I am not okay!’ Employee Mental Health and the COVID-19 pandemic: The Role of Human Resource Management (HRM)

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Chapter And Authors Information

Riann Singh

The University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus, Trinidad, West Indies

Shalini Ramdeo

The University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus, Trinidad, West Indies
I am not okay!’ Employee Mental Health and the COVID-19 pandemic: The Role of Human Resource Management (HRM)
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Prof. Bhavna Mehta
Content

Abstract

Employee mental health issues in the workplace have been persistent for decades, but with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, these issues have been magnified, they have spiked, and are hitting employees and employers smack in their faces. Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, stress and burnout have soared at its highest in the wake of the uncertainty and fears associated with COVID-19. Employees are experiencing higher rates of mental health issues and are struggling with feelings of isolation, loneliness and stress as significant changes occur in the world and the workplace. Employees are concerned about the stability of their jobs, work-from-home versus on-site work policies and procedures, and are struggling with balancing child/elder care/family issues and responsibilities, among other healthcare anxieties. Employers and their human resource (HR) practitioners are struggling to not only manage such employee mental challenges and to provide the needed support structures and systems, but organisations are also challenged by the reality of considering austerity measures and to stay afloat. Against this background, the Chapter examines the impact of the pandemic on employees’ mental health and the associated work outcomes. The pivotal role of HR and recommendations for managing employee mental health within the COVID-19 context and beyond are also explored.

Keywords

employee mental health, COVID-19, role of HR

1. Introduction

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic; a global disease outbreak threatening all the countries around the world, with over 4,600 deaths at that time (WHO, 2020). This crisis prompted governments to declare health emergencies to combat the coronavirus, enforce physical and social distancing, stay-at-home orders, closure of schools, travel restrictions, and the closure of non-essential businesses (WHO, 2020). As at December 01, 2020, the global death toll due to COVID-19 stood at over 1.6 million, with more than 71.2 million cases (WHO, 2020). Several smaller, developing countries have been forced to close their borders to international flights and even restricted the entry of their own nationals for extended time periods to manage the spread and health risks associated with COVID-19 (UNCTAD, 2020). Businesses within powerhouse economies are struggling to stay afloat due to prolonged lockdowns in 2020 since the start of the pandemic, and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) face massive losses and corporate bankruptcy across several small island developing states (SIDS). Organisations globally are challenged by the reality of considering austerity measures due to extended lockdowns as well. In fact, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) latest Interim Economic Outlook (2020) notes that COVID-19 presents the global economy with its greatest danger since the financial crisis. They project global economic growth falling to 2.4% for the year 2020, compared to an already weak 2.9% in 2019 as supply chains and commodities are hit, tourism drops and confidence falters (OECD, 2020). Indisputably, this situation has a negative impact on business sustainability and individual employment, and has triggered furloughs and layoffs (World Economic Forum, 2020), with no end in sight until the global population has been effectively inoculated against COVID-19. Despite the development of new vaccines, many are still wondering what recovery could look like. Analysts are worried that the possibility of further lockdowns and delays in vaccination programmes might trigger more market volatility in 2021 (Jones, Palumbo & Brown, 2021).
Indeed, the health crisis that is COVID-19 has contributed to a grim economic outlook across the globe. Employees, in this case, need to take care of themselves, of their families and to try to maintain their job positions. With the continuous resurgence of COVID-19 cases and multiple waves around the globe in 2020 and into 2021, employers face the enormous challenge of maintaining a healthy workforce as well (Greenwood & Krol, 2020). But for many, protecting workers from the highly contagious COVID-19 is no longer the top worry; the anxiety, depression, loneliness, burnout, trauma, and stress that continue to afflict employees throughout the pandemic has taken centre stage (Hamouche, 2020; Smith, 2020; Greenwood & Krol, 2020). Such challenges are synonymous with poor employee mental health. Mental health is defined by varying levels of psychological distress along a spectrum (Zhang, Wu, & Zhao 2020). Poor employee mental health has always been a challenge in the workplace and this issue is expected to outlive the pandemic. However, it is COVID-19 that has galvanised mental health challenges, with record levels of psychological distress and related mental health challenges. In fact, more than 42% of employees globally report drastic declines in mental health since the outbreak (Greenwood & Krol, 2020). While vaccines are being developed for COVID-19, there are no vaccines for the associated mental health issues. Consequently, mitigating the hazardous effects of COVID-19 on mental health should be recognised as an international public health priority (Xiong et al., 2020).
There have been many debates on the question of who should assume the responsibility for the management of employees’ mental health; employees, employers, or both employees and employers. Even as the debate goes on, it is indisputable that regardless of where responsibility rests, employers have a role to play in addressing mental health in the workplace. Legally, employers within the realm of occupational health and safety, should ensure the physical and mental health of their employees (Johnson, 2020). HRM can be described as employee management strategies aimed at attracting, developing and maintaining an effective workforce (Redman & Wilkinson, 2013). Mental health challenges can adversely affect employee development, talent, and their effectiveness within the workplace, hence there is a role for the practice of HRM within the management of mental health (Johnson, 2020; Redman & Wilkinson, 2013).
Against this context, the Chapter aims to address the following objectives:
a) Provide an assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on employee mental health and the associated work outcomes.
b) Evaluate the role of HR and propose recommendations for managing employee mental health within the COVID-19 context and beyond.

