Q&A: How to Make Mental Health and Wellness a Top Priority

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As leaders in Human Resources prioritize mental health and wellness at their organizations, they are learning firsthand that with great power, comes great responsiblity. Beyond the usual talent recruitment and retention and management of compensation, HR executives have been charged with relieving the pressure employees are feeling as a result of the pandemic. 

They are introducing different initiatives and beefing up benefits packages to help people focus on their well-being. Most importantly, they are starting hard conversations around mental health to help reduce the associated stigma and make people more comfortable asking for help when they need it. 

WATCH: HREN Live: Employee Engagement and Experience APAC

Q&A with an Expert on Change Management 

Recently, Carine Rolland, head of People and Culture in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East at ManpowerGroup, talked to HR Exchange Network about her experience addressing the mental health and wellness of people in her organization. In addition, she considered what’s happening across the board in human resources departments around the world. 

Rolland, who is an expert in implementing change initiatives and leading HR transformation, is poised to help people better understand both the importance of employee wellness to the organization’s success and the empathy required to make such programs effective. On Oct. 20, 2021, she will participate in a session, “Fireside Chat: Rethinking, Redesigning, and Repositioning Your Value Proposition to Your Employees,” which is part of the interactive HR Exchange Live: Employee Engagement and Experience APAC online event

Find out why mental health has become such a priority for organizations and what Rolland sees on the horizon when it comes to this call of duty: 

HREN: Why has wellness at work become such a popular topic?

CR: The impact of the pandemic on mental health has been tremendous. Consider the sudden loss of employment, added stress of moving to remote working, and more recently the impact of sudden, localized lockdowns. We’ve seen many across the APAC region to prevent further outbreak. 

Four in 10 adults in the United States are suffering from anxiety or depressive disorder. That’s a fact. That’s the reality. If you look back, wellness and mental health have been on the radar of HR leaders for many years, but the pandemic has absolutely accelerated this trend.

Another survey from McKinsey and Company showed the priority for employers when it comes to mental health is improving employee productivity and engagement, increasing access to mental health treatment, and addressing well-being, stress reduction.

The New Normal Meets Mental Health Help

Companies are rolling out many initiatives and programs. Well-being [programs] are not just nice to have anymore. It’s a must. It’s an obligation for us to provide a safe environment. That’s our top priority as an employer. 

If we look at employee expectations in the future of work, there are 5 key factors of why people are joining an organization:
1. Shared purpose – “I feel invested.”
2. Personal growth – “I feel valued.”
3. Deeper connections
4. Flexibility – “I feel autonomous.”
5. Well-being – “I feel really cared for.”

So, a more human-centric approach is required moving forward.

What’s Happening in Asia-Pacific?

HREN: How is this trend of focusing on mental health playing out in your region? Where does mental heath land on everyone’s list of priorities? What do you see down the road when we look toward a post-pandemic period?

CR: People across the Asia Pacific region have been pretty vocal about the importance of mental health. We have many people working from home. Companies are helping employees to cope with mental health with services, programs, and initiatives. Communication is a big piece. 

I would like to share a few initiatives we launched across the region and globe at ManpowerGroup. First, in our organization, we have raised employees’ awareness. That’s the starting point. Be aware of your mental health and well-being by demonstrating mental health issues. Vulnerability should not have an [attached] stigma. It’s ok not to be ok. And this journey starts with leaders.

Recently, our leadership team expressed concerns about people being tired, fatigued, and having mental health issues. Connecting with people is key. Listen to your people and show appreciation. To build trust and security with your employees, you must have open and honest communication.

As we have moved to a new working environment, allowing flexible hours is critical. You can’t expect employees to be available around the clock. It’s about respecting their boundaries. For example, when schools are closed, which is the case in many of the countries across the Asia-Pacific region, you should give the opportunity for caregivers to look after their children and do the homeschooling when they can.

I am one of them. I have a little daughter, and she has just started school, so I have to balance my work and make sure she is not only learning but that she feels safe. We cannot expect normal labor output. But we need to make sure people are able to perform in their work, be productive, and do what they have to do. Leaders need to understand this.

It is important to provide information and tools on how to manage mental health. For example, in our organization at the global level, we have created an open-source of information with the objective of sharing existing policies, programs, tools, and a framework for our global team to implement, so we have a consistent employee experience. This framework was designed around five main pillars: career, social, community, financial, and physical.

