Monday, November 21, 2016

Minding The Mind – Human Resources’ Vital Role In Mental Health And Suicide Prevention In The Workplace.

Guest Blog By Jeff Vanek

Not that long ago an employee came into my office to tell me that his brother had died from suicide. I was shocked and heartbroken. I wasn’t sure what to do for him, let alone what to say. I asked if he needed time to take care of matters and informed him about our paid bereavement leave policy. I wished we had an employee assistance program I could have referred him to, but like many small to medium sized organizations, we didn’t. I felt a bit lost. What more could I do? How could I help this employee?

As Human Resources (HR) Professionals, we are the point person in our organizations when it comes to dealing with employee issues, especially those that have an effect on employee performance and well-being in the workplace. There are few things that affect our workplaces like mental health issues. Your employee’s personal struggles or tragedies are often not confined to them alone, as the effects of a suicide or mental health issues often spill into the workplace affecting other’s productivity. Unfortunately, there is little or no training available for HR Professionals on the topic of suicide and mental health. This needs to change because Human Resources job is to maximize human capital—or to be more human about it, help people be their best so they can give their best in their job and at work.

Shortly after the employee whose brother died from suicide came into my office, I began to look for resources I could offer our employees. I wanted to be a better resource for our employees when it came to mental health issues. Rather fortuitously, I found out about a Working Minds Summit being held in town that very week from one of our Board Members who made arrangements for me to attend. It was at this summit that I learned a great deal about mental health issues in the workplace and what employers can do to make suicide prevention a health and safety priority.

I went to the summit feeling pretty clueless about what can be done for employees or what resources are available. By the end of the day, that had changed. I also came to an important realization, Human Resources is on the frontline and are the first responders to mental health issues in the workplace—whether we realize it or not. Human Resources is the go-to source in our companies and organizations for people issues—whether they are sent to us or they come knocking on our door. Our value as HR Professionals is in our ability to increase our capacity to help people function. If we are to help people function at their best, we must, at minimum, understand that people have minds that need to be tended. In the fight to raise mental health and suicide prevention awareness in the workplace, Human Resources is ground zero.

Even so, HR Professionals receive very little in the way of training on how to deal with people as multidimensional beings – mind and body. Rather, the majority of training focuses on compliance. We are trained how to handle an ADA claim but not given much in way of resources on how to help the individual. Our focus is on maneuvering through the legal landmines and protecting the organization while the employee remains an object to be “handled” in an “appropriate” way. We are afraid of doing the wrong thing, and therefore getting the organization in trouble. The only reason this is the case, however, is that there is relatively little training for people in Human Resources on how to handle mental health issues in the workplace.

I don’t disagree with all the compliance requirements. It is a necessary and important part of our job. It can also be argued with a great deal of legitimacy that we are not mental health specialists nor should try to become such. No problem there. What I learned while attending a Working Minds Summit, however, made me realize that there are many things the HR Professional can and should be doing in regard to the mental health of employees. For instance, one can become aware of the signs that might indicate something is wrong in an employee’s life—increased absentness lately, maybe not as focused as they used to be or they are acting a lot more down than usual. When something like this is observed, learn how to ask, not pry, if there is something you can do for or help the employee with. Learn how to listen for clues of mental stress and struggles. Learn what free and other resources are out there so you can suggest them to your employees. Does your medical benefits plan include mental health options? Often employees are not aware of this.

HR Professionals should know where we can direct people to resources and professionals who can help with mental health issues—beyond the EAP phone number. By understanding these issues, HR Professionals can respond with compassion, confidence, and competence, rather than reacting with fear.  HR doesn’t need to take on a counselor role, but they do need to have good judgment in making decisions to best support their most valuable business resource—employee’s minds. It really is a no brainer. Good mental health is paramount to having employees who can give us the best of their minds, creativity, and engagement.

As HR Professionals, we are charged with the enhancement of human capital—i.e. get the best performance we can out of our employees. In today’s economy and consequently in most businesses, the true value of an employee is his or her mind, not so much his or her physical ability. Even in labor-intensive fields, we need intelligent labor—technology is being used and incorporated in so many places now. Caring for the wellbeing of the mind had become even more important to a productive workplace. Our knowledge-based economy has made it so. It’s an opportunity for the professional to step up to the plate and offer real strategic value to our organizations. (See the blog post, HR Rocks.)

In the days when physical labor was more common in our places of work, it was not uncommon to see physical injuries. Cuts, muscle strains, or disease from exposure to harmful chemicals or environments were recognized and treated accordingly. These types of injuries were easy to “see” and treatment was pretty straight forward. Progressive organizations recognized the value of healthy workers to the bottom-line and provided not just treatment, but prevention.
In a knowledge based economy, physical injuries might not be as common as they once were but metal health issues are becoming more evident, although often not as “visible” as a broken arm might be. In addition, mental health issues originate in the brain which is often perceived as being a more mysterious organ to understand and treat. The brain is, however, like every other organ in the body in that is it also subject to adverse conditions, even if those conditions aren’t as visible as physical hazards on a factory floor. This means that there are treatments and preventive measures that can be taken for mental health issues. Education is the key.

HR Professionals need to take the initiative to learn about and educate their workforce on mental health resources. After all, it’s one of the assets we want and value most from our employees—a healthy, productive mind. We in the Human Resources profession can truly add value to our organizations by knowing how to take care of our human capital, in both mind and body.

I went to the Working Minds Summit wondering what I could do for my employee’s mental wellbeing and came away knowing not only what I could do but also the important role that Human Resources can and should play in the mental wellbeing of employees. When I was in Boy Scouts, I learned how to give first aid for physical injuries at a merit badge workshop. As an HR Professional, I learned about first aid for the mind at the Working Minds Summit. Both skills can save a life. It’s time we as HR Professionals step up our skill set. Our businesses will be better for it, as will the individuals who we call employees.


Jeff Vanek is a Human Resources Professional and attorney with a Master’s in Science and Technology. He enjoys helping people grow personally and professionally. Jeff is the author of, Somehow I Thought I Would Be Taller: Finding the Courage You Need To Grow Personally & Professionally. This award winning book takes a humorous look at life and career. He lives at the base of Mt. Olympus with his wife, two boys, and dog Lucille Esmeralda McGillicuddy Ricardo Vanek—who just goes by “Lucy” most days. He can be reached at

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