2. COVID-19, Employee Mental Health and the Implications for associated Work Outcomes

Mental health is often associated with varying levels of stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, loneliness, burnout, isolation, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, and related forms of psychological distress (Rajgopal, 2010). Further, the mental health of employees is a crucial determinant in their overall health and poor mental health and stressors at the workplace can be a contributory factor to a range of physical illnesses like hypertension, diabetes, various disabilities, and cardiovascular conditions (Rajgopal, 2010). Long before COVID-19, data from different countries around the world also indicate that mental health problems lead to numerous negative work outcomes, including absenteeism and voluntary turnover (O’Leary, 1993). For example, in the Netherlands, around 58% of the work-related disabilities were related to mental health, and in the United Kingdom around 30–40% of the sickness absence was attributable to some form of mental illness (O’Leary, 1993), based on statistics in 1993. Fast forward to 2020, employee mental health issues have persisted over the years and skyrocketed by massive proportions within the COVID context. The impact of poor mental health continue to negatively ‘break’ employees (Greenwood & Krol, 2020) and prove costly to organisations.
The development of mental health problems is indeed complicated, and often there is no single or identifiable cause. Nonetheless, there are risk factors that may trigger mental health problems, including heredity, negative life events, certain medications, diseases or illnesses, and work-related stress. Even so, there is a general consensus that employee mental health is often shaped by different types and forms of stressors, where stressors can be described as anything that causes tension or a state of strain to an individual (Cummins et al., 2015).
The current pandemic is a source of intense stress for the whole world population (Abbas et al., 2021). Further, the COVID-19 pandemic is related to many stressors that can drain employees’ mental health, during and after this pandemic (Hamouche, 2020). For example, frontline workers face the daily trauma of putting their health at risk; teachers, children and parents are navigating distance and virtual learning; employees are struggling to adapt to long-term remote work and to cope with return-to-work policies; employees are concerned about the stability of their jobs, finances and the economy; employees are struggling with balancing child/elder care/family issues and responsibilities, among other healthcare anxieties, threats and risks; isolation, social distancing and quarantine synonymous with the pandemic result in loneliness, and a host of other possible mental problem (Wang et al., 2020; Xiang et al., 2020. The list of stressors lengthens as the pandemic persists. These pandemic stressors can therefore be categorised based on: perceived risk of contagion/safety, social exclusion, fear of the unknown, financial loss and job insecurity, and quarantine/isolation/confinement (Brooks et al., 2020; Qiu et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020; Xiang et al., 2020). Researchers have recognised that feeling unsafe and vulnerable to pandemics are predictors of poor employee mental health (Brooks et al., 2018; Chen et al., 2020). Social exclusion can also be directed towards confirmed patients, survivors (Zhang et al., 2020), and individuals who have been quarantined or who have been in contact with those who have been quarantined. Such rejection and discrimination are associated with poor psychological outcomes and distress (Brooks et al., 2018). Fears of the unknown surrounding the pandemic creates confusion, uncertainty and increases the level of stress felt by employees and their capability to cope with business disruptions. The impact of the pandemic outbreak on businesses, organisational reforms, business closures, layoffs, and reductions of working hours significantly increases employees’ feeling of job insecurity, which can have a negative impact on their mental health as well (Rossi et al., 2020). In fact, the negative effect of job insecurity has been widely documented in literature on mental health in the workplace. Quarantine, isolation, and social distancing are also associated with high stress levels, depression, irritability and insomnia, and trauma-related disorders (Rossi et al., 2020).
It is therefore indisputable that mental health is negatively affected by pandemic stressors (Abbas et al., 2021). Evidence from around the world illustrates the deep and profound impact of COVID-19 on employee mental health (Chen et al., 2020). In fact, Staglin (2020) notes that up to fall of 2020, one survey in the United States (U.S.) showed that 74% of workers remain concerned about at least one aspect of their mental health and well-being due to COVID-19. Depression, alcohol, other substance misuse and anxiety have all skyrocketed among employees because of COVID-19 as well. Further, in China, in a nationwide survey including more than 50,000 Chinese respondents, almost 35% of the participants reported trauma-related distress symptoms, with women and young adults showing significantly higher psychological distress in the workplace (Xiong et al., 2020). Greater psychological distress arose in women partially because they represent a higher percentage of the workforce that may