How HR can protect employees’ mental health during times of crisis

How HR can protect employees’ mental health during times of crisis



By Robert Blain

While there is a growing awareness of mental health issues in the Hong Kong workplace, there remains much more to do. Stress and burnout have long been acknowledged as two of the most common mental ailments, but awareness of the damaging impact of the so-called ugly sisters of anxiety and depression is also gaining traction in Hong Kong workplaces.

Given the dual stressors of the coronavirus outbreak and protests in Hong Kong in recent months, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may well be another disorder added to the list of common mental health concerns.

The costs of poor mental health at work – both to individuals and lost revenue for the company – must not be taken lightly.

One of the greatest hurdles to effective action being taken is the lingering stigma that exists in workplaces across Asia about mental health – both in employees reporting their own mental demons as well companies acknowledging and supporting the concept of wellness in the office.

A comprehensive report published in 2019 – Working in Asia Pacific: Key HR and Leadership Priorities – by Profile Search & Selection jointly with Roffey Park, confirmed that employees in Asia are reluctant to express how they are feeling at work if they are experiencing mental health issues. More than half of the participants in Hong Kong and Singapore felt awkward about having a conversation about mental health issues with their manager or a colleague.

One way for HR to get in tune with the wellness needs of staff is to undertake a mental health first aid course.

Organisational culture is also part of the problem. The report revealed that in terms of being accepting of mental health issues, 48% of those surveyed in Hong Kong believed their company was not open about the topic. The figures were even lower in Mainland China (46%) and Singapore (40%).

However, the stigma around an employee “fessing up” to experiencing mental health issues in the workplace might not be about embarrassment or shame – it could also be about trying to appear bulletproof.

Stress test
According to Dr Scarlett Mattoli, a Hong Kong-based clinical psychologist with the Psynamo Group, part of the problem is that Hong Kong – like other major cities around the world – has a reputation for creating vacuums of talent and pressurising employees to produce the very best.

“Keeping a competitive edge in the market and with each other is the tried-and-tested method of maintaining a motivated and productive talent pool that has a constant churn of individuals yearning to enter the market and prove their worth, alongside those already established, in order to get their piece of a rather large pie,” she tells Human Resources.

This mindset has likely been a contributing factor driving stress, as there is a perception there is always someone jockeying in line to take your place.

“The flip side is that health – genuine physical and mental health – are only seen as commodities that can be replaced by coffee, sheer willpower, and sadly, sometimes, over-the-counter and illegal stimulants,” she says.

This “drive to produce” does make companies more competitive, but can make them less robust if it is pursued to the exclusion of all else, including the welfare of employees.

“This (drive) may be what maintains the reluctance for many organisations to embrace truly meaningful preventative measures, as, much like the slopes in Hong Kong, until they started collapsing, no one truly understood the ramifications of constantly putting more pressure without checking first on what it was buttressed up by.”

Red flags
But how can HR professionals identify the danger signs among their employees?

Some mental health issues (such as depression) can be notoriously hard to detect in a person – even for a healthcare professional. But there a number of telltale signs that HR can look out for which suggest that an employee may be experiencing stress, anxiety, or even depression.

“The danger signs are many, and each individual would have some common to all such as appearance, irritability, productivity, tardiness, absenteeism, even presenteeism and weight loss or gain – but also some unique to (the individual),” Mattoli explains.

Being more human does not equate with being less professional.

“HR departments who have the luxury to be in touch with all employees would have their finger on the pulse. But, as this is highly unlikely in larger organisations, it may be the case that tracking devices for health – physical and mood – can be a help to (increase) awareness in the individual, the team and the wider organisation.”

The reference to tracking devices is interesting. While nothing beats human understanding and empathy, technology can have a role to play. Some companies are embracing a digital approach for nurturing a sense of wellbeing in the workplace.

The Hyatt Hotels Corporation, which manages luxury hotels worldwide, has recently formed a partnership with Headspace – a wellness app that provides mindfulness and mental training. Hyatt employees will be given access to a complimentary subscription to Headspace as a way to support their own mental health and wellbeing. The service has also been extended to corporate customers.

“By teaming up with industry leaders like Headspace, we are better positioned to care for our employees and help them prioritise their own wellbeing,” says Mark Vondrasek, chief commercial officer at Hyatt Hotels Corporation.

Prevention better than cure
While having HR trained up to assist employees experiencing mental health issues is important, having a preventative strategy in place in the first place is more ideal.

“While many major organisations worldwide currently invest heavily in supporting mental health issues as they arise, with health insurance and employee assistance programmes, working with preventative measures can be much more effective,” Mattoli says.

“Some mental health issues come with the person and are exacerbated in a work environment, while others arise as a product of the work and/or from mismanagement of expectations/time/energy and the like.”

Mattoli adds it’s advisable to get to know employees’ individual rhythms in their work while taking into consideration the demands of the roles as an effective way to mitigate both pre-existing and acquired mood and mental health disorders.

Being unaware of stress and anxiety issues (which usually co-present with physical health issues) in the workplace as a result of negligence, ignorance, or active dismissal, will ultimately cost more in time, productivity, money and human capital.

Meaningful progress on mental health in the workplace will not be made until discussing it openly is no longer taboo

What else can HR do?
A number of measures are available to facilitate a healthier working environment for staff.

Ensuring employee knowledge is up to scratch in their respective field, putting in place systems of internal mentoring, removing barriers to learning, and investing in work environments that are conductive to the flow of communications, are also productive steps, Mattoli explains.

“Not just open plan seating, but break-out spaces where everyone is encouraged to take off the ‘role hat’ and speak honestly with one another,” she adds.

Another highly recommended way for HR to get in tune with the wellness needs of the organisation’s employees is to undertake a mental health first aid course, of which there are now many available both online and in a face-to-face setting.

“Programmes such as mental health first aid have gone a long way to ensuring that everyone has a common awareness, language, and comfort with approaching each other in times of need,” Mattoli says.

“Not everyone was meant to be a mental health professional, but that does not mean we don’t have to be aware of what it is and how we can keep our own in good nick as well as that of others.”

Being mindful of wellness and mental health in the workplace “is a two-way street where everyone can potentially benefit”, says Mattoli – it applies to both fellow HR practitioners and employees.

“Being more human does not equate with being less professional.”

This article has been published exclusively in Human Resources Magazine.
Read the Jan-Feb edition of Human Resources Online, Hong Kong:


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