‘A culture of caring’
HR professionals address worker burnout, mental health
Speaking to an audience of more than 20,000 human resources professionals gathered in Las Vegas for his organization’s June 14 annual conference and expo, Society for Human Resource Management President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. said that HR execs are ready to meet the array of challenges created by the “new abnormal” of post-pandemic workplaces, where “everything is new again.”
In this new abnormal, some adverse effects of COVID have lingered. The job market may be strong, but angst about the economy is widespread. The line between work and personal lives that got blurred during lockdown still has not become clear, even as return-to-office mandates have people scrambling to adjust. And some workers are now worried about the potential of losing their jobs to artificial intelligence.
Add to these concerns the existential burden of living in a society in which political, social and racial tensions seem to ratchet up daily, and the result is a workforce experiencing high levels of depression and burnout.
In an April poll about mental health conducted by the American Psychological Association, 77% of 2,515 employed adults polled nationwide reported experiencing job-related stress within the previous month. About a quarter of those respondents blamed that stress on being subjected to a toxic workplace, which, the APA says, can include dealing with excessive demands, micromanagement, job insecurity, discrimination and poor communication. Women and people with disabilities tend to suffer most from such working environments, the APA found.
Good mental health is not just a cause for private concern anymore, but a matter of dollars and common sense for businesses, because burnt-out and unhappy workers are generally less productive and can be harmful to workplace culture.
Symptoms of burnout can include coming in late and leaving early, insomnia and substance abuse, says Ben Madden, board president of Northern Virginia SHRM and owner of Arlington-based human resources consultancy HR Action. “Quiet quitting” and “slow working” are terms that have entered our vocabulary for a reason, he adds.
HR professionals need to be experts on people, as well as business and culture, Taylor said in his June speech. “HR must be that person everyone can trust and that person who can predict how humans — a company’s workers — will respond to action and behaviors,” he said. “We need to understand our people at the deepest levels.”
Last year, the World Health Organization reported that 12 billion working days are lost to depression globally every year, and it estimates that the annual cost in reduced productivity to the U.S. economy is $1 trillion. Those statistics highlight one of the major points of Taylor’s June speech — that human capital is the most valuable form of business capital and that companies that expect to be successful must take better care of their employees’ mental health.
Most businesses still have some room for improvement on that front, however. The APA survey found that just 43% of employees surveyed said they have access to on-the-job insurance that covers mental health and substance abuse disorders. An equal number of those surveyed said that they fear repercussions if they were honest with their employers about their mental state.
But “that narrative is shifting,” says Scott Snell, the Frank M. Sands Sr. professor of business administration at the University of Virginia and co-author of co-author of the textbook “Managing Human Resources.” “Most organizations,” he says, “are at least aware of the issue and are acting on it in good ways.”
The largest companies with the most resources are leading the way. Alex Alonso, chief knowledge officer for SHRM, says that businesses with more than 5,000 employees have begun offering “a boatload more” of materials and resources to aid employees with challenges in their personal lives, as well as more flexible scheduling and “more talk space.”
Three of the commonwealth’s largest employers — Sentara Health, General Dynamics Information Technology, and Booz Allen Hamilton — are exemplars of this change.
Healing the healers
Norfolk-based health system Sentara Health has 31,000 employees working at more than 100 sites across Virginia and North Carolina. Although every sector of the economy was impacted in some fashion by the pandemic, front-line health care workers took the brunt. Yet, says Becky Sawyer, Sentara’s executive vice president and chief people officer, in some ways, employee stress was easier to manage then than it is now.
During the COVID pandemic, health care personnel were in crisis mode and were able to stay resilient knowing that the burdens placed on them by the crisis eventually would lift. However, they’ve since transitioned “from crisis burnout to a state of uncertainty,” Sawyer says, and “the new way of the world is creating moral distress.” Sentara’s response has been to roll out many more resources to support its workers’ mental health.
Another order of business has been to make its worksites safer. Workers in public-facing sectors, ranging from retail and health care to transportation, have experienced unprecedented levels of hostility in recent years, with almost a quarter of those surveyed by the APA reporting they were verbally abused in the prior month. The U.S. Surgeon General lists protection from harm as the first essential to workplace mental health, and safety is a huge issue in the health care field, Sawyer says. (Workplace violence is four times more likely to occur in a health care setting than in other industries, according to a 2021 study by the Cleveland Clinic.)