be negatively affected by COVID-19, such as retail, the service industry, and healthcare. Job loss and unpredictability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic among the under 40 age group was deemed particularly stressful (Xiong et al., 2020). Surges in unemployment rates were noted in many developing countries, where decreases in the quality of life and uncertainty as a result of financial hardships put employees at higher risks for developing adverse psychological symptoms. Unemployment rates have also increased across major economies (Jones, Palumbo & Brown, 2021), such as the U.S. (8.9%), the United Kingdom (UK) (5.4%), France (8.9%), Italy (11%), Canada (9.7%), and Brazil (13.4%). In fact, McIntyre and Lee (2020) have reported a projected increase in suicide from 418 to 2114 in Canadian suicide cases associated with joblessness. The rising trajectory of suicide was reported in the U.S., Pakistan, India, France, Germany, and Italy (Mamun & Ullah, 2020). Research by Hao et al. (2020) have also reported an increase in psychological distress in the general world population, persons with pre-existing mental disorders, as well as in healthcare workers.
Studies suggest that some pandemic stressors that have evolved during pandemic outbreaks have long-lasting effects (Brooks et al., 2020); they remain even after the disappearance of pandemics. Consequently, it is expected that COVID-19 stressors will continue to impact employee mental health for a long time. Indeed, the economic stressors of this pandemic in particular will have lasting effects on employment, the job market, and job security. Therefore, workplaces in particular are expected to be affected for a long time by COVID-19.
Interestingly, Greenwood, Bapat, and Maughan (2019) note that over 200 million workdays are lost due to mental health conditions each year around the globe, and yet, almost 60% of employees never speak out to anyone at work about their mental health status. Therefore, in the workplace, mental health has always been a largely taboo subject (Greenwood, Bapat & Maughan, 2019). However, the pandemic has prompted a global mental health crisis like never before and hence the role of employee mental health in the workplace cannot be ignored and warrants priority (Smith, 2020). In fact, more and more workplaces and employees have started talking out about their mental health (Greenwood & Krol, 2020; Abbas et al., 2021). Think about this: in 2007, the annual cost of lost productivity, increased absenteeism, and turnover because of poor mental health to U.S. businesses was estimated at $44 billion (Sime, 2019). In 2019, pre-COVID in the U.S., it was estimated that mental health costs businesses between $80 and $100 billion and up to $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year (Sime, 2019). In the U.K., Sime (2019) also notes that mental health problems in the workplace cost the economy more than €70 billion annually. Further, it is estimated that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety cost the global economy more than US$1 trillion in lost productivity. Now, think about COVID-19 and its mental health impact on work-related outcomes and organisational costs on top of these already alarming statistics.
Health care, emergency and other such essential employees who are on the frontline of the pandemic report the highest levels of stress, disordered sleep, and burnout, with more than a 48% drop in work motivation by September 2020 as a result of such mental health issues (Smith, 2020). Decreases in work motivation is known to be one of the influential factors that can negatively affect employee performance, productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness (Lee & Raschke, 2016; Shkoler & Kimura, 2020). For employees within non- essential categories, ‘work-from-home’, ‘remote work’, ‘return-to-work,’ and ‘no work’ realities brought on by and expected to continue after COVID-19, have also negatively affected work productivity, employee attitudes, employee intentions and employee behaviours (Song et al., 2020). Indeed, the specific mental health challenges employees face due to the pandemic differ by industry, age, and gender, yet the overall trend shows increases in stress, burnout, depression, and disordered sleep resulting in diminished work motivation (Song, et al., 2020). Such mental health challenges not only negatively affects employees’ job performance and productivity, but also affects work engagement; communication, cooperation, and teamwork with co-workers; physical ability and capability, as well as, their daily functioning (Lee & Raschke, 2016; Shkoler & Kimura, 2020). Further, employees’ ability to complete physical job tasks and their cognitive performance is negatively affected by high stakes mental health challenges such as depression and stress (Greenwood, Bapat, & Maughan, 2019).
While employees are also responsible for their own mental health and can take initiatives to address psychological distress and their well-being, businesses must recognise the hard-core impact of employee mental health on company performance and related work-outcomes (Rossi et al., 2020; Abbas et al., 2021). In this era of anxiety, leading organisations need to step up and focus on the central question: how can they strategically invest, provide mental health resources, train managers, and mould their culture to help employees navigate this difficult period—and in, future sustain the benefits for the long-term?