Another initiative is the Asia-Pacific Project Uplift. It goes back to the fatigue of our leaders and employees. We said we need to do something big in Q4. As we’re moving toward the end of the year, we recognize it’s been a long journey since last year in this difficult, changing environment with its ups and downs.

Manage Work-Life Balance as an Organization

People don’t know how to disconnect and shut down. Family commitments with children and aging parents, especially across Asia, are challenging to our employees. And then they just work and work. It just doesn’t stop. The objective was number one to boost staff morale in the short term. And number two we wanted to bring our people together and improve staff engagement in the long run.

We have designed a road map with a set of activities that start with employee participation and recognition through fun events. We need fun as well in this environment. 

Better health month was in September. It’s a full program thoughout the month of September with virtual games, webinars, and guest speakers. Again, fun was an important element. More than 50% of our employees did attend some of these programs.

HREN: What are some of the lessons that you have learned in these early stages of addressing wellness with more depth?

CR: Know what you need. Wellness means different things to different people. It can play a different role depending on your business environment. In our business, people are supposed to be working in an office, but they are now more likely to be working from home or working from a café or working from almost everywhere. If you have a different industry, you have to look at what plays a role for that workforce.

You need to assess the needs and focus on what is truly important to them. The needs can change over time. We see what was valued in 2019, is not anymore in 2021 and won’t be in the future. We will absolutely continue to implement this strategy, but we have to adapt to the environment.

Keep Mental Health and Wellness a Priority

Make employees accountable for their well-being progress. Implement a personalized well-being plan as much as you can to drive usage because it is not one size fits all. Encourage people to make small steps. You are more likely to be successful, whether it is exercise, nutrition, better sleep, or breaking bad habits, if you take small steps.

Reduce the stigma of usage of well-being programs. It’s important to realize that everyone who has accessed information feels supported by leaders around them. We need to encourage leaders and managers to have this open conversation about mental health. They can ask, “Are you ok?” or “How do you feel?” Communicate the value of wellness and acknowledge what employees are doing.

Establish clear management guidelines. Managers are not necessarily equipped on this topic. So, how do you coach, educate, and train your manager on well-being? Make sure you establish a personal connection with employees.

Lastly, as a leader, you should be a role model. Many times when it comes to wellness, it happens only if the boss does it first. We’re not asking leaders to run a marathon. But it does mean that if you tell people to stop working at a certain time or to stop having meetings on Friday mornings, then you have to do the same. Otherwise, people won’t trust you to be in this environment and do the right thing for them. If you want to create a less stressful behavior, then you have to look at your own behavior to get the stress level down.

Finally, promote well-being policies. I was looking at some survey on this topic. For example, some actively discourage email use outside of working hours. It is the responsibility of managers to encourage use of vacation and following these policies for employees on vacation. There was a survey of top employers that found the top employers across APAC are a bit behind compared to the rest of the world when it comes to this. So, I think we have room for improvement.

Wellness in the Post-Pandemic World

HREN: What do you see happening in regard to mental health and wellness in the workplace moving forward?

CR: This is absolutely a priority moving forward for all organizations. Two in five Asia-Pacific employers expect to have an announcement on health services and stress reduction management and one-quarter will prioritize providing access to affordable and high-quality mental health solutions and strategies.

The market is changing. We have an absolute talent shortage, especially as the market rebounds. In addition, the expectation of employees is evolving. There’s an expectation around well-being, mental health, and flexibility. This will remain top of mind for employers. Health benefits will remain key. They’ll be looking to reshape offers to adapt health, well-being, and benefits and perks with the delivery of everything from sick leave, financial assistance, adjusted hours of operation, childcare provision, and mental health support. To make sure you have a productive workforce, you have to pay attention to this.

HREN: What kind of feedback are you getting from employees?

CR: We are getting extremely positive feedback at every level, regardless of role, position, or personal situation. I would say this was true in all our countries across Asia-Pacific. I think it’s important for employers and employees to build trust and have this open communication.

The biggest reward arising from well-being initiatives is having a healthy and happy workforce. I hope you see this when you look at all these indicators of satisfaction and surveys. The score was improving across the world and we have very specific questions related to COVID. It improves morale, productivity, and motivation. It increases retention. It creates greater trust and engagement on the employee’s side.

As a conclusion, I would say that by taking positive actions regarding health and well-being, companies are putting people first. It’s all about people at the end of the day. It’s an investment that is likely to result in employee loyalty, raise engagement, and enhance productivity on a longer term basis.

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