We’ve reached a pivotal point for mental health at work – let’s not turn back

Debra Thompson shares how her organisation has been maintaining its workforce’s psychological wellbeing during Covid 

The Covid pandemic has had a profound impact on the mental health of people of all ages, all over the world. Given this, as an HR professional, during this past year the mental health of our employees has never been more important. 

As our employees have worked from home, managed children who are learning remotely, looked after ill family members, or managed isolation that comes from living alone, we as employers have had to step up to provide support.

During the pandemic, about four in 10 adults in the US reported symptoms of anxiety of depressive disorder, up from one in 10 who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.

Now, more than ever, it is critical to reduce the stigma around mental health struggles, not only because of Covid, but because the stigma often prevents individuals from seeking help. It is up to us as company leaders to take charge, to lead by example and provide tools to support our employees. 

So how can employers help? Every employee’s journey will be different. Those with children are facing different challenges to those who live alone. At Chegg, we have a belief that we need to meet each employee where they are in their journey of life. It’s no easy task to cater for all employees regardless of tenure, experience, geographical location or personal situation. For instance, Chegg’s employee resource groups (ERGs) have long been in existence to connect people, foster belonging and cultivate learning from diverse perspectives and backgrounds. However, while we’ve had Parents@Chegg, Pride, Umoja Para Todos and CheggHER ERGs for many years, this past year we identified a need for two additional groups. One focuses on helping emerging professionals, and one is for employees who have invisible disabilities. Those just starting out in their careers often lack the connections that an office environment typically provides because they are working remotely. During Covid, people who have an invisible disability – such as OCD, anxiety, etc – have needed resources and support more than ever. 

Our invisible disabilities group has provided our employees with access to expert speakers and a channel to share their concerns, provide empathy to one another and suggest improvements that we can implement company wide. The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive and many members have commented that they’ve been more open about their disability than ever before in the workplace, and feel they can get the support they need to manage their mental health while doing their job.

At Chegg, we also assessed our approach to the working week and time off. In April 2020, we gave all Chegg employees the same day off to take a breather while working remotely during the pandemic was so new to everyone. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. People really appreciated that everyone was off at the same time and they weren’t missing vital meetings or emails. We decided to have a further company-wide week-long break in July and last month we announced that this mid-year break would be annual. 

In addition, employees will get another week-long break in the autumn. In the US, for Thanksgiving, in Israel during a similar time, and in India for Diwali. Again, meeting our employees where they are – this time based on geography. We have a flexible holiday policy at Chegg; no set number of days, just mutually agreeable with your manager. In addition to our flexible time off policy, in 2020 we provided several days where all employees in the company were off at the same time. When we totalled the additional time off recently, it equalled 22 days. In a recent employee survey, 44 per cent of our employees said that extended holidays and days off was the most important perk or amenity as we return to a hybrid working environment. We balance these benefits and perks with the needs of our business, and we ground our decisions based on data. 

Another perk that was well received by employees was our pandemic childcare benefit. School closures and lack of childcare had an even larger impact on parents with children in their home under the age of 18 who have transitioned to working from home during the pandemic. Parents’ mental health was suffering. We provided them with up to an additional $2,000 to help with additional childcare that they may have needed because of the pandemic. 

As we look to the future, we understand there may be anxiety around returning to normal. For some, that will mean returning to an office. As HR leaders, we need to assess our various locations around the world. Timing looks very different in Israel where they may be close to reaching herd immunity, compared to India where cases recently reached a high. Chegg is taking a regional approach to reopening offices using local guidance and company-wide oversite to make the reopening decisions. 

Regardless of your company’s approach, effective planning and regular employee communications will be vital in alleviating anxiety.

Finally, a lighthearted idea we shared with our employees recently is the Chegg playlist to promote positive mental health – they are upbeat, feel-good songs that you can’t help getting up to dance to, which we often play at the beginning of our monthly ‘all hands’ meetings. We all shared our favourites on Slack – mine is Gladiator by Zayde Wolf. What’s yours?

Debra Thompson is chief people officer at Chegg