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Doing the “right thing” pays dividends when it comes to promoting and protecting mental health in the workplace

By The Honourable Michael Wilson, P.C., C.C.

When I chaired the board of directors of a mining company, our first order of business at each meeting was the physical accident report. In today’s knowledge based economy, we must give employee mental wellness equal precedence.

Each week, 500,000 people in Canada miss work because of a mental health concern. To ignore this reality is both unconscionable and unprofitable – but rising to meet it will spell success for 21st century businesses.

While this is a personal belief I have held for many years, dating back to my time as Finance Minister and cemented in my experiences as chair of Barclay’s Capital, today’s corporate leaders don’t have to rely solely on my conviction.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has completed a case study research project to document how the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) is being implemented among Canadian employers. The Standard is a set of guidelines, tools and resources to help employers address the mental wellness of their workers. It’s the world’s first and entirely voluntary Standard that guides employers of all sizes and sectors in their efforts to promote good mental health and prevent psychological harm at job sites.

Forty organizations signed on to share their experiences, and the result is a rich repository of best practices. Participants included the Toronto East General Hospital, where implementation of the Standard has led to decreased days absent and improved patient engagement.

While managing costs and limiting liability are very good reasons to consider adopting the Standard, of those businesses involved in the case study, 90 per cent were motivated because protecting the mental health of employees is the right thing to do. Among these trailblazers is Manulife, which has been featured prominently in the media for boldly increasing employee mental health coverage to an unparalleled $10,000 a year.

While Manulife’s leadership raises the bar for Canadian businesses, the case study findings tell us that virtually all participating organizations had some foundation of mental health and wellness efforts on which to build.

The findings lay out a common sense approach to implementation of the Standard that HR professionals can use as a roadmap. They also afford CEOs a very good reason to take a fresh look at mental wellness as a bottom-line boosting measure.

In a society where mental illness is the leading cost of long and short-term disability, no employer can afford to disregard a framework that helps stem the tide of lost productivity.

Tolerating bullying, harassment or unmanageable workloads should be no more acceptable than failing to offer adequate physical protective gear. Hard hats are a non-negotiable requirement on construction job sites. Ignoring what’s inside that hat is shamefully shortsighted.

As a pragmatic corporate leader, I recognize that building a sound business case for addressing mental health at work is the most likely way to engage other senior executives.

Doing the right thing pays dividends. 

The Honourable Michael Wilson, P.C., C.C., is chair of the board for the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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