3. Managing Employee Mental Health: HRM and Recommendations for the way forward

Businesses and workplaces are nothing without their employees. Hence, employer-led mental health responses are logical and makes business sense (Greenwood, Bapat & Maughan, 2019). Indeed, employee mental health and well-being should be a key focus in HRM due to its links with employees’ overall work performance (Abbas et al., 2021). Therefore, HR must focus on employee health as a key part of its business strategy, and recognise that the management of mental health issues requires a strategic HR approach. Indeed, employer support for employee mental health can help reduce behavioural health risk, as well as, improve engagement and commitment from employees (Lee & Raschke, 2016). Perceptions of employer support, therefore, serve as a critical buffer against stressors associated with COVID-19 (Greenwood & Krol, 2020), which affect employee mental health. In fact, research in 2020 indicates that the rate of increase in job stress among global employees who feel unsupported by their employer during the pandemic was more than 10 times higher than those who feel strongly supported (Smith, 2020). Increases in symptoms of burnout, disordered sleep, and motivation difficulties were also all substantially higher among those who did not feel supported by their employers as well (Smith, 2020).
Indeed, HRM focuses on employer-led strategies, systems, and approaches designed to attract, develop and maintain an effective workforce. The practice of HRM relies on a number of systematic approaches aimed at building human capital advantages that can drive competitiveness (Guest, 2018; Redman & Wilkinson, 2013). Human capital advantage describes the benefits or value employees provide through their knowledge, skills, and abilities, which build a sustainable competitive advantage (Redman & Wilkinson, 2013). HR approaches, when appropriately combined, can therefore help to build a motivated workforce to further drive productivity and competitiveness. It is commonly reported in the HR literature that it is the people, or human capital, that can provide companies with the competitive advantage (Kowalski & Loretto, 2017), further supporting the rationale to place employee well-being at the forefront of HR strategy in the twenty-first century. Factors that threaten the health, safety and well-being of employees, however, hampers employee motivation and human capital advantages (Ipsen, Murray & Nardelli, 2020). Poor mental health threatens the safety and well-being of employees. Indeed, the most classical, foundation motivational models recognises that employees have safety needs (Redman & Wilkinson, 2013). When such needs are addressed by employers, employees are much more productive. There is a widespread understanding that “good health is good for business” and that health and wellbeing play a role in both individual performance and broader organisational performance, and vice versa (Guest, 2018; Pfeffer, 2019). In this context, HR has a leading role to play in the management of employee mental health in the context of pandemic stressors and beyond.
Greenwood and Krol (2020), in their study examined the HRM strategies of a few notable companies around the globe, within the first nine (9) months of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study found that Ernst and Young (EY), one of the global leaders in assurance, tax, transaction, and advisory services, supplemented their already existing suite of offerings around emotional well-being within the first week of the pandemic. For example, free mobile apps for building emotional resilience and improving sleep habits were provided to employees, one-one counselling with EY or external clinicians, daily group counselling sessions for parents, adult caregivers, and people caring for family members with disabilities, daily