Health and Safety
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By Melissa Campeau


With awareness and training, workplaces can be part of the solution for employees at risk for mental illness.


It’s a statistic that almost doesn’t compute, it’s so staggering. One in five Canadians will experience a mental health illness in any given year.

The personal toll this takes is tough to calculate, but the financial cost is measurably alarming, taking $50 billion out of our economy annually. What’s more, the problem is on the rise. If we do nothing to reverse this trend, experts predict the cost of lost productivity in Canada will be a whopping $198 billion over the next 30 years.

Your organization is not immune. In any given day, 500,000 Canadians miss work due to mental health challenges. But there are ways to turn these numbers around. Given that most Canadians spend at least 60 per cent of their waking hours at their jobs, workplaces have a significant impact on our health, for better or for worse.

A workforce that’s made aware of mental health challenges and has been trained to understand and assist unwell employees can have a remarkably positive impact. “Research shows there’s reduced onset of illness in a socially supportive workplace,” said Donna Hardaker, trainer with Mental Health Works, a nationally available program by the Canadian Mental Health Association. “This means that some people will not become ill at all because they have a socially supportive workplace, while others who are unwell may have a shorter duration or less of a symptom load.”

Your organization is not immune. In any given day, 500,000 Canadians miss work due to mental health challenges.

In fact, studies suggest that between 10 and 25 per cent of mental disability costs directly incurred by employers could be avoided with early and effective intervention.

Mental Heath vs. Mental Illness

When experts discuss mental health in the workplace, they’re referring to more than just the absence of illnesses like depression or anxiety. The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.


When a workplace supports these things – an employee’s ability to cope with stress and work productively – it’s a mentally healthy environment.

But even in an ideally healthy work environment, an employee might have trouble coping, thanks to genetic predisposition, trauma or other environmental factors. Because we spend so much time in the workplace, a manager might be among the first people to suspect a problem. For example, someone who has always performed well might suddenly start coming in late and making frequent mistakes. Or the problem might be less obvious.


“There’s the issue of presenteeism,” noted Sapna Mahajan, director, mental health prevention and promotion initiatives with the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). “There are people at work and they’re physically there, but they’re not productive. Their presence is actually causing more harm than good because other employees have to take on work for them.” Even just one team member suffering the effects of a mental health challenge can poison an entire team’s productivity.


Setting the Standard

To deal with this challenge, organizations need information and a plan. With this in mind, the MHCC developed the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, comprising guidelines, resources and tools to help employers of any size build a mentally healthy workplace.

Applying the recommendations in the Standard may sound like a giant undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be. While there are many places to start, a logical first step is to assess an organization’s overall mental health. The survey tools at the Guarding Minds at Work site, developed by researchers from the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, are free and immediately available.

“The survey assesses the workplace on an organizational level, not an individual level,” said Mahajan.“It’s not asking people, ‘Do you have a mental illness?’ It assesses 13 psychosocial factors, like engagement, balance, involvement and influence in one’s workload.”

Mahajan points out the importance of understanding your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, too.

“The number one thing to do is to actually look at your own data. What is the turnover rate? What is the disability rate and the benefits data?” Add this information to your survey results, suggests Mahajan, and you should begin to see the areas that need the most focus.

“If you’re not actually assessing what you need and where you have a gap, you may not be seeing much impact when you attempt to affect change,” she added.

“The number one thing to do is to actually look at your own data. What is the turnover rate? What is the disability rate and the benefits data?”


Raise Awareness

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, a 2008 study found only 23 per cent of Canadians would feel comfortable talking to their employer about a mental illness. Part of the silence likely stems from negative perceptions and beliefs still lingering in popular culture. There’s a tendency to whisper about it or just clam up.

“You can’t help prevent mental illnesses in the workplace without first overcoming the stigma,” noted Mahajan. An awareness campaign can right some wrong information, boost comfort levels with the subject and finally get people talking.

A campaign could take any number of forms and might involve print material or meetings between teams or with the entire organization. There are also online tools, including five-minute mini-documentaries made available through The Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace (the Centre).


The short videos are part of a program called Working Through It and feature first-person narratives from people who’ve had a diagnosis of mental illness. In the videos, these people discuss how they coped, managed at work, navigated the disability system and were able to return to work and sustain their wellness.

“We originally created the videos for people who may be experiencing these things in the workplace but we’ve realized you can actually launch an entire mental health awareness campaign with this tool,” said Mary Ann Baynton, program director for the Centre.
It’s crucial that employees get the same awareness information as managers, notes Hardaker.

“While it’s not a co-worker’s job to manage the performance of another co-worker, it’s within an employee’s power to build a workplace that encourages respect and care,” she added.


Train Frontline Managers

Understanding what to do for someone who might be unwell is a critical next step. “However, by the time a problem is brought to an HR professional’s attention, it’s often at the point of crisis,” said Baynton. An HR pro who wants to identify and resolve issues earlier – before the situation becomes critical – should focus efforts on training frontline managers and supervisors. “Most of the time, when we can identify and support somebody, deal with their stressors, deal with their triggers, even deal with the diagnosis of a mental illness earlier, we can reduce the severity, the frequency or the duration of symptoms,” said Baynton.

