Managing employees in 2023 is no easy feat. Between a newfound openness about mental health, pandemic-related stressors and the notion of “showing up as your whole self” at work, the HR industry has had to adapt to changing expectations around wellbeing and the workplace. I know this firsthand. As Talkspace’s chief people officer, I understand the daily challenges HR leaders face: recruitment, talent retention, employee experience and more.
So, what are HR leaders to do? I recently attended an HR industry conference, where my peers and I had the rare privilege of connecting face to face on the challenges facing our field and the solutions we can find together. Here are my top five takeaways:
1. Stigma went from persistent to almost non-existent.
Prior to the pandemic, most people were reluctant to disclose a mental health diagnosis to colleagues, acquaintances or really anybody, but the collective trauma of COVID and the ensuing cultural conversations about the importance of mental health have brought about a welcome de-stigmatization of depression, anxiety and similar conditions.
At this conference, I encountered many stories of employees making their mental health challenges and needs known at work, whether by asking for mental health days, blocking out calendar time for therapy sessions, requesting support dogs under their desks or openly talking about diagnoses or medications with their colleagues.
These anecdotes echo the findings unearthed in Talkspace’s recent New Normalization report, which revealed that 65% of individuals are more likely to talk about their mental health challenges compared to three years ago, and 80% believe that people are more receptive to therapy than before the pandemic.
2. Employees turn to HR for more—and HR needs somewhere to turn.
It’s the nature of the HR job to sometimes be on the front lines of an employee’s personal crisis, and we’re honored to do it. With norms around mental health shifting, employees now feel comfortable with what one HR leader described as “trauma dumping” about unburdening themselves to HR about personal struggles, health issues, relationship difficulties and even experiences as serious as the suicide of family members.
While any leader on the receiving end of this candor should be applauded for creating a culture of safety and openness, it places a heavy burden on HR professionals who are not licensed mental health providers. Listening to employees’ traumas without the necessary resources to appropriately support them can take a toll on the HR team’s mental health as well.
To address this, workplaces need a mental health benefits partner that HR can rely on to provide timely and appropriate support for employees in need while also offering assistance to HR professionals who often find themselves in the role of mental health first responders.
3. Mental health isn’t solved in six sessions.
During the conference, we heard from many people leaders that the traditional way of providing mental health support through an employee assistance program as a set number of free counseling sessions is no longer sufficient to meet the demands of their workforces.
While EAP sessions can be helpful for addressing specific issues or initiating an individual’s therapy journey, employers are seeking a more comprehensive solution that goes beyond these limited sessions. That can mean offering therapy as a direct benefit (such as a free therapy session once a month with text-based therapy in between—an option that Talkspace offers employers) or providing a seamless way for employees to transition from EAP sessions to receiving ongoing therapy with in-network providers.
In addition to access to therapy, employers can foster a holistic culture of mental health support by equipping HR with clinically vetted information on timely topics to share out across the organization or promoting virtual classes or counseling sessions for employees on an as-needed basis.
4. In-house advocacy is essential.
Despite the growing recognition that mental healthcare is essential for their workforce, many HR leaders have expressed the challenges they face in convincing corporate leadership to invest in such benefits. Senior management might see it as a nice-to-have (but non-essential) perk. It’s natural for business leaders to seek proof of a benefit’s value, but HR professionals must educate leaders that the rewards of offering comprehensive mental health support can’t necessarily be measured with typical metrics.
Yes, mental health benefits have been linked with higher employee retention and higher-functioning employees; an analysis of 1,600 U.S. companies conducted by Oxford researchers found that measures of workplace wellbeing positively correlated with a firm’s profitability and stock price. But most importantly, offering mental health benefits shows that a company truly prioritizes its people, a foundational element of a high-functioning organization, and it is our responsibility to make that case with confidence and conviction.
5. We do and feel best when we walk the talk.
Lastly, as we navigate the challenges of managing people in 2023 and beyond, it is essential for all business leaders, including HR professionals, to prioritize their own mental health. At this conference, one of my favorite sessions was titled “Radical Humility: How to Be a Kick-Ass Boss and a Good Human in a Messy World.” The speaker addressed how managers can be caring, good humans while also motivating people to do their best work.
We must learn to be empathetic to employees’ struggles with decision fatigue, burnout and mental health challenges, while simultaneously holding them accountable—not an easy balance, but one that today’s HR leader needs to achieve to ensure we create a culture where employees feel supported and empowered.
As HR professionals, we didn’t necessarily anticipate that being a “mental health champion” would be part of our job description, but the times call for us to step into that role. By prioritizing our own mental wellbeing, setting healthy work/life boundaries and openly engaging in self-care practices, we model the behaviors we want to see within our own organizations.
Creating a mentally healthy workplace culture starts with us, a responsibility we must embrace wholeheartedly.