Don’t mind if we do! Mental health has never been as freely discussed in the workplace as it is right now. In light of Mental Health Awareness Month 2023, we’re making a mental note to talk about the state of mental health in the workplace - especially for Human Resources professionals. 

As we discussed in our February article “HR You Okay? Battling Burnout In HR Professionals”, HR pros are especially vulnerable to workplace-related mental health challenges. This is due in part to the nature of the job. The cruel irony? The employees who are likely to be performing the most emotionally laborious work in an organization are the same ones who are likely to be struggling with mental health issues of their own. 

Surveys from some of the world’s leading experts in consultancy and public health suggest more than half of the world’s workforce has experienced struggles with mental health. But don’t let the stats overwhelm you - the fact that we have these numbers at all means that the conversation about mental wellness in the workplace is open and transparent. That’s good news. 

Not only are we chipping in with our two cents with this article, but we’re also equipping HR professionals and managers with some helpful resources to open up or continue the conversation about mental health in the office.    

Heads up: most of us have experienced mental health issues in the workplace

According to a 2022 study on mental health in the workplace by McKinsey, 60% of some 15 000 respondents interviewed from 15 countries reported experiencing at least one mental health challenge at some point in their lives. That means that the overwhelming majority of the current workforce has been directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues. 

Interestingly, the study suggests that no demographic is immune to experiencing challenges with their mental health (although Gen Z seems to be faring the worst, especially in Asia and Europe). We all experience challenges with mental health challenges ranging from burnout and insomnia to severe anxiety disorders. And it pays for employers to address these experiences head-on.  

The World Health Organization tells us that 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression or anxiety alone. Furthermore, depression and anxiety cost the global economy USD 1 trillion annually because of reduced productivity. The residual stigma surrounding mental health challenges may prevent people from seeking help, trapping them in a terrible double bind. 

Mental health issues affect employees’ confidence and identity at work, their productivity, rates of absenteeism, and the ease with which they can gain or retain employment. Work can provide a valuable sense of structure and security for people recovering from mental health issues, but our jobs can also contribute to worsening mental health. Sometimes, nobody knows that better than HR professionals. 

Heavy are the Heads of Happiness: HR faces unique mental health challenges 

If you’re new around here, you should know that we refer to HR professionals as Heads of Happiness. Sure, HR has a ton of important administrative roles - but, in most organizations, HR is dedicated to optimizing the satisfaction and contentment of the people they work with. In non-corporate terms, we’re here to spread good vibes. 

So it’s kind of ironic that the people who are responsible for the happiness of an organization can be experiencing such unhappiness in their roles. In a February article of this year, HR Brew featured two anonymous HR professionals who spoke about the mental health challenges which caused them to consider leaving the profession altogether. 

“Andre” came the closest to quitting when he was asked to mediate a conflict between two co-workers, which rapidly became a screaming match. “This isn’t what I’ve been trained on”, he recalls thinking. “This isn’t something I ever thought I’d have to deal with.” On top of conflict mediation, Andre was often called in to deal with miscellaneous tasks ranging from IT support to responding to late-night calls about a broken front door at the office. 

The sheer diversity of the tasks that Andre was pulled into speaks to an industry-wide problem: organizations tend to treat HR professionals as multi-tools. “The field requires you to do everything at once,” writes Reddit user Maximum-Ambassador21 on r/humanresources. It can be challenging to set boundaries around what you are and aren’t willing to do because, as Andre describes it, as the HR “people person”, he was supposed to support all problems. 

UK-based consultancy Sage confirmed with a 2022 study that the role has evolved significantly over the past three years and that HR pros are struggling to execute everything that now falls under their responsibility. Some 95% of HR pros interviewed in the study agreed that they had too much work, partly because they’re dealing with strategic functions in addition to the administrative tasks long associated with the job. HR has traditionally been responsible for hiring, firing, compliance, and then some - and the “some” is causing significant strain. 

What can we do to continue improving mental health in the workplace? 

So, what is the solution to the mental health challenges faced by HR professionals and employees alike? If you’ve done any kind of reading into mental health, you’re likely to have run into the buzzword of the decade: boundaries. 

It appears that the best way to protect your mental health is to set and maintain healthy boundaries and to align yourself with a greater purpose - and that goes for relationships inside and outside of the workplace. Easier said than done, right? Fortunately, there are plenty of great resources you can consult to help you in your journey to better mental health in the workplace. 

World-renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel hosts a wonderfully insightful podcast called How’s Work? in which she explores how the quality of our relationships affects the quality of our work lives. Although the couples on Perel’s couch are often friends, family, or lovers in addition to being co-workers, their eye-opening conversations are a rich resource for any professional who is interested in the psychology of work (hello Heads of Happiness, we’re looking at you). 

We recently co-wrote an article about The Benefits of Mindfulness in the Workplace with Zenefits. Bringing a meditation app like Calm to the workplace is one of the most accessible ways to implement a structured mindfulness program in the office. Oh - did we mention that you can do that with Gifted? Workest by Zenefits is also a great resource center for HR professionals seeking tips on how to approach mental health in the workplace (amongst other things). 

McKinsey might have the final word on how to promote positive mental health in the workplace: many companies, they report, “may benefit from reinforcing behaviors that leverage the power of kindness - which recent research has highlighted as a powerful path toward greater empathy and compassion for others, along with greater well-being for the individual practicing kindness.” 

You hear that, folks? It’s cool to be kind. And it’s easy to be kind with a sidekick like Gifted. By automating your gifting and recognition strategies, it’s never been easier to spread a little kindness and joy around the office.