Training for managers and HR professionals might include gaining a better understanding of what makes for a psychologically safe and supportive work environment, or specific tactics for communicating effectively with an employee who may be unwell.

Research suggests the majority of managers need and want that kind of training, too. A 2012 Ipsos Reid survey found even though 90 per cent of supervisors and managers feel it’s important to improve their emotional intelligence, two out of three thought they’d need additional support to do this more effectively and 60 per cent said dealing with conflict is one of the most stressful parts of their job.

“Often, one of the first things I hear rom people in management roles is that they don’t know anything about mental health,” said Mahajan. “And why should they?” Managers are unlikely to have had formal education in this area and might find themselves in deep water when handling a sensitive situation.

Hardaker, for one, leads sessions to help managers understand how to communicate effectively with an employee who might be unwell.

“When you’re working with someone who is experiencing the impact of a mental health issue, it can be very difficult for that person to answer questions and engage in typical performance management discussions,” said Hardaker.“The standard approach is:‘This is a problem. What are you going to do about it?’ For someone having mental health issues, that’s too short. So we build the capacity for HR professionals and managers to slow the conversation down so the employee feels heard and understood. Then a manager can ask, ‘What will you do to commit to your own success?’”MHCC has developed a hands-on training course called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). It’s a two-day long, not-for-profit course, similar to first aid but focused on mental health.

“Just like with first aid, if you come across someone that’s bleeding, you don’t sew them up because you don’t know what’s causing the bleeding,” said Mahajan.“You look at the problem and ask yourself, will a Band-Aid do or should I call 911 right away?” Just as physical first aid is administered to an injured person before medical treatment can be obtained, MHFA is given until appropriate treatment is found or until the crisis is resolved. There’s also a series of resources under the title On the Agenda, available on the Great West Life Assurance’s Mental Health Works site, covering such training topics as psychological support, civility and respect and workload management.

The courses, says Mahajan, go a long way to breaking down barriers and getting people to speak more openly about mental health.

“And once staff know that every supervisor is trained,” she said, “they may also feel more comfortable approaching their manager with questions or concerns.”

When organizations do share details of plans and progress, it can have spinoff benefits, as well. “Organizations that have started to do training and awareness have reported it’s the conversations themselves – never mind the initiatives or the outcomes – that start a shift to a psychologically safer workplace because we’re starting to talk about the fact that we value worker mental health,” said Baynton.

The courses, says Mahajan, go a long way to breaking down barriers and getting people to speak more openly about mental health.

Providing Solutions

In some cases, early intervention and effective conversations between the employee and a manager or HR rep could mean significant accommodations can be averted. “A manager might discover, after having an effective conversation with an employee, that small changes – flex hours or the ability to telecommute on occasion – could ease the burden for the struggling employee significantly,” said Hardaker.

In other cases, where formal accommodation is the best course of action to help the employee, an HR pro and a manager can consult the organization’s EAP or visit a resource such as the Workplace Strategies for Mental Health site for solutions.


Positive Results

All these measures – awareness campaigns, training, better communication tactics – can help. In a recent Ottawa Citizen article, Camille Quenneville, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association for Ontario, says corporations that focus on mental health in the workplace report higher productivity, increased morale, decreased absenteeism, lower health care costs and less employee turnover.

In some parts of Europe, where the statistics suggest as many as one in four people suffer from the effects of mental ill ness, in-depth study of the financial benefits of mental health programs have been promising. In the United Kingdom, for example, early identification, management and prevention measures have made a big impact. Those efforts are estimated to produce annual savings of nearly $400,000 for an organization with 1,000 employees and mental health costs of $1.3 million.

The First Step

Some execs may fear a quagmire of legal implications if their organization launches a mental health campaign in the workplace, but these concerns are unfounded. The Standard is voluntary and as Mahajan pointed out, “It’s a set of tools, not rules.” She added, “Taking these measures may actually decrease liabilities because you’re doing something about mental health. You’re following the Standard.”

According to Baynton, small steps can add up to positive changes.

“Really, it’s about how we treat each other on a daily basis,” said Baynton. “It’s not some big change of process. Rather, it’s that we start to influence processes in a positive way over time that will be sustainable.”Some benefits might be immediate. Others will be more gradual. New ways of relating to and communicating with each other will eventually become woven into the fabric of an organization’s culture.

HR professionals shouldn’t feel they need to become mental health experts overnight. Instead, suggests Baynton, they should start by looking at the all the different processes in the employment lifecycle – recruiting, hiring, training, performance and discipline, even redeployment and termination – and begin to look at these things with a fresh lens. HR pros should consider, “How could we do this in a way that could be healthier for everyone?”
There’s no question a psychologically healthy workplace is a win for employees and for the organization as a whole. And while the financial argument is compelling, the benefits go well beyond the bottom line, says Hardaker.

“It’s about contributing to the wellbeing of society. It’s about the greater social good.”

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