drop-in sessions combining short mindfulness exercises with practical tips for managing anxiety, social isolation and feeling overwhelmed, backup adult and childcare support was extended and virtual yoga, workout classes and volunteer opportunities were added. Emirates, a leading Dubai-based airline, offered everything from group chats and guided meditation to personal counselling for employees who need it with the pandemic. The airline made a concerted effort to ensure that employees feel comfortable sharing their feelings and any mental health issues. They also led initiatives to make senior managers more comfortable in engaging on matters of employee mental health. American Express, which has an employee mental health program for more than a decade prior to the pandemic, focused on meeting employees where they are—the company does regular sentiment checks on how employees feel about returning to the office among other things—and improving access to mental health care. At a time when so many employees are working remotely, and possibly in isolation, the company has made community building a major focus as well (Greenwood & Krol, 2020).
These business examples, as highlighted by Greenwood and Krol (2020), reinforce the idea that leading organisations recognises the need to address employee mental health through: supportive mental health policies, practices and procedures, communication, leading and building connections on mental health in the workplace, and normalising employee mental health issues, among other HR approaches and strategies. Indeed, such initiatives may be useful, however, they must be incorporated within a larger HRM framework for building employee resilience to manage mental health challenges emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond as well. Mental health is indeed the foundation of employee well-being and is central to human behaviour across all domains, including the workplace (WHO, 2005). Further, there is evidence to suggest that poor well-being at work can have adverse effects on performance and overall productivity (Kowalski & Loretto, 2017). Building and developing employee resilience should therefore be at the core of any HRM approach for managing mental health in the workplace.

3.1. Building and Developing a Resilient Workforce

Pandemics such as COVID-19 and the trauma associated with it, requires a resilient workforce. Resilience speaks to the ability or capacity of the employees within organisations, who are supported by their organisations to cope with, thrive, survive, and even grow within challenging environments (Nguyen et al., 2016). According to the existing body of research on employee resilience (Rego et al., 2017), a resilient workforce should be regarded as an important source of competitive advantage, way beyond the economic and social resources within organisations. Employee resilience embodies a transformational process where employees persevere, respond positively, keep an open mind, and strive to improve continuously even in the face of adversity (Yilmaz, 2017). Over time, this transformational process leads to resilient employees who can drive organisations forward strategically. Further, resilience also describes as the ability of employees to rebound from adversity and hence it enhances employee responses to stressful and traumatic circumstances (Yilmaz, 2017).
Indeed, the pandemic represents workplace trauma for many employees, which impacts their mental health, how a person responds to stress, how they think and feel, and of course, their productivity (Kowalski & Loretto, 2017; Riegel, 2020). Consequently, building employee resilience becomes important in the context of coping with the pandemic and growing beyond COVID-19. How can businesses support employee resilience as the core aspect of their HR response to the mental health challenges associated with COVID-19?

