The Cost of Caring

The Cost of Caring

What HR leaders say about talent retention through a focus on mental wellbeing

Manah Wellness organized an HR Roundtable Discussion in Mumbai in March, with over 15 HR leaders and CHROs speaking their minds on ‘Talent Retention: Is mental wellbeing becoming a key differentiator?’. The 75-minute discussion touched upon several overarching themes related to wellbeing of employees and HRs. What started as a roundtable discussion turned out to be a heart-to-heart dialogue with members of the HR fraternity. 

CHROs and senior HR leaders shared what they saw, felt, believed, and hoped to see for their employees’ wellbeing. Let’s go over the major themes that came up in the discussion, and the concerns, suggestions, and facts put forth by HR professionals like you. 

Keeping employees away from burnout – a major challenge

One of the themes we spent quite some time on is supporting employees through difficult times, and creating a culture of care. When employees say they’re not okay or are feeling ‘depressed’, make the effort to get to know them, and what’s on their mind and figure out how best you can support them. 

An HR leader, who spoke at the Roundtable Discussion stated that they found one of their teammates looking troubled for a while, and they invited them to hang out and have a heart-to-heart discussion. They were able to unearth the reason behind the teammate’s distress and find a common ground to get support from the management. If the HR leader hadn’t gone that extra mile, they wouldn’t have known.

You don’t have to be a mental health practitioner to be a mental health advocate. Caring for the people around you makes you one anyway. Individual contributors, or the first-level employees when they don’t have the energy or the bandwidth to push back, simply take the pressure onto themselves and slog until their mental health crumbles.

By then it’s too late to intervene, you can only take reactive measures at this point. When this becomes a habit and employees notice a pattern, they may not understand how hard you’re trying to make things better for them, they may choose to give up and leave. 

This is why making work manageable, and keeping their wellbeing in check is an arduous task for HR folks, if there are no proper wellbeing measures defined and put into action.

Biggest drivers of change – middle managers

The leadership team is often completely disconnected from the first-level employees, and it’s the middle managers who get sandwiched between the two. They bear the pressure to perform from the top, and the pushback from employees to stall or balance it out. This is especially true in large organizations. 

Without having a finger on the pulse, and witnessing employees’ distress first-hand, it’s almost impossible for the leadership to set expectations reasonably. Unrealistic expectations cloud judgment, and do not yield results every time. When the targets aren’t met, the leadership team questions the middle managers, who end up working with a double-edged sword. 

A good question to ask at this point is, will leadership change the work culture, and how they approach work to better cater to employee wellbeing? The candid answer is no. Hustling 7 days a week is somehow accepted as normal. We’ve even had founders say work-life balance isn’t for them, especially in the start-up environment, and they naturally expect their employees to follow suit. This expectation mismatch makes people work more than they can and affects their mental health.

When the HR team notices and points out why this mismatch is creating a rift between the top and lower management, and comes up with solutions to safeguard everyone’s mental health, those initiatives are deemed unnecessary or time-wasters.

It’s time to decentralize wellbeing by training middle managers in identifying non-verbal cues of distress and emotional first-aid. This way, when the managers see signs, they can take the employees out, make them comfortable, and allow them to talk their hearts out. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn when you give each individual a safe space to talk. This can only get positive results for your organization. 

You’ll know exactly where to concentrate, which aspects of work are ailing your workforce, and how to support them. 

Another HR leader shared an anecdote about how effective this practice is. They had an employee who looked troubled and concerned at work. Their manager took notice and got on a call with them, made them feel at ease, and gently asked if there was anything they could do to help. Only then did the employee open up, and share that their parent was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and they needed a few weeks to tend to them. 

The manager spoke to the HR and leadership and got 1.5 months of paid leave for the employee. She came back after the break and has been an exemplary performer ever since. 

This loyalty isn’t something that happens by chance. It’s earned by supporting employees when they need it the most. 

Being the most important layer of the organization, middle managers have humongous power to change the course of employee wellbeing, by being open to learning new things and trying and persevering to make lives better for others around them. 

How to shift from work vs wellbeing to work + wellbeing

Mental health and wellbeing should be a mandate and not just an employee engagement activity. It’s not a nice-to-have anymore. Progressive organizations know the only way they can retain talent, and create a healthy workplace is to help employees help themselves through wellbeing initiatives. 

Boomerang employees don’t happen by accident. A safe, understanding, and supportive culture attracts them back to where they feel cared for. The best way to inculcate this warm environment at work is to make small, appreciative, and timely gestures that when done properly, over time, can snowball into a healthy work culture. 

Some gestures that have worked well for the participants:

✅Instant, public appreciation trumps any other form of recognition

✅Talking about non-work topics for a few minutes during the daily meeting

✅ Placing an appreciation card on the desk when you notice a good deed

✅ Adopting a religious and scientific approach when talking about wellbeing, to convince the majority of the workforce to participate. Some people respond to faith, and others respond to science.

✅Break down communication barriers between employees, founders, and leaders, and make the workplace a haven for everyone

✅ Weigh opportunity costs and show empathy when it’s needed the most. It’ll come back to you in the form of loyalty, and increased productivity for your organization

Are long-term wellbeing programs possible in the present?

Talent is scarce, and competition is fierce. So as HR professionals, your main goal is to get all you can from your existing talent pool and keep them happy. 

Coming to the rescue after the fact may have worked in the past, but the way to secure employees’ wellbeing is to make sure it doesn’t come to that. Proactive wellbeing starts with a mindset shift that happens only when leaders are connected to the first-level employees, know their routine, lifestyle, and working style in and out, and then proceed to set expectations. 

Any wellbeing program bears results only when they’re repetitive. It’s not a one-time thing, you need to make employees turn off their auto-pilot work mode and tune into themselves a few times a week. As these programs show results, you aim for sustainability. For them to run successfully in the long run, employees must see results in their lives. It’s entirely possible.

You just have to experiment, analyze, and change your methods to arrive at programs that work the best for your team. If it adds too much work to your plate, get a reliable, seasoned wellbeing provider (more than an EAP provider) to take care of the entire wellbeing spectrum for your workforce. 

Overall, this candid discussion gave heart to many other HR leaders who were worried about how to scale up the measures they’ve been struggling to implement. It was a seed for a warm HR community, to open up and help each other. 

Manah Wellness is planning more such roundtable discussions in the future in different cities. Stay tuned for more updates!