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How HR & People Leaders can Support Employees

By getting ‘back to human’

Chief human-resource officers in Europe say a shift to employee-centric policies is long overdue. The pandemic is a big factor in their thinking, but process fatigue has been building for some time.

The pandemic—which accelerated employee demands on HR to meet physical and mental health needs, as well as intensified moral concerns about a company’s overall impact on society—lent urgency to the view that some core human element has been lost in all the technological advancements. But to build organisational resilience and generate value, HR managers and their teams must connect to employees on a human level, moving from processes to people.

Engage more directly and deeply with employees

In recent interviews with HR managers, it was said that key processes should always be undertaken face-to-face or at least with enough individual attention to make remote interactions feel like personal ones. 

As one HR manager from a leading consumer-goods company said, ‘Proximity with employees is key to identifying potential people-related challenges, as well as future leaders and the hidden champions who contribute more quietly, yet still in a significant fashion. HR will have no real impact if we do not know our people.’


Segmentation. HR leaders should use robust survey methodology to assess organisational health and then segment responses of employees with specific needs. As hybrid working becomes the new normal, challenges will persist.

Let employees bring their ‘whole person’ to work

This means engaging not just with contractual moments and employees’ safety but by taking a broader view of diversity, equity, and inclusion and their sense of purpose.

Research shows that relationships between employees and their colleagues and managers are fundamental to job satisfaction and performance. Yet in a recent American Psychological Association survey, 75 percent of the participants said the most stressful aspect of their jobs was interacting with their immediate boss. HR leaders can educate managers on their pivotal roles and embed quality-of-workplace relationships into managers’ development and performance appraisals.

Talent managers have to get ‘back to human’ by bringing leaders and employees together for real dialogue. ‘This can’t be managed by an app. As HR, we have to approach our employees much more deliberately,’ the CHRO of a global retailer said. ‘If we really want the best in the field, we need to know what they actually want. If every employee feels discernibly better about their work, that really will deliver higher performance for clients and employers overall.’


Inclusion. To encourage colleagues to bring their whole person to work, HR leaders can develop programs that focus explicitly on purpose and inclusion. Research shows that when employees experience inclusive behaviour from their leaders and their peers and teammates, they are more likely to report feeling included at work.

Purpose. A recent McKinsey survey found that employees are five times more likely to be excited to work at a company that spends time reflecting on the impact it makes in the world.

Support mental health issues

According to recent research, 42% of global employees have experienced a decline in mental health since the pandemic began. What can managers do to support their team members during these trying times? Here are some concrete actions managers and leaders can take today to improve employee mental health in the face of unprecedented uncertainty, including expressing their own vulnerability, modelling healthy behaviours, and building a culture of communication.

What can managers do?

Even in the most uncertain of times, the role of a manager remains the same: to support your team members. That includes supporting their mental health. The good news is that many of the tools you need to do so are the same ones that make you an effective manager.

Be vulnerable. One silver lining of the pandemic is that it is normalising mental health challenges. Almost everyone has experienced some level of discomfort. But the universality of the experience will translate into a decrease in stigma only if people, especially people in power, share their experiences. Being honest about your mental health struggles as a leader opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking with you about mental health challenges of their own.

Those of us working from home have had no choice but to be transparent about our lives, whether our kids have crashed our video meetings, or our co-workers have gotten glimpses of our homes. When managers describe their challenges, whether mental-health-related or not, it makes them appear human, relatable, and brave. Research has shown that authentic leadership can cultivate trust and improve employee engagement and performance.

Model healthy behaviours. Don’t just say you support mental health. Model it so that your team members feel they can prioritise self-care and set boundaries. More often than not, managers are so focused on their team’s well-being and on getting the work done that they forget to take care of themselves. Share that you’re taking a walk in the middle of the day, having a therapy appointment, or prioritising a staycation (and actually turning off email) so that you don’t burn out.

Build a culture of connection through check-ins. Intentionally checking in with each of your direct reports on a regular basis is more critical than ever.

Go beyond a simple ‘How are you?’ and ask specific questions about what support would be helpful. Wait for the full answer. Really listen and encourage questions and concerns. Of course, be careful not to be overbearing; that could signal a lack of trust or a desire to micromanage.

When someone shares that they’re struggling, you won’t always know what to say or do. What’s most important is to make space to hear how your team members are truly doing and to be compassionate. They may not want to share much detail, which is completely fine. Knowing that they can is what matters.

Offer flexibility and be inclusive. Expect that the situation, your team’s needs, and your own needs will continue to change. Check in regularly — particularly at transition points. You can help problem-solve any issues that come up only if you know what’s happening. Those conversations will also give you an opportunity to reiterate norms and practices that support mental health. Inclusive flexibility is about proactive communication and norm-setting that helps people design and preserve the boundaries they need.

Don’t make assumptions about what your direct reports need; they will most likely need different things at different times. Take a customised approach to addressing stressors, such as challenges with childcare or feeling the need to work all the time. Proactively offer flexibility. Be as generous and realistic as possible. Basecamp CEO Jason Fried recently announced that employees with any type of caretaking responsibilities could set their own schedules, even if that meant working fewer hours. Being accommodating doesn’t necessarily mean lowering your standards. Flexibility can help your team thrive amid the continued uncertainty.