To keep employees safer, Sentara has begun issuing badges to visitors and has installed weapons detection systems. Employees are being trained in how to defuse potentially violent situations, and each of Sentara’s divisions now has its own workplace violence prevention committee.
The health care system has extended its free resources for emotional and mental health to 40,000 medical providers and has added on-site mental health counselors to supplement its in-house employee assistance programs. Such counselors remain a rarity among businesses. The APA found that just 12% of survey respondents said their workplace has anyone on site with mental health training.
Two other elements needed for a healthy workforce are employees who feel that they matter and that their work matters, according to the surgeon general. As “a mission-oriented organization that every colleague aligns around,” Sentara’s approach to decision-making is deliberately inclusive, Sawyer says. Sentara wants its employees to know that their voices are heard and that their opinions are considered. Yearly employee surveys, which have an 85% participation rate, she says, help leaders get a grip on what issues matter most to their workers.
“Burnout was a real and present concern long before COVID,” Sawyer says, “but we can take more meaningful approaches now.”
Defending defense workers
Like health care workers, national defense workers at two of Virginia’s largest government contractors, Reston-based General Dynamics Information Technology and McLean-based Booz Allen Hamilton, faced intensely stressful situations during the pandemic. Many had to continue to work on-site at clients’ facilities despite general lockdowns, while the work itself intensified. “COVID brought out some of our adversaries,” says GDIT President Amy Gilliland.
The security clearances that many employees of both contractors must have to perform their jobs also piled on the stress. These clearances became more difficult and time-consuming to obtain during COVID, and, although Gilliland says that only 1% of clearances are revoked or denied because of mental health issues, the belief persists in the industry that any perception of mental vulnerability will result in losing clearance. That widespread, if mistaken, notion continues to make people reluctant to seek help even when they find themselves spiraling downward.
Last year, GDIT got a rough wake-up call about the threats to its employees’ mental health when it logged a 3% increase in suicides among its 30,000-plus workforce. That grim statistic led to “real discussions about the elephant in the room,” Gilliland says.
These days, GDIT wants its employees to know that “it’s OK not to be OK,” and that the company is there to help. In 2021, Gilliland launched the “How are you, really?” campaign within GDIT to destigmatize mental health issues and encourage employees in need to seek help. GDIT supports an employee’s need to step back or even take a leave of absence, and it has instituted or beefed up a slew of mental health support programs, including:
- A partnership with a health care insurer to provide alcohol-abuse treatment;
- A website to provide information and links to mental health support networks and care providers;
- A concierge tool, Wellthy, to assist employees in navigating family care options;
- Talkspace, a program allowing employees to chat with counselors and therapists by text, phone or video;
- And a speaker program to call attention to mental health challenges such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, a big concern for a company that employs many veterans. “It caught on like wildfire,” Gilliland says.
GDIT also is training its managers “to lean in with empathy,” she says. “We’ve learned that we can be more flexible and that rigidity is not necessary. Take care of the people, and they can take care of the mission. Our national security imperative is to deliver well employees.”
Like GDIT, Booz Allen Hamilton also has 30,000-plus employees and its mission-driven work binds employees together, but that dedication can also lead to burnout, says Daphne Gillie, Booz Allen’s global wellbeing program manager. “General anxiety,” she says, “is higher than what we’ve seen in the past.”
Booz Allen’s response has been to take a holistic approach to the problem through its employee assistance program, a confidential resource that employees can access for free. The program offers coaching to manage stress and counseling services for employees and their family members. Diversity, equity and inclusion ambassadors also have been deployed in each of Booz Allen’s business sectors, along with wellness champions who are conversant on available wellness benefits and can help educate and influence their colleagues to tap into available resources.
Booz Allen is dedicated to creating “a culture of caring,” Gillie says, but “bridging the gap between the knowing and the doing takes work.”
As companies such as Sentara, GDIT and Booz Allen are taking the mental health of their employees much more seriously than ever before, smaller companies also have begun to follow suit. A 2022 SHRM survey of 3,129 human resources professionals found that 78% said their organizations — some with as few as 10 employees — offered mental health resources or planned to do so within the next year.
These employers, whatever their size, are coming to recognize that the new abnormal is here to stay and that with it comes a new bottom line. Mental health services are no longer just a nice-to-have benefit, but essential.
U.Va.’s Snell sums it up, saying, “Taking care of employees is a business issue.”