By Anne Evenson
Human resources expert and CPE instructor Angela Shaw talks about supporting a colleague who may be struggling emotionally.
“With everything being so stressful these days, I think checking in becomes more relevant, necessary and wanted.”
Angela Shaw, Vice President of Human Resources, Campus Advantage
Assisting a friend or family member who may be depressed or anxious can feel tricky at any time, but when it’s an employee or coworker, things can seem even more complicated. However, supporting a colleague who may be struggling emotionally due to the Covid-19 pandemic, social unrest, illness or death in the family is vitally important.
Many people are experiencing an unprecedented amount of stress right now, and some are isolated at home with children and limited or no childcare, elderly parents or unemployed partners. We need to care for the people we work with now more than ever.
To talk about this complex subject, I sat down with Angela Shaw, an instructor for UT Austin’s Center for Professional Education and accomplished human resource professional. Angela has 20 years of human resources experience across multiple industries, including retail, government, health care and education. Angela currently serves as the Vice President of Human Resources for Campus Advantage, a national student housing company.
Anne: What is it about human resources that inspires you personally and professionally?
Angela: I didn’t start out doing HR, but I always thought I would love it. When I had the opportunity to take on some HR duties, I did, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is what I want to do!” What I’ve found as I’ve grown into my career, is that I do well when I can positively affect people throughout an organization in a lot of different ways.
Humans are an essential part of every organization, and what I get to do in HR is to make sure that all those voices are heard. I don’t take that lightly, and I use every opportunity to lift people up. I’m a people’s advocate within the organization. I think that how I felt about HR and how I practiced HR—that I wanted people to feel cared for—made me a leader. I was very intentional with that because I wanted to be effective in my role.
As part of the executive leadership team at Campus Advantage, I’ve been at the forefront of our response to COVID-19 and the social unrest around racism. When I use my voice to speak up, I’m activating my power, and I’m proud of the positive effect on our employees. Even during these emotionally trying times, that’s what helps me keep going.
Anne: I think an unintended consequence of the stigma that’s attached to mental health issues is the fear of saying or doing something to make things worse for the person who is suffering whenever someone tries to express concern or offer support. Can someone check on their coworker without crossing any personal, professional, legal or ethical boundaries?
Angela: I agree that there’s a stigma, which is why the confidentiality part is so important from an HR perspective. An HR person or a supervisor is legally prohibited from spreading information about an employee’s health condition, including mental health. It’s a need to know kind of thing.
Beyond that, I would say that the personal relationship between employees dictates what happens. When it relates to mental health in particular, I think there would need to be some kind of friendship for anyone to feel comfortable enough to reach out.
I do think it’s important to have proactive training for managers about how to handle these types of situations. For example, how to have sensitive conversations with an employee, when they should hand it over to HR and how they can show care for employees. Also, thinking about more practical aspects like how work will be covered if any employee needs to take leave. I think it’s beneficial to talk about these kinds of things before they happen.
But generally, if you aren’t close to that person, I probably wouldn’t reach out. Unless the employee is telling you what happened to them, then yes, that’s a person that you probably should be checking on from time to time, because they’ve shared with you something specific about themselves. If a third party shared information with you, then I think it would be weird to reach out. That’s just a human thing, not necessarily an HR or management thing.
I think it’s wise to start building those relationships now so that we can avoid these types of sticky situations. With everything being so stressful these days, I think checking in becomes more relevant, necessary and wanted. Work on those relationships now, so that it’s not weird, and you can keep connections with one another.
Anne: Now that we see a surge in COVID-19 cases in Texas and beyond, people we know will be affected directly. We’re going to know more people who have family members who may be sick or dying. How might people offer support or condolences to their colleagues?
Angela: Begin with understanding your coworkers’ boundaries. If something specific happens and a coworker decides to reach out to you, that’s fine, but be sensitive about it. Provide a listening ear, a helping hand and an open heart. It’s all about emotional intelligence. Remember to let them know that you care about how they feel and that you’re going to pay attention to that. It’s about creating a safe space for them to have a conversation with you. Don’t judge, check your ego and just give them the space to have their feelings and be themselves, whatever that looks like for them.
Anne: When is it appropriate to approach your supervisor with concerns about a colleague’s mental health situation?
Angela: I’m going to keep this real simple: only when it’s affecting their work or yours. I think in any other situation, it would be deemed nosy or overreaching, but again, it has to do with the kind of relationship you have with your coworker.
Anne: What mental health tools and resources should an organization make available to their workforce that are specific to our present situation?
Angela: A company’s most essential component is its workforce, and I think organizations should know and care about who’s showing up to work for them every day. There are formal benefits companies can offer, like employee assistance programs, and paid time off.
There are also many more simple things that people can do to help their employees. At Campus Advantage, we created an employee resource page that included items such as self-care bingo, hotline phone numbers for depression and how supervisors can check in on their employees.
Our chief learning and development officer interviewed a psychologist, and we put that out where everybody could watch it. The psychologist was advising on ways to stay sane during COVID-19, listing specific things people could do every day to maintain their mental and physical health.
We’ve also instituted check-ins from every level. A couple of weeks ago, we asked members of our executive leadership team to split up the list of general managers at each site and give them a call just to see how they were coping. There was no specific thing, it was just, “How are you, how is everything going? Are there things that you need that you’re not getting?” It went over so well. I think that personal contact from somebody on the executive leadership team—that they don’t talk to regularly—was so welcome and needed.
Anne: Do you have any final thoughts?
Angela: Covid-19 and social unrest are taking place simultaneously, and while they are shaping history, they are also affecting people’s mental health. We can’t ignore COVID-19 and act like it’s not happening. We can’t disregard social unrest and be silent about it because that just makes us complicit. We must understand how these circumstances are affecting our employees and our colleagues every single day and remain human in our response. I think organizations will get a much better result if they approach these issues head-on. The important part is to start somewhere and remember that no one has all the answers. No one does, but you know, you have to get on the road. You gotta start the trip.
Anne Evenson is a marketing specialist and copy editor working in Austin, Texas. She holds a BFA in Fibers and Printmaking from the Kansas City Art Institute.
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