3.2. Normalising Mental Health

Firstly, employee mental health and its associated challenges must be recognised as normal, common issues within today’s workplace where crisis, uncertainty, and trauma predominate (Riegel, 2020). Indeed, employee resilience speaks about the coping abilities of employees, and hence mental health should be seen as a normal workplace issue, which requires the support of HR, leaders, and employers at large (Yilmaz, 2017). How can we normalise employee mental health, which has been largely seen as a taboo employee workplace issue for decades? Talking about mental health can be tricky at best and terrifying at worst. More importantly, it becomes a destructive cycle — the less people talk about it at work (even when they know they and others are struggling), the more the stigma grows (Yilmaz, 2017). To end this cycle, mental health must be addressed proactively, strategically, and thoughtfully. After all, the way we talk to others who are dealing with stress, depression and anxiety (and to ourselves) has a major impact on how we feel (Riegel, 2020).
One silver lining of the pandemic is that employees are talking more openly about mental health challenges than ever before (Riegel, 2020, Greenwood & Krol, 2020). Leaders, employers, and employees around the world have experienced some level of discomfort, stress, economic loss, and/or psychological distress emerging from the pandemic. The universality of the pandemic experience should translate into decreased stigma only if employees are encouraged to share their experiences (Smith, 2020). HR practitioners and organisational leaders should talk about employee health holistically, avoid trying to ‘fix’ employees, but rather offer and provide supportive resources, and really listen to employees, while suspending judgement. Being honest about mental health struggles as a leader further opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking about mental health challenges of their own. The normalisation of employee mental health can indeed enhance the coping abilities and resilience of employees (Riegel, 2020; Yilmaz, 2017) to traverse and persevere through and beyond any pandemic.
3.3. Employer/HR/Leader Support, Communication and Connection
Leadership influences the lives of employees in the workplace and also affects employee responses, coping abilities and productivity within that workplace as well (Redman & Wilkinson, 2013). Employees who are supported by their leaders and HR team within the organisation are more likely to better cope with pandemic stressors that negatively affect mental health. Therefore, the actions of HR executives, line managers and others in leadership positions play a vital role in affecting the ability of employees to manage their mental health anxieties and stress (Abbas et al., 2021).
Indeed, one of the most common indications of leader/organisational support for their employees is through the provision of supportive mental health policies and services. Even so, it is insufficient to simply state policies and say you provide supportive services; employees must be aware of it and feel comfortable accessing the services easily as well. Stigma and the taboo associated with mental health prevent many employees from using their mental health benefits to seek treatment (Abbas et al. 2021). Therefore, leaders must normalise the use of those services and model healthy behaviours; model it so employees, groups, and team members feel they can prioritize self-care and set boundaries (Smith, 2020). To reduce pandemic stressors, HR leaders should also be as generous and flexible as possible in updating policies and practices, for example, re-examining rules and norms around flexible hours, paid time off, email and other communications, paid and unpaid leave, and the like. Consequently, flexibility should become an integral part of effective HR approaches to manage employee mental health (Riegel, 2020; Kowalski & Loretto, 2017).
Furthermore, communication is critically important in making employees aware of available mental health resources and encouraging them to use it (Kowalski & Loretto, 2017). A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) study revealed that employees who felt their managers were not good at communicating have been 23% more likely than others to experience mental health declines due to the pandemic (Greenwood & Krol, 2020). HR and their line managers must keep employees informed about any organisational changes, clarify any updates, and manage stress by setting clear work expectations.
