Depression, suicide, addiction, domestic abuse, mental health: These issues impact workforces in countless ways, many of them hidden from public view and employers’ eyes alike. But responsible organizations can’t assume that bad things aren’t happening in their employees’ lives just because they don’t hear about them. A great work culture is one that goes out of its way to proactively support employees who are struggling with grief, mental health, abuse, and addiction issues–and does so with compassion and emotional intelligence. These are a few ways to adjust existing human resources policies in order to do that.
1. Flexible bereavement leave
Many organizations need to be more flexible in the ways they support employees who are experiencing loss. The standard policy of three days of bereavement leave may be enough time to attend a funeral out of state, but it hardly sends the message that employers care deeply about their team members during their periods of greatest need.
According to Susan Bartel, a researcher at Maryville University of St. Louis who studies grieving and loss in the workplace, “Many people need or use distraction to help manage their grief at work, and their jobs can be a healthy distraction. Allowing longer bereavement leave gives employees an opportunity to adjust slightly to a new way of life before having to reengage in the world at large,” she explains. “If they feel their grief is recognized and understood they are more likely to contribute to the organization even earlier than they could otherwise.”
After the death of her husband, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg revamped the company’s HR policies to include up to 20 days of paid leave days to grieve an immediate family member and 10 for extended relatives. The change was an acknowledgement that organizations have a duty to think more compassionately about how employees cope with loss.
2. An employee assistance program
Few organizations have formalized employee assistance programs, or “EAPs” on the books, and they may be underutilized at the employers that do. These programs can be set up internally within HR departments or operated through third parties, but the core goal is the same: to offer employees confidential support for coping with crises in their personal lives.
Talent expert and Fast Company contributor Lars Schmidt, who shared a powerful essay last year about losing his brother to opioid addiction, points out that many EAPs are under-publicized. “Just letting your employees know that there are resources available to them–ideally including grief and support counseling services–can help lighten an enormous and unacknowledged emotional burden,” he wrote (Schmidt’s piece also includes links to tools and resources for organizations looking to put together EAPs for the first time).
To promote an EAP and encourage employees to use it, HR leaders can ask team members who’ve already done so to share letters of endorsement (including anonymously, of course) regarding the help they received. Employees who participate in EAPs often become their biggest advocates. Offer those who express interest opportunities to take ongoing training in areas of grief, addiction and abuse counseling, and suicide prevention. These knowledgable allies inside the company can be crucial in vouching for and connecting their colleagues with the EAP resources they need when HR managers can’t.
3. Open communication channels (from the top down)
In addition to being more generous, employers need to market their policies more widely and continuously, making sure team members are aware of what they’re entitled to; scrambling to sort out an unfamiliar policy during a time of intense emotional pain usually only makes things worse. Many employees only learn what’s available to them in the midst of crisis, while leafing through a benefits package or union booklet or by speaking with an HR manager they’ve barely interacted with before. It’s pretty easy for organizations to do better. Regularly sharing information on social media and internal chat platforms is a great start; tying messages about company policies into events happening in the news can be even better.
Managers should also remind team members during meetings and other events not just what the organization’s policies consist of, but that there are multiple ways to gain support and information. Links to external resources like National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or Crisis Text Line should be prominently displayed within the company’s intranet, for example, and leaders should remind staff that they’re there.
Perhaps more important still, leaders should personally raise awareness and launch initiatives to support their workforces. Employees need to see this in action in order to overcome the stigma of asking for help with their personal lives at work. Some may even worry that doing so could prevent them from being considered for promotion. If possible, managers should share their own experiences coping with mental health issues or supporting relatives with addiction problems. Transparency and authenticity goes a long way toward giving employees permission to do so themselves.
4. Internal support groups (from the bottom up)
Every workforce contains countless people who have deep experience coping with a wide range of difficult issues. Many of these staffers are willing to lend a hand or a kind ear to their colleagues if only there were an appropriate setting to offer that. Some organizations hold on-site support meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous, but for many, the last people an employee may want to know about her struggles with substance abuse are her coworkers (another argument in favor of a robust EAP).
But other team members find internal support groups helpful. Similar to employee affinity groups (or “EAGs”), these informal collectives can help colleagues come together to discuss shared experiences, including difficult ones. In providing safe spaces for those conversations, these groups can also help disseminate resources available in the organization’s EAPs and curb employees’ hesitation around taking advantage of them.
It’s easy for employers to look at these HR offerings in terms of financial cost and effort, but there’s potentially huge benefit to implementing them. Not only do such programs create goodwill within the workforce, helping retain employees for longer, but they also reinforce the empathy and emotional intelligence that are the lifeblood of every strong work culture–especially during those difficult times when it really counts.