Communicate more than you think you need to. Make sure you keep your team informed about any organisational changes or updates. Clarify any modified work hours and norms. Remove stress where possible by setting expectations about workloads, prioritising what must get done, and acknowledging what can slide if necessary.

Here are a few additional things that leaders can do to normalise and support mental health at work.

Invest in training. Now more than ever, you should prioritise proactive and preventive workplace mental health training for leaders, managers, and individual contributors. 

Modify policies and practices. To reduce stress on everyone, be as generous and flexible as possible in updating policies and practices in reaction to the pandemic and civil unrest. For example, you may need to take a closer look at your rules and norms around flexible hours, paid time off, email and other communications, and paid and unpaid leave. Try to reframe performance reviews as opportunities for compassionate feedback and learning instead of evaluations against strict targets. 

Shifting from complicated to complex

When we consider that the challenges we face in light of the pandemic are ones that many leaders have never faced before, it becomes clear that they are not just complicated (predictable) but complex (unknown). Traditional problem-solving, which is aimed at addressing the complicated as opposed to the complex, will not establish the most effective solutions. To be truly effective in this ‘new normal,’ HR leaders need to adjust and develop a new core capability: a complexity mindset.

This mindset change requires shifting away from complicated thinking and embracing a complexity consciousness. 

In practice, this means that when a team or employee comes to you with a problem, probe for the underlying cause instead of jumping to a rulebook solution. Ask open-ended questions such as ‘What is holding you back?’ or ‘How would you handle this?’. Throughout, assume that the vast majority of employees are good people who will want to solve a problem once it’s brought to their attention. Now you’re free to facilitate a lasting solution rather than dispensing discipline.

Foster a trust culture. As we navigate our current landscape, we need trust to serve as our foundation in order to create teams comfortable grappling together with the unknown. So much has been written about the need for organisations to improve communication, recognise employees, and practice transparency, but real change has been slow. As this crisis unfolds, it’s my hope that organisations will see the benefits of creating respectful, trusting workplaces and act with more urgency than before.

That’s because high-trust environments allow people to be their true selves, and when people can bring their whole selves to work, they are not only more creative, but more productive as well.

Building a high-trust culture starts with cultivating positive beliefs about employees, because assumptions drive behaviour. If you assume your employees work hard, care about the company’s success, and have integrity, they are likelier to act accordingly (as long as they know what’s expected of them). ‘Getting culture right is crucial across all levels of business at any time — but it’s particularly important in times of crisis,’ Diane Adams, Chief Culture and Talent Officer at Sprinklr, recently wrote. ‘When we’re happy, we’re at our best personally and professionally, and everyone wins.’

For HR leaders, this means rewarding exceptional performance with public recognition and individual growth opportunities, encouraging employee autonomy by letting workers set their own habits and mold their roles, and fostering transparency through open communication and evolving relationships. The goal is to develop leader-employee relationships based on genuineness and vulnerability and debunk the notion that managers should keep their distance from a personal standpoint.

HR leaders who adopt a complexity conscious mindset recognise that trust is key to getting through this present crisis. 

Make your company values foundational. Fear and panic give rise to knee-jerk reactions during crises. Even progressive organisations backslide to traditional thinking. Sadly, under greater amounts of pressure, it’s not unusual to see leaders of all kinds, including HR teams, make autocratic decisions without regard to their impact on employees. Moving forward, HR leaders can help fight this instinct by putting a greater focus on demonstrating fairness and a passion for their people.

Adopting a mindset of complexity means returning to the values of the company and allowing those values to become a filter for decision-making in high-pressure situations. 

Every successful company has a set of fundamental beliefs upon which the business and its behaviour are based. But too often, they are words on a wall, when they should be the very basis for how the organisation executes its mission during good times and bad times. This one concept has the potential to profoundly transform organisations. Eighty-eight percent of employees believe that a positive work culture is the result of a value- and mission-oriented foundation.

How do you use your values as a guide for decisions? Here are some questions to guide you based on commonly held values.

Value: Communication

Questions to consider:

  • What information do we or could we share that would increase transparency?
  • What information do employees need and want?
  • What information would make employees feel more involved?

Value: Trust

Questions to consider:

  • If we had trust in the vast majority of employees, what would we do differently?
  • What’s getting in the way of trust?
  • What personal behaviours can we demonstrate that would help build even more trust?

Value: Employee engagement

Questions to consider:

  • To what extent are employees affected by this situation?
  • What experience or knowledge do they have that will be valuable regarding this topic?
  • Have we made some topics taboo for employee engagement? If so, what assumptions are enforcing the taboo?

Applying this approach yields other powerful benefits as well: Using your values as a filter means less stress, more time, and better results.

If you work in Human Resources or people leadership, remember that your role — always, but especially today — is to be your company’s moral conscience. I know leaders in major companies who are willing to step up and challenge their organisations to act in alignment with their values. This can (and should) be your role, too. Adopting a complexity mindset will help you fulfil it.

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