‘Tis the season! For many of us, December means travel to winter wonderlands in celebration of traditions with loved ones. Flurries of ice, red fingertips under gloves, and phones on Silent as we focus on those around us. For others, however, the holidays can serve as a chaotic stressor, and a painful reminder of emptiness, mental strife, or loss. From the first gathering without a recently passed family member, to unpacked boxes in an entryway that signal a complicated but fresh start, the lives those around us are living through are endlessly different and complicated from our own. And though it isn’t always apparent in the workplace, nearly 18% of people in the US are depressed, or report symptoms of depression that hinder them from completing their day to day tasks.
While many of us are trained to avoid conversations around health and mental health, these numbers are staggering and they are impacting our employees daily, especially now. So, what does that mean for us from our unique perspective as HR? How do we bridge the gap between law and humanity? It’s a tall order, but there are a few small ways we can reach the 1 in 5 employees who are currently struggling through this season alongside us.
- We don’t always have to veer far from the classics: if your company’s holiday party is an inclusive hit, keep it going! It may be the only party some get invited to each year; even if that isn’t the case, the bonding that happens outside of the typical workday can allow for friendships and boosted morale that last long after the new year begins.
- Additional step: Include your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) on the back (paper) or bottom (email) of your holiday party or gathering invitation. Post it up in breakrooms. Send it to the masses outside of Open Enrollment, so people know help is here for them, and that you care. Remind everyone that it is free, and that they can share this with their teammates or peers if you’re unable to reach them.
- Take notice, and take care. Pay attention to your people: is someone who is typically bubbly in a newfound slump? A reliable employee calling in late unexpectedly for multiple days in a row? Aside from the usual process around FMLA or applying for leave, pop in just to see if they’re feeling OK, and offer support when possible.
- Additional step: You aren’t on an island. Keep your managers in the loop: they see their team members and their patterns every day. Remind them that they’re often the first person a team member will talk to when stressed. Make sure they have your EAP information, they know it’s OK to share it, and that they also know when it’s important to report concerns and recommend an employee seek outside help. Building trusting work relationships with, and coaching, your managers will expand the reach of support.
- Promote and encourage mental wellness across the organization’s practices and environment. Promote use of PTO for Mental Health days to simultaneously encourage self-care and the removal of stigmas. Partner with your benefits provider or broker to share clips and videos to meditations, desk exercises, and community resources on a monthly basis. Work with your benefits and/or legal teams to design training or informal processes that encourage employees to notice when a team member may be struggling, and to take caring and responsible steps forward to help them.
- Additional step: Consider bringing in massages, counselors, or other vendors that work for your location/population/resources during the holidays, but also throughout the year. Many of our employees work long hours and don’t take the time they need to check in on themselves. Bringing care to them, even in small ways, will do more good than we can quantify.
- Get out of your lens and ask employees what causes and gestures are dear to them. Consider encouraging volunteer days or company partnership events throughout the year to give back to a cause that is meaningful to those outside of the corporate office. Further, ask them what would make them feel most valued as people. Send a survey, check in with managers, or use whatever assessment process works for your organization to see what would make them feel best this season and throughout the year. Use that feedback to customize what you can on both small and large scales, and to show your people that they and their input matter.
- Additional step: Remember that it isn’t always about the employee’s situation. Many people have family members dealing with addiction, discrimination, harassment, health problems, abuse, school bullying, or poverty. They are stuck and they don’t know how to help. Provide information, resources, and community connections for them, too.
Of course, historically and understandably, the reason employers and HR don’t get too involved in the health of their employees is because of various laws, and the liability and the risk it can cause for others and the company. My view is that it’s almost 2019, and the mental health crisis isn’t going anywhere without everyone’s support. While we shouldn’t inadvertently do more harm than good by acting like counselors, violating HIPAA or other laws, or putting anyone at risk by not handling a situation appropriately, we can surely and simply extend a hand or listening ear to someone who is clearly in need. Our employees are fellow human beings, above all else. Make sure you aren’t violating a law and let integrity guide you; you should be OK.
What do the rest of you do to promote mental health and encourage people through the holidays? What are your biggest reservations on this topic? Your highest aspirations? What can we all do to get there? I would love to hear from you, too! The more ideas, the merrier.
And if you are struggling, I am here to listen, and to support you, too. Please reach out any time. The amazing volunteers and staff at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are also here for you, your peers, and your loved ones, 24/7: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ and 1-800-273-8255. It’s confidential and around the clock listening, guiding, or whatever you need. If you’re in distress or know someone who is, they are a quick phone call away, and they have many resources online, too.
My genuine hope for each of you is a season and life of wellness and happiness, in whatever way is most meaningful to you. Happy Holidays, everyone!