Managing remote workers also is among HR’s new priorities, according to the survey findings. That’s not surprising as COVID-19 has resulted in a boom in remote work. Furthermore, experts expect remote work and hybrid work models to stay even in a post-pandemic world. That’s because most workers are demanding the option and employers are seeing that those models, for the most part, works well. To that end, Jeanne Meister, managing partner at Future Workplace and a 2021 Top 100 HR Tech Influencer, expects “we’re going to see more tech solutions because remote in many cases is going to be permanent.”

In general, organizations and company leaders will need to adjust their priorities to succeed, Foulkes says.

“Companies that do not adopt new models and paradigms will struggle to retain top talent and succeed as a business,” he says.


HRE’s Elizabeth Clarke contributed to this story.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former 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.