How HR Stepped Up During The Pandemic

How HR stepped up during a pandemic

As many of you know, May was mental health awareness month.  I was reminded of this when there was a suicide in an apartment across from my office building. This year, more than any other time, mental health and wellness became a top priority for HR in the workplace.  In fact, my firm has had to assist with an entire host of mental health situations at client sites.

Between fear of the virus, job insecurity, juggling of family responsibilities, the loss of social connections, and working remotely employees’ stress levels have been off the charts.  A recent survey reported 69% of remote workers have symptoms of burnout.   Some of the factors are the lengthening of the workday.  HR metrics report the average workday increased by three hours since the beginning of the pandemic.

Across the country, HR has taken the lead in supporting employees’ mental and emotional-well-being.  Their goal was to support employees before they get sick.  HR has stepped up by keeping current with regulatory changes and implementing various wellness benefits that had a positive impact on reducing employee stress and helped to increase productivity.  The Economist  published an article with the headline ‘The coronavirus crisis thrusts corporate HR chiefs into the spotlight.’ The piece reflected during global financial crisis, boardrooms turned to Finance Chiefs but during the pandemic, they turned to the Chief HR officer. 

A tiny silver-lining was the newly recognized value of HR during the pandemic.  HR leaders throughout the country can share their insights, reflections on their front row seat they had throughout the crisis. There is plenty of evidence on how the HR profession found its place into executive roles by exhibiting their expertise in developing and implementing programs that helped sustain the organization.

HR departments have had to rethink how wellness translated in a virtual environment.  Many of their current programs worked in a pre-pandemic environment.  They had to figure out how to support employees who were struggling from a distance.  As a result, some creative HR departments rolled out mental health applications when virus rates spiked. Some offered virtual groups to help employees stay connected.  Some offered popup counseling sessions.  Some organized online exercise, after-work happy hours or hosted game nights.   

One of the challenges was making sure employees were balancing work and taking time off so they can avoid burnout.  During the pandemic, HR data shows employee were less likely to take any paid time off, especially when they were restricted by travel bans and indoor activities.  Even when employers offered flexible work schedules, HR found it difficult to track if employees were working too much.

HR also had the challenge to work with managers to re-engineer work schedules and balance accountability with flexibility.  They had to insure management carried out cleaning and testing protocols.  Managerial training became a need rather than a want.  Managers needed training on how to manage a remote workforce differently.  HR used engagement surveys to take the pulse of workers to gage levels of isolation, stress and economic distress. 

It’s been a tough year for HR leaders too.  They were amongst the bravest of employees.  They dealt with many lives lost and livelihoods destroyed.  They counselled employees reporting feelings of isolation, loneliness and grief.  HR was called in when an employee exhibited slurred speech on a company zoom call.  The pandemic put people at the heart of business and turned to HR to explore ways of performing work. 

Some of my consultants needed to remain working at essential business at the height of the pandemic.  I talked many off the ledge and supplied them with any and all protective equipment, assistance and support as needed.  We met more frequently. They really are my most important asset and I put money where my mouth is.

And we aren’t in the clear yet.  The residual impact on employees are still ever present.  Employees are still dealing with mental health issues, fears concerning reopening and vaccinations.  What do you do with an anti-vaccers when the rest of the employees are afraid to be around them? 

HR spends every waking moment keeping up and implementing with regulatory changes.  They lead the way to the humane approach to making hard business decisions.  HR is not just about paperwork or coddling employees.  It is about its ability to adapt to norms, developing programs that maximize the people side of the business, and making it easy for employees to bring their best selves to their work.