Notes from SHRM21: Mental Wellness and Inclusion

Notes from SHRM21: Mental Wellness and Inclusion

SHRM21 in Las Vegas delivered a great live event! Thousands of people donned their masks and attended in person. As a marketing professional, this was my first SHRM event and my first experience with HR professionals. My take is that HR is the heartbeat of an organization, and it goes well beyond recruiting, onboarding, employee handbooks, and benefits. I heard common themes of mental health and wellness and inclusion.

Mental Health and Wellness

Before Michael Phelps was introduced, SHRM organizers rolled an inspiring, opening video with the theme of “We’re all in this together.” It’s not surprising that HR is at the center of the solution to help people deal with the pandemic, working from home, and the ongoing emotions around the death of George Floyd.

Michael Phelps talked openly about battling depression and the challenges in managing his mental health. He shared a story of an interview he did before the 2016 Olympic games where he “just poured it out.” He had always just looked at himself as a swimmer, not a human being. He reached a point where he was tired of carrying the extra weight. I think this resonated with the SHRM audience to help us see our employees beyond their job roles and look at them as human beings as well.

Phelps went on to explain how he approached the pandemic and quarantine. He took a step back and thought “How can I be the best me every day?” For him, that means a workout, sleeping 7-8 hours a night and drinking his body weight in water! “If our cup is not full, we can’t help fill the other cups.” He made suggestions to the audience to find what works for you: journal, meditate, therapy, goal-setting, visualization, mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, etc.

At the end of the session, SHRM made a timely announcement that they are offering a new certificate on Workplace Mental Health. Topics include mental health foundations, diversity & bias, suicide & violence prevention, substance abuse, and effective communication.


The value of inclusion was discussed in multiple sessions. The first was in the keynote with Chipotle executives Brian Niccol, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, and Marissa Andrada, Chief Diversity, Inclusion and People Officer.

I admit I was not very familiar with the Chipotle brand other than their food. I learned that they are much more than burritos and tacos. Their brand has a much higher purpose and is built on meaningful core values that resonate with their employees and their customers. “We believe that food has the power to change the world. We do it by being real.”

They expand the concept of being “real” beyond the food. Real people, real food, real loyalty, real leadership, real commitment. The idea of being real includes their employees with their value “authenticity lives here.” Marissa explained “we want everyone to bring their full selves to work.” With messaging like that coming from the very top, I believe Chipotle will be able to attract talent, especially from those groups that feel marginalized or invisible to other employers.

The other session I attended that focused on inclusion was titled “Coming of Gender” and the speaker was Dawn Kelley, HR Manager of the City of Modesto. This was my favorite session of the conference. Dawn’s presentation style was a perfect blend of valuable information, empathy, humor, and candor.

She began with an exercise for the audience. Imagine: everyone is telling you the gender you’ve always known yourself to be is wrong. Every day. Well, that is a quick way to empathize with anyone struggling with their gender identity.

She had an employee confide in her that they were going to begin transitioning. Dawn replied with “How can I help you?” The employee did not have a support system at home so imagine their relief when Dawn agreed to privately give them their testosterone injections for the next year.

Dawn shared many resources and term definitions. She also shared her personal story of one of her children’s journey to transition. Her point of view is much more than that of an HR professional. Now it’s also from the perspective of a mother.

So, the bigger takeaway is that it is not about acceptance or tolerance, it’s about inclusion. Acceptance implies there is some sort of power by the acceptor over the other person. We tolerate behavior, we don’t tolerate people. Inclusion is working to remove your bias so ALL of your employees can feel that they belong. To help people be heard and be welcome in their workplace.

Her session ended with a lively Q&A with real stories and challenges from the audience. Co-workers refusing to use the pronouns or new name. A 14-year-old employee who wanted two name tags, as they were beginning the transition process. Dawn summarized her responses by stating that you don’t get to bully or harass people you don’t like. And, if an employee comes to you, simply respond with “How can I help you?” Now more than ever, HR needs to support the unsupported.

Her session made me think of the bigger challenge that HR faces. Employees learn different behaviors, values, and prejudices at home and then they come to the workplace where some of those attitudes are considered discrimination and are illegal. Not an easy task to change those behaviors or biases.

Training for the Whole Person

SHRM21 offered many appealing concurrent sessions covering topics like leading change, resilience, transformation, workplace civility, implicit bias, transparency, coaching, and much more. The underlying theme I heard is that our whole-person approach to training is right on trend with what the industry is talking about. We offer training videos on all these topics listed above.

If you look at your employees as humans, as people, and not just workers, you might approach training a little differently. If they are struggling with mental health or wellness, they may be distracted or less productive at work. If they don’t feel included, their work relationships may suffer and their work may suffer. If they are stressed about financial issues or a family member has a substance abuse issue, again, their work may be affected.

When you work with a company like HSI, and you use our off-the-shelf training videos you can easily curate a training curriculum to address the whole person. Topics might include:

To learn more about the courses we offer, request a trial of our HSI LMS.

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