In an interview with ETHRWorld, Anita Belani, a senior business and human capital leader, said, “In order to earn a leadership seat, HR needs to deliver value to the business, they must show they understand the business needs.”

Anita Belani is a senior business and human capital leader with over 30 years of experience. She specializes in Leadership Coaching, Organisational Transformation , Strategic Human Resource Development and Culture Building. She is also Co-Founder of Emotionally, which works towards helping strengthen emotional resilience in the corporate world.

Most recently Belani was an operating partner with Gaja Capital. She has previously worked as Managing Director at Russell Reynolds Associates India and Country Head at Watson Wyatt India. She has also served as Senior HR Business Partner at Sun Microsystems and Director – HR at KPMG.

In an exclusive interview with ETHRWorld, Anita Belani disclosed the risks organisations carry when there is lack of adequate attention to emotional healthiness towards their employees. She describes the various ways HR managers can be the First Responders to employees suffering from emotional health issues and how leadership teams can be developed during stressful times.

What is your assessment of the current situation in the corporate world? How are employees dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic?
From a personal standpoint I believe, people are frustrated as they cannot see an end in sight, the situation has fatigued people and there is a void due to the absence of human interaction and personal touch. Nobody knew that this could go on for such a long time!
In terms of the corporate sector, there is a positive change that is being noticed in recent months. Businesses are reopening and demand is picking up in some sectors. However, employees are struggling as they are unable to cope with this extended period of social confinement, work from home, remote team, and business management has had its toll.

What is the risk that organisations carry when they don’t give adequate attention to Emotional Healthiness of their employees?
When employees are not given adequate attention, organisations run the risk of productivity loss. Organisations run the risk of Presenteeism – while people are present physically but they are not contributing due to the anxiety weighed in from the lack of job stability.

Similarly, teams become dysfunctional, when the members are not engaging well with one another and working together cohesively. Leadership teams and managers are attempting to engage with their employees on personal levels; however, due to the constraints of the pandemic, the responses are not well received.

How can HR managers be the First Responders to employees suffering from emotional health issues?
HR is the culture custodian of the organisation. They must drive initiatives that are at the heart of the core values of the organisation. It is incumbent upon them to influence leadership to support employees during these trying times, especially with their emotional health challenges. For example, the stigma associated with mental health challenges prevalent in organisations prohibits employees from opening up about how they are feeling. HR can be the change agent that can create avenues for de-stigmatising mental health challenges in the workplace and create a safe environment to encourage employees to open up.

In addition to the cultural shift, HR can drive campaigns around mental health allowing employees to feel comfortable while talking about their issues and making them understand that the organisation cares.

HR must also train the leadership teams to be able to understand the signs of stress and emotional distress whilst engaging with their employees. They should be able to ask their employees, “How can I help you? Can I help you find professional advice?” As a first responder, the leadership team can support their team members proactively.

From a personal standpoint I believe, companies should provide an employee assistance programme, where employees can call a hotline and discuss their issues and receive professional advice on the phone. Additionally, organisations should conduct a survey every few months to feel the pulse of the organisation and gather more information on their employees’ needs.

From your experience, what are the challenges that organisations, and HR leaders specifically, face while addressing this issue?
The main challenge is that not too many people are aware as to how to identify stress and anxiety issues. Secondly, people do not know how to deal with stress, seeking professional help is still a very restricted option in our country. Additionally, employees feel hesitant to express too much as they do not know how they will be viewed in the organisation if they share.

The lack of awareness and the taboo associated with mental health makes it difficult for HR officials to communicate and address these issues. Since we are all working remotely, communication is also proving to be a challenge when it comes to having conversations with employees and understanding their state of minds. This, coupled with the complexities of Covid-19, has made maintaining happy workplaces a big challenge for leaders across industries.

HR leaders are now focussed on rewriting policies to suit employee needs. However, since globally there is a lot of uncertainty, it is getting very difficult for leaders to assess the future while drafting employee wellbeing plans.

How important is the role of HR in organisational development?
HR plays a critical role in driving talent and leadership development. HR works closely with leadership and acts as an enabler to achieve business goals. They guide the organisation in terms of identifying the right talent, succession planning, leadership development, training and in setting the right kind of environment for the employees.
While building leaders is the responsibility of CEOs/CXOs, HR is the driver of these initiatives. It is incumbent upon HR to provide the structures, systems and programmes that enable the organisation to create leaders and build internal talent.

Could you please suggest some of the things that HR leaders should do or follow to earn a leadership seat?
From where HR was when I started my career to where it has come now, there has been a huge change. But I still feel there is a lot more change required. Some very evolved organisations have given HR that seat at the table, but there are others who have not. In those organisations, HR is largely used as a function to recruit, onboard and pay people or to listen to their grievances.

In order to earn a leadership seat, HR needs to deliver value to the business; they must understand the business and speak the language that relates to the business. A lot of times HR leaders do not put any effort in learning the business and hence their conversations with the leadership become tactical. The other aspect that has changed is that HR needs to come up with policies and programmes that are customized to different employee group needs. It’s not one size fits all anymore. It’s one size fits one! You have to customize your policies to fit different types of people. Millennials will think very differently from Baby Boomers. They will think very differently from Gen-Y, Gen-X. So, leaders and HR need to know how to engage with the different types of people in the organisation.

The other aspect that is changing around us is how people want to work – digitization, the gig economy, flexible work options are all areas organisations have to quickly adapt to and HR is playing a big role here. More and more people want to work with organisations on their own terms rather than being tied down to a full-time 9 to 5 routine. HR also needs to support leaders in the company to really figure out how to maximise productivity from all kinds of people by coming up with enabling programmes and policies.

How do you think leadership can be nurtured in companies during stressful times?
You know the stressful time that we are going through is a great way to build your leadership talent. In recent times, we have been saying that the best way to build leadership talent is to expose them through the VUCA world — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and adversity. The last eight months have been a testimony of all these aspects!

One of the best ways to build leadership capability is by action learning. Essentially, creating cross-functional teams of four to five people and making these teams do a strategic project over a six-month period that is monitored by the leadership. Each team gets to do a project which is completely out of their comfort zone but very important to the strategy of the company.

The action learning team has an internal sponsor and an external coach. At the end of six months, the company might decide to go ahead with that strategy aspect or not based on the feasibility of the initiative. But in the process, the action learning team gets to experience something extremely valuable. They get to appreciate what other functions are doing in the organisation; they learn to appreciate each other and get to understand the business better.

Similarly, Covid has done that. This has been the largest action learning project for most of the companies. Because all the people in companies have now learned to work under very adverse conditions; they are starting businesses back with so many different factors plus they are managing remote teams. The adversity, complexity and uncertainty that business leaders and their teams have been exposed to has no precedent.

By: Anita Belani, Co-Founder, Emotionally
Ref. Economic Times HR, India Times

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