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HR or H&S: Who's Responsible for Wellbeing?

5th July 2022

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Awareness about mental health and wellbeing has never been more front-of-mind for organisations and business leaders alike. Over the last decade, we’ve seen a paradigm shift in thinking, where general attitudes towards mental wellbeing have transformed. It’s no longer acceptable for organisations to completely ignore mental wellbeing, or discredit employees who need help. 

The narrative has changed to normalise speaking about mental health - and workplaces have played and continue to play a crucial role in doing so. However, despite the increased awareness of mental wellbeing, mental health issues continue to be pervasive, especially in Australia and New Zealand. 

We’re bombarded by headlines warning us of a looming recession and hard times ahead, which directly follow two years spent in and out of lockdowns. We’re still adjusting to hybrid work, faster career movement, and the Great Resignation; all of which can have a great impact on an individual’s mental wellbeing. 

How can the workplace help?

We first need to define who’s responsible for mental wellbeing. While we all know that reducing stress, creating a strong culture, and acknowledging that mental health problems do exist are all helpful strategies, are we clear on which team is the guiding force for all things mental health?

It’s a debate running rampant in online forums, as well as HR and H&S communities alike. 

If your people are experiencing stress and fatigue, do you have a dedicated, qualified person or group of people who can help care for them? 

When mental wellbeing becomes a grey area, where it’s not clear which team should take charge, it’s easier for leaders to pass responsibility around like a parcel at a child’s party. 

Common mental health detractors in the workplace:

Before determining who takes care of mental wellbeing, it’s key that we understand the common drivers of poor mental health in the workplace. Of course, mental health issues often stem from reasons beyond work, and are not always fixed with work-based initiatives, like pizza on Fridays, or ping-pong tables. If an employee is experiencing clinical depression or other disorders, seeking help from a professional is the most important first step. 

However, sometimes work can rock the mental wellbeing boat, creating chronic states of stress which lead to significant outcomes like burnout. When the work tasks are high risk, or the people in the workplace pile on stress, things can spiral quickly.

Any form of stress - either internal, or external pressure - can be a major factor in decreasing mental wellbeing. Managers might press hard for work to be completed by tricky deadlines, or external factors such as the end of the financial year creates demanding circumstances. Furthermore, the fallout from difficult situations; such as unhappy clients, or strained relationships with suppliers, can inevitably land on one unlucky individual. 

Sometimes, the organisational culture is a high-blame, high-shame culture, where mistakes are not understood with grace. Rather, any time an error arises, fingers are pointed, heads droop, and mental wellbeing suffers.

It’s no secret that poor mental health has disastrous organisational effects, extending far beyond their personal impact. Poor mental health decreases productivity and affects labour turnover, hurting the business’s bottom line. 


The function of HR teams

HR teams’ work predominantly revolves around recruitment and retention, as well as fostering and sustaining a positive office culture. 

When it comes to mental health, HR is responsible for educating teams about common issues and their options, helping to eliminate stigma. When they can make the wider workforce aware of how pervasive mental health issues can be, they help to encourage people to speak up to their managers if they’re experiencing personal or professional difficulties. 

HR can also help provide appropriate resources, helping to implement EAP programmes where free mental health counselling is available for employees. 

Typically, HR teams deal with the fallout from poor mental health. When employees need to take a day off, they’ll speak to HR. If employees are having difficulties with their manager or a colleague - or even experiencing bullying - they can speak to HR. 

The HR team might uphold culture by organising in-office events to celebrate particular things and alleviate stress. However, HR does not usually create systems that mitigate these problems altogether. 


The function of H&S teams

Primarily, H&S teams oversee compliance; managing and improving workplace health and safety. They do this by collecting and analysing data, leading to positive action and - hopefully - mitigation. Their role focuses on reducing incident or near-miss rates, and, in turn, creating strong, proactive measures that nurture a more safety-engaged workforce, and keep people safe.

H&S are also focused on the legal obligations an organisation has towards keeping people safe.

When it comes to wellbeing, H&S typically focus more on creating the systems that facilitate better working conditions, and therefore healthier workplaces. If good systems are in place, then the organisation has undergone its legal responsibility for keeping workers safe, mitigating issues like stress-induced poor decision-making. 

Such systems - with initiatives as simple as encouraging teams to speak up before undergoing risky tasks - can help bolster behaviours such as speaking up about stress or mental health before it becomes a crisis. 


There needs to be overlap

Think about the human body: nothing exists in a vacuum and every organ works together with the other organ to create a functioning human being. The cardiovascular system affects the digestive system; changes to the digestive system affect the immune system, and so on. No system is completely removed from the rest of the body. 

The same needs to be said for organisations. 

Both health and safety and HR teams must first have this mentality. Safety is not a box-tick exercise, only to be given serious consideration after an incident. Instead, safety should be seen as part of the cultural foundation of the organisation, that affects the structure of work systems and how things are done. 

Our approach to mental wellbeing should be undertaken in a similar fashion. Wellbeing should not be something considered only when it’s too late and people are hitting burnout and stress and needing some time out. Instead, we need a holistic approach, designing our workplaces, teams and work systems to facilitate better mental health - the fence at the top of the cliff, so to speak. 

For both teams, it’s no good creating a scapegoat relationship with mental wellbeing, where the responsibility gets passed back and forth like a volleyball. Wellbeing needs to be embedded in the corporate culture, so it is front-of-mind for every team, at every level of the organisation. 

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Should we consider creating wellbeing specific teams?

Given that a focus on wellbeing needs to be embedded within any organisational culture, creating a clear process for employees to follow when they’re experiencing mental distress is essential - and with that, organisations need to establish which team takes responsibility for facilitating mental wellbeing. 

Some companies, such as Xero, have employed a Head of Wellbeing, creating specific roles dedicated to supporting employees. Having a leader with a trained psychological background can help ensure that organisations have both a port of call, and that they’re approaching mental wellbeing in a healthy way. These leaders’ responsibilities centre around education, providing help and access to key resources, and coordinating other teams to ensure mental health is a priority for everyone. 

Wellbeing-specific teams can work in tandem with both HR and H&S teams, to focus specifically on improving organisational welfare as it pertains to mental health. Such teams might ensure that resources are spread appropriately to combat stress, and lines of communication are set up so people know how and where to go to speak up. 

Final words:

If an organisation takes the initiative to proactively address mental wellbeing in the workplace, they’ll create a working environment that allows their people to thrive. Understanding where the responsibility for mental wellbeing lies, is a great first step for effective, preventative action. 


Jessica Strick

Marketing Copywriter

Jess loves being part of the brainstorming, researching and creating scene at ecoPortal. In her spare time, she’s either spending quality time with her Kindle, discussing the ethics of social media, or training for pole vault.

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