The ascendency of the Delta variant has crushed hopes for an imminent return to post-pandemic normalcy in the US, and as HR leaders scramble to provide more mental health services to a burned-out workforce, experts say they must also prioritize taking care of themselves.
There’s something of an unspoken malady afflicting the increasingly overburdened people profession, a condition that Carla Yudhishthu, VP of People and Talent at the HR consultancy Mineral, calls “compassion fatigue.” HR’s function as an emotional sounding board for employees has only intensified during the pandemic, despite the fact that HR professionals are also suffering.
“Especially with Covid, all eyes were on us,” said Billie Hartless, the CHRO of the international telecommunications company Mitel.
Like their counterparts in the broader organization, Hartless advises HR professionals to lead by example and set boundaries between themselves and work. “Take time off,” Hartless said. “Even if you pitch a tent in your backyard and invite your kids to have a hot dog roast or whatever. You have to take time off to rejuvenate”.
“There’s a reason why when you fly, they tell you to put your own [oxygen] mask on before trying to help others,” added Hartless.
Yudhishthu argues that disengagement from the work treadmill needs to be part of a regular routine. “Taking a break from the never-ending flood of news” and “really disconnecting in the evenings and on the weekends for real rest and recovery and pausing for self-care” is essential.
Make room beyond Zoom
According to July’s Mental Health Index: US Worker Edition, which synthesized random survey results of 500 workers, the risk of generalized anxiety among US workers has risen 94% since July and 98% since the beginning of the pandemic. Another survey of 5,000 workers found that burnout is pervasive, with 84% tired of the “always-on” churn that accompanies working from home.
Mimi Winsberg, the chief medical officer at the online therapy platform Brightside, said HR leaders need to find ways to go beyond virtual one-on-one meetings to earn employees’ trust.
“Make sure that you are engaging each other at a deeper level than just staring at each other over Zoom,” Winsberg said.
This can be achieved on any number of levels. At Mitel, the company created a “Wellness Village,” crammed with employee resources, such as webinars where workers can vent about their struggles during the pandemic. Mineral hosted a grief workshop for employees to collectively mourn the loss of some of their most cherished pastimes that they can no longer enjoy due to the pandemic.
Trust is a two-way street
While virtual wellness gatherings can be cathartic, what’s ultimately most important is fostering an inclusive culture where it’s okay for workers to not be okay. And that starts with company leadership.
Hartless said her company has implored its leaders to “open the door” by addressing mental health; in one example, she recalled an executive who talked about his long battle with mental health for a group of employees.
“Without trust, organizational policies are perceived as performative—policies to make the employer look good, but don’t actually help employees,” Yudhishthu said.
With burnout on the rise, Hartless said it’s essential that companies give workers the ability to create boundaries. “Now that [workers] have the capability of being on video and audio 24/7, they felt like they always had to be on,” she said. To combat that sense of unrelenting work, she said it’s important to let workers know that they can switch their cameras off during video calls, and take time off to tend to their own mental health.
Above all, it’s important to “emphasize that we’re all in this together,” Winsberg said. Internalizing that sentiment is crucial for HR workers as they take care of themselves in addition to everyone else.