Meeting The Mental Health Challenge, How ‘Human’ Is Your HR Department?

Last week I co-presented a breakfast seminar on mental health in the workplace and it reminded me of the importance that HR used to play in the mental health of others in an organisation. I say ‘used to’, back in the days when it was more common to have ‘conversations’ with employees about how they were, and when you could notice that someone wasn’t looking their best and check in with them. Having spent a quarter of a century in HR I can safely say the role has changed immeasurably, and the pressure being felt from the business has become acute. HR is more aligned to the business than ever, but does this mean we have lost the ability to be ‘human’, to notice people on the ground and be able to observe human behaviour at its best and worst. What we know is that mental health issues are on the rise and the need for organisations to notice, manage and help employees has never been more important.

But is today’s HR practitioner geared up for it? Possibly not. And that’s because the past couple of decades has seen a tectonic style shift in the HR role.

When I started out ‘HR’ didn’t even exist, it was called ‘Personnel’ and I remember taking an instant dislike to the name. Your personnel manager was your backstop, the person you went to if you were upset or you needed to hand in a document of some kind pertaining to your employment. They always had a box of tissues at the ready, a hackneyed stereotype complete with cardigans and dangly ear-rings.. Having not come from the well-worn ‘official personnel route’ for someone being in HR I was quite pleased to be a ‘different kind’ that sat on the outer echelons of the dartboard, I certainly didn’t go in for the cardigans, soft touch and ear rings. When the industry morphed the function into ‘Human Resources’ it all sounded much better and less administrative giving everyone more ‘teeth’ and credibility in an organisation. And then, tough times hit. Companies had to start looking at their bottom line and looking for savings and employees to justify their existence to the business. None more so than the HR department. I mean ‘what did they all do with their time’? They didn’t ‘sell’ anything, they didn’t help anyone else to ‘sell’ anything yet there they were costing an organisation money. Yes, they helped with difficult employees, did all that boring employee paperwork, and sorted some training out but did we need that many people to do it all? For the last 15 years of being employed as an HR director in various organisations I don’t think I ever experienced one year of the function not having to downsize or reduce its budget.

The HR industry was feeling the strain, and it soon morphed the role of HR Managers into ‘HR Business Partners’. Because that’s what we were and it sounded better. The more we could align with leadership and attribute the programmes and the work we did to the bottom line the better. It meant we could now be ‘more strategic’, more of a ‘valued and trusted partner’ to senior executives and the board. HR was even more commonly allowed a seat on the board rather than languish under a CFO or a COO who had never wanted to look after the function in the first place. HR was finally allowed to align itself with the ‘strategic vision’ of a business and launch projects and initiatives off the back of it without fear of being called into question. The ‘new breed’ of HR was formed and it was a much-needed shift and recognition which gave PR to the importance that HR had in an organisation.

Naturally there isn’t anything wrong with functions evolving in a business in fact it’s critical. The interesting thing here however is the misunderstanding of what makes a great HR person and its department. I have the pleasure of knowing and have worked with some amazing HR professionals, who are smart, business savvy and who also can treat people as human beings. The nuts and bolts of supporting an organisation in strategic projects, initiatives, retention, engagement and attraction are critically important and we have come a long way in implementing valuable and much needed structure to the point where it’s a fundamental part of most businesses.

However, there is also a very large part of what we do (and if we aren’t we should be doing) that isn’t always seen or measurable, and that is the Harry Potter-style defence of the dark arts. We move around smoothing over internal conflict with individuals, teams, executives, coaching on conversations and helping initiatives with all the skill of Kofi Anan. But no-one really notices. Employees and leaders notice that something went well/better than expected yes, that was HR operating underneath an invisibility cloak. The ability of HR people to ‘get ahead’ of problems and understand human behaviour is one of the most underrated skills an organisation can possess, without it people and challenges can be a nightmare and yes, impact success, engagement, retention and business outcome. It can also cost the business money, we all know how much more it costs to rehire an employee to replace another when an issue isn’t dealt with, it can impact profitability in many ways.

And this is where the rub comes: because you also must be trusted by the people, be approachable, confidential and tread the fine line between knowing information and sharing information. The more HR has aligned themselves to the executive level to ensure the ‘business connection’ is seen and felt the more I hear HR not ‘being trusted’ or ‘interested in people’. And I’ll freely admit it’s hard to have both, skilled HR people fit somewhere in the gap between the executive level where they can feed expertise and strategy into helping achieve business goals, but they are also able to find the time to stop and talk to people and listen rather than give platitudes. The pressure to deliver, add value, reduce budgets, ‘do more with less’ means that this profession is busier than ever, perhaps too busy to speak to the very people they are there to support.

Mental health issues are on the rise and being given more and more visibility. Your people need help, executives, leaders, managers, the entire workforce and the people best placed to provide help and support will be your HR team. It won’t be measurable, and it won’t give you a nice pile of data on your dashboard or a pretty infographic but it will be providing something that you can’t buy. Empathy, understanding and compassion. An ability to allow employees to air their problems and feel supported. This will enable them to be the best that they can be, and that drives business value. So, allow your talented HR people the time to connect, and build trusted relationships.

HR can be both brilliant business people and good at the ‘people part’ if they are given the time and the space. Perhaps we need to go back to the future, and openly acknowledge that being human is okay after all.

Paula Meir is a business consultant, author, and trainer with over 25 years of experience in HR. Click for more information on how you can book a place on her latest training course on Building Mental Resilience in the Workplace.