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  • Writer's picturePaul LaLonde

Be a Seal Lion: HR Can Help Others Swim

two sea lions in ocean at daytime

Be a seal lion to someone who can’t swim.

“In conversation, one should attend closely to what is being said, and with regard to every impulse attend to what arises from it; in the latter case, to see from the first what end it has in view, and in the former, to keep careful watch on what people are meaning to say.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week, I wrote a blogpost entitled “Just Keep Swimming.” It was my way to encourage others to keep moving forward when life breaks them.

Sometimes, however, the waves or currents of life become way too much for people that swimming becomes impossible. What happens when someone can’t swim?

Kevin Hines is a motivational speaker, author, and mental health advocate. His story can be found here. After jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in an attempt on his own life, he survived with the aid of a sea lion, who helped him stay afloat until the Coast Guard pulled him out of the water. He adopted the sea lion as his emblem for his work in suicide prevention and mental health advocacy with the motto #BeHereTomorrow.

There is a mental health crisis in the United States. The crisis costs employers billions in lost productivity yearly. And worse, it costs families, friends, and colleagues much suffering and heartache.

Unofficially, the llama is sometimes used as the spirit animal for HR. I think the profession can have multiple spirit animals. HR can be like Batman – a symbol that is malleable to whatever the situation needs at that moment in time (via The Dark Knight).

Like the sea lion that helped Kevin stay afloat, HR should assist employees through the unnavigable tides and currents of their suffering. HR should be advocates for policies that promote mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. I believe this because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the compassionate thing to do. Some C-Suite leaders have to be persuaded through the raw numbers, and that’s OK. The business case is also evident.

Mental health solutions in the workplace is still a difficult discussion, which is why many would rather talk retention rates, turnover rate, employee engagement, payrates, bottom lines, recruiting challenges, the skills gap, and so on.

However, ALL those topics are affected by the mental health of employees. Healthy employees lead to a healthy workplace. Take care of employees, and the rest takes care of itself.

In addition to advocating for workplace policies that support mental health, what can HR do on a more basic level? Several small ideas include:

Being Present. Leave the office and go visit with people. Notice the details. If someone is acting out of their normal habits, make it a point to say hi and ask them how their day is going. Actively being present in their day can (and often does) let employees know someone is there and someone notices them. That simple act can be all the difference.

“I was walking up to the bus driver hoping he would see my pain, but I couldn’t say it overtly. I could not tell him look at me and say ‘hey, kid, are you OK? Is something wrong, can I help you?’” – Kevin Hines discussing his thoughts before he attempted suicide.

Listening. Active listening is a tremendous skill. It’s one that every HR professional should develop, and it’s increasingly crucial in helping others who may be suffering. To actively listen means to be fully present so that you can “hear” or “see” things that are actually being said. Often times, someone with a mental health issue will say “I’m fine, it’s just a headache.” Or they may say, “I’m tired. All good.” These seemingly innocuous statements are often said to hide someone’s pain, or subtle cries for help. Active listening can help people notice something deeper. In addition, listening is just that and mostly only that! Listening is more powerful than speaking. Often, speaking is doing too much. Let the person explain. Let the person talk. Being there and hearing what they have to say is worth more than any hollow advice they weren’t asking for in the first place.

“You listen not for the purpose of judging, criticizing or analyzing. You listen only to help the other person to express himself and find some relief from his suffering.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Knowing What You Don’t Know. One of the many “jobs” HR professionals have is psychiatrist. I’ve joked with many about this, but the truth is, HR pros (more than likely) have no professional training in diagnosing or directly aiding people with mental health issues. And that’s not HR’s job. HR’s job in this context is to be of assistance to the employee. The best thing to do is to listen, offer support by asking what they may need. On a related note, hopefully everyone has access to an EAP – if not, you can help the employee find a mental health professional in the area if they wish.

“If a man knows not which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” – Seneca

Being Unafraid to Have Difficult Conversations. One of the most important things anyone can do in any context regarding mental health is opening themselves up to the conversation. People are afraid to discuss these topics for many reasons. “Will I lose that big promotion at work if I discuss my depression?” “Will I be ostracized at work if I discuss my anxiety issues?” So the stigma makes people bottle it up deep inside where the emotions fester and grow into something more dangerous. A key part of removing the stigma surrounding mental health is to allow open conversations to be had in a safe space without judgement.

“One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever.” – Linda Lambert

HR can be and should be a powerful advocate in addressing the mental health crisis that cripples the workplace. Overall, HR can’t solve the problems others are afflicted with. We don’t have to, though. At minimum, we just need to be kind, empathetic, and present. We just need to be available to help them stay afloat until additional help arrives. We can help someone keep swimming when they don’t know how. We can be someone’s sea lion.

For more information and ideas on how HR can be advocates for mental health workplace policies and programs, some articles can be found here, here, here, and here.


If you or someone you know is in need of help, please know there are millions of others who have gone through or are going through similar challenges. They understand. They feel it, too. Getting help is not a sign of weakness. Getting help is a sign of power. Keep swimming for yourself and for others in your life. Just keep swimming. I got the following information from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. 1-800-273-8255.

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