What World Mental Health Day means to these top HR leaders

Ahead of World Mental Health Day earlier this week, Marriott CHRO David Rodriguez took to Linkedin to share his professional concerns about a topic with very personal connections: the alarming rise in depression and anxiety throughout the workforce and at Marriott.

David Rodriguez, CHRO, Marriott
David Rodriguez, CHRO, Marriott
Employee mental health is “one of the most urgent and important issues facing chief human resource officers–and every leader–whether in the public or private sector,” Rodriguez wrote in a post earlier this month, referencing the 102% rise in the risk of depression among American workers from February to August 2020. These findings come from the American Health Policy Institute, for which Rodriguez serves as chair.

“I’m sharing my remarks more broadly here because it’s an issue that for too long has been relegated to the secondary or tertiary list of priorities. We can no longer let that be the case.”

This is personal for Rodriguez, whose immigrant parents were hourly workers and didn’t speak English. Those factors took a psychological toll on his father, and as he rose through the professional ranks himself, Rodriguez had to address his own mental health concerns, especially after treatment for leukemia sapped his energy and led to an overwhelming sense of isolation.

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“It reinforced to me that emotional and mental distress can be as destructive as physical ailments,” wrote Rodriguez, who was named HRE’s HR Executive of the Year in 2019.

But the topic is also of increasing importance to HR leaders as scores of studies show that workers are reporting record levels of stress exacerbated by the pandemic, hybrid work, calls for returning to the office and more. Between December 2020 and July 2021, a survey from employee wellness solution provider meQuilibium found sizable increases in burnout (up 21%), somatic symptoms of stress (up 17%) and more modest increases in job stress (up 4%) and work-life balance challenges (up 9%).

Related: What’s behind the Great Resignation? Blame burnout

And employees appear to be voting with their feet: a record 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August, according to the latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. It found that nearly 2.9% of the workforce quit in August, up from 2.7% in July.

Taking action on mental health

As a look at social media shows, the observance of World Mental Health Day reinforced executive and HR leaders’ focus on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of employees. Among the many posts this week, SAP SuccessFactors President Jill Popelka wrote about creating a new “9-to-5” for herself, while Olivier Blum of Schneider Electric posted the four tips he lives by for mental health.

These leaders, like Rodriguez, are putting into practice something suggested by Zoë Harte, chief people officer at Upwork, a freelance talent platform: Prioritizing wellness and normalizing mental health maintenance as a self-care practice and expectation.

“At Upwork, we’ve designed a tapestry of programs and strategies to enable managers to support themselves and their teams no matter where they’re working,” Harte says, “from hosting company-wide conversations about mental health, expanding mental health benefits, offering emergency child and eldercare to restructuring work time to help employees prioritize.”

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And Marriott, during the pandemic, took action to address the mental health concerns of its global staff by partnering with meQuilibrium, which reduced risk for anxiety, burnout and depression among associates who used the solution, Rodriguez wrote. It’s part of the hotelier’s efforts to dismantle hurdles to employee wellbeing as it works “to ensure an inclusive workplace of constructive relationships and evolving access to learning systems that can help people grow and reach for their dreams,” he wrote.

Listening to employees also is key, says Harte, who was named to the HR Honor Roll in 2019.

Building on the company’s two decades of experience as a remote work company, Upwork leadership has learned to listen to employees and develop meaningful initiatives that maintain engagement and allow them to be successful working remotely, Harte says. “While this top-down approach is necessary, empathy is a core tenet of successful managers who have a heightened responsibility to care for their people and continue moving work forward,” she adds.

Zoë Harte, chief people officer, Upwork
Zoë Harte, chief people officer, Upwork

Upwork’s managers employ a variety of strategies to stay in touch with their teams, says Harte. First, they check in on employees’ mental health in one-on-one meetings by asking, “How are you feeling on a scale of 1 to 10?” Second, they ask employees explicitly what they need and set the expectation that a manager’s role is to protect and support them. Third, they encourage employees to stay active in company subcommunities, including employee resource groups and clubs.

“As we’ve settled into our remote-first culture, we are continuously looking for new, creative ways to stay apprised of employee mental health, including initiating group activities and playful icebreakers,” says Harte. Upwork also created a dedicated Slack channel where team members can “show gratitude and appreciation for their colleagues, thereby boosting employee morale,” she adds.

Addressing employees’ mental health never ends. Rodriguez realized that as he became more aware of the workplace’s impact on people and families and in allowing employees to excel in their work. It is also one of the reasons he became an industrial/organizational psychologist and human resources professional, he wrote. “My lifelong interest in the field, in part, emanates from an intimately personal source as well as from an unquenchable curiosity about the interplay of the physical, mental and emotional dynamics that govern human potential in the workplace,” he wrote.

Ultimately, HR leaders must step up to help colleagues in distress and “promote the conditions that provide for a holistically healthy workplace,” he wrote. “I encourage leaders around the world to find opportunities to make a positive impact on human wellbeing. It’s one of the most important things we can do for our people and our organizations.”

Phil Albinus
Phil Albinus
Phil Albinus is the former HR Tech Editor for HRE. He has been covering personal and business technology for 25 years and has served as editor and executive editor for a number of financial services, trading technology and employee benefits titles. He is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and lives in the Hudson Valley with his audiologist wife and three adult children.