Establishing connections at all levels within the organisation, and intentionally checking in with employees regularly is critical now more than ever during the pandemic to understand the primary stressors and needs of staff (Riegel, 2020). While the importance of connectivity has long been established as a key component of well-designed HR approaches (Redman & Wilkinson, 2013), it has been under-utilised in pre-pandemic days. The pandemic has changed work approaches in such ways that it may be even harder to notice the signs that employees are struggling. Greenwood and Krol (2020) noted that nearly 40% of global employees reported that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing okay since COVID-19. Further, the majority of those employees were 38% less likely to report mental health challenges. Indeed, employees can develop resilience only when they feel supported by and connected to their employers as well. This idea of developing connections should indeed be sustained and become a feature of all workplaces moving beyond the pandemic to support mental health and employee well-being.
Invest in Training and Development and Modify Performance Evaluations as core HR Practices
Indeed, training and development is one of the core HRM functions necessary for the development of an effective workforce. It represents an investment for organisations which recognise the need to develop employees as assets on an on-going basis (Guest, 2018). The COVID-19 pandemic have hit organisations economically, however, the organisations which survive and thrive through and after the mental health crisis caused by the pandemic, will be the ones that really invest in employee training (Smith, 2020). Proactive and preventive workplace mental health training for HR leaders, line managers, and employees as far as possible should be prioritised. For example, prior to the pandemic, large companies such as Verizon Media invested in the creation of a strong mental health culture starting with the training of their senior leaders and spreading across the organisation (Greenwood & Krol, 2020). This move positioned Verizon to successfully navigate the uncertainty that has unfolded during the pandemic thus far. As more and more employees struggle with mental health, it is important to build the necessary skills and competencies to have productive conversations about mental health at work. Low-cost mental health training can focus on increasing mental health awareness, building employee communities to tackle mental health challenges and offering peer support; developing employees’ coping abilities at minimal costs to the organisation (Guest, 2018).
Performance management is another core HRM function used to evaluate employee performance as HR practitioners strive to maintain an effective workforce (Guest, 2018). To navigate through and beyond COVID-19 in addressing employee mental health in particular, performance appraisal approaches must be reviewed and adapted. For years, employees continue to have mixed emotions on whether performance reviews motivate or hamper their well-being (Redman & Wilkinson, 2013). However, it is quite apparent that a mentally healthy workforce requires the reframing of performance appraisals as opportunities for compassionate feedback and learning instead of evaluations against strict targets (Smith, 2020). Further, HR should be clear that any such reframing is in support of the mental health of employees.
In summary, organisations should recognise that HR systems are not designed to add to employee stress that they may be experiencing due to a host of different reasons, including pandemic stressors. HR should be perceived as the supportive foundation which builds employee resilience to cope with any adversity, including pandemic and other workplace stressors. While many different management approaches have been used by organisations around the world to address employee mental health with varying levels of success, it must be recognised that HR has a driving role to play in the development of a mentally healthy global workforce. Yes, COVID-19 has thrown the global workforce into a mental health crisis. HR approaches, however, can serve as the catalyst for developing employee resilience to take workplaces beyond the pandemic. It is therefore recommended that these HR approaches be integrated into larger strategic approaches for employees to achieve their full potential.

4. Conclusion

Employee mental health has been a workplace issue long before COVID-19 and it is expected to continue over time if left unmanaged. In this Chapter, it is recognised that COVID-19 has brought the mental health crisis to the forefront as global workforces report record levels of mental health challenges that threaten employee well-being and impact important work-related outcomes such as organisational productivity and performance. This context provides the right opportunity and impetus needed to incorporate HRM approaches to create mentally healthy workplaces that should have existed all along. It was therefore recommended that HR approaches be used to build employee resilience to navigate and thrive through and beyond COVID-19. After all, HRM is about creating effective workforces to drive organisational success.

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