2020 may have been one of the most stressful years on record for HR — but a change in approach could keep pros on track, according to a recent report.

Employee burnout is top of mind for many employers as the pandemic continues into 2021. Building resilience in workforces, especially during a crisis, includes both mental health and financial health, according to experts.

“I’m such a big believer of the connection between financial stress and general stress, physical health and mental health, and also the connection between employees’ stress, and how it affects productivity and performance,” Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global said during a Jan. 28 webinar hosted by Even discussing the future of HR and the role of HR leaders in de-stressing the workforce.

An October 2020 report by Reward Gateway found that 71% of HR professionalssurveyed across the U.K., U.S. and Australia said 2020 has been the most stressful year of their career.

An HR leader is “usually the one who’s running around, trying to make sure everybody else is taken care of,” said Telvin Jeffries, a former chief human resources officer at Kohl’s who moderated the discussion. HR leaders sometimes neglect their own needs, Jefferies said. And if senior leadership doesn’t set an example of self care, then “everyone else doesn’t think they have that permission to actually take care of themselves,” he said.

Huffington’s company works to drive “microsteps” to support well-being and performance in the workplace and drive productivity, she explained. Accenture is an example of one of the Fortune 500 companies Huffington works with where HR leaders are focusing on self care.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I talked to the 35 people who lead Accenture, globally,” she said. “They all felt that it would be self indulgent to go for a walk, or to disconnect from their phones at night. I’m sure a lot of HR leaders right now feel that incredible burden on their shoulders. So how can they be convinced to look at the data for themselves, first, and recognize that when they can go for a walk every day, and take some time to take care of themselves, they’re going to be better leaders?”

Taking the time for small steps, literally, is helping some leaders begin to de-stress, according to Huffington. For example, Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer at Accenture, once expressed to Huffington that she’s learned to take time for self care. “She said to me, ‘Ariana, this is my 300th day of not missing my walk; and it has made me a better HR leader,'” Huffington said of the conversation.

“When it starts at the top, there is like a cascading effect of cultural permission,” Huffington said, “and the recognition that the connection between well-being and performance applies across the whole organization.” In June, an Accenture leader asked his team to end conference calls by 5:30 p.m. each day and, during the summer, limit the amount of large meetings on Fridays, according to Bloomberg. Employees also are offered access to meditation app Headspace.

Financial Stress

A challenge with financial health is that we don’t talk about it in our culture, Even CEO Jon Schlossberg said during the webinar.

“A lot of executives, HR executives, or executives generally are actually struggling financially because the crazy thing about our economy right now — it’s really not working for the bottom 90%, including lots of executives,” he said. Although some of the financial problems that executives have are different than that of many employees, the results are still the same — “you’re stressed out,” Schlossberg said. “A big hurdle” HR leaders need to get over is a “cultural unwillingness” to talk openly about the money struggles, he said.

To alleviate one of the biggest sources of workforce stress, the answer isn’t for employers to just offer personal finance advice and 401(k) plans, which isn’t useful for some employees living paycheck to paycheck, Schlossberg said. Employers can help transform how employees think about pay by investing in employees’ short-term as well as long-term financial wellness, resulting in stronger business returns and lives for employees, he said. Schlossberg pointed to PayPal as an example.

“Dan Schulman [president and CEO of PayPal] said over a year ago, ‘I am not satisfied with how my people feel about their finances, working at this company that I run,'” Schlossberg explained. “He made it his mission and instructed his entire organization to first go and learn why are so many people struggling, and then create a plan for ensuring that people throughout his entire workforce, including his executives, would move towards financial resilience.” An employee-first philosophy has been critical to PayPal’s success, Schulman told Business Insider in an interview published in December 2020.

A September 2020 Bank of America report based on a nationwide survey of 996 employees and 808 employers found that 62% of employers said they feel “extremely” responsible for employees’ financial wellness, compared to less than a quarter (13%) of employers in 2013. The majority (83%) of employers believed financial wellness tools lead to greater productivity — and most employees agreed. “Employees now want to see education and support that will help them not just save for retirement, but also help with everyday financial decisions,” according to the report.

Financial stress is widespread, Huffington said. “We are seeing within a lot of the companies we’re working with the stress of [a] spouse losing their job,” she said, “and now you have to keep the household going … on one income.” In a focus on solutions to decrease stress and anxiety, “there are microsteps we can take,” Huffington said. “There is a community we can build, where, as Jon said, we can talk about these things and find support and learn from each other, and not feel shame,” she said.

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