Health and Safety

The evolving duty of HR professionals in supporting workplace mental health

By Dr. Joti Samra, R. Psych.

HR professionals occupy a unique position to change the face of workplace mental health within their own organizations, in addition to the broader, nationwide landscape. By definition, HR professionals are responsible for recruiting, retaining, supporting and energizing employees so that businesses can thrive – core functions when we consider the elements required to create and sustain a psychologically healthy and safe work environment, and associated workforce.

A psychologically healthy and safe workplace is one that promotes the psychological wellbeing of employees, and prevents harm to their mental health in negligent, reckless or intentional ways. The benefits of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace are immense – aside from contributing to the wellbeing of employees, psychologically healthy work environments constitute a motivated and engaged workforce, in addition to lower disability costs, absenteeism rates and turnover-based expenses. Jointly, these factors strengthen an organization’s economic stability and reputation as an employer of choice.

Over the past decade, I have led and participated in multiple initiatives that have improved the prevention, assessment, intervention and management of workplace mental health issues across Canada. Many of my efforts in this field have been supported by the passionate and dedicated team at the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace. The Centre has led a number of successful workplace mental health initiatives, and is a leading source of free, evidence-based, practical tools and resources that assist employers in addressing workplace mental health issues.

Emerging research
Collectively, these initiatives – in tandem with the efforts of many other influential figures, groups and agencies – have contributed to a surge in recognition, awareness and commitment to the importance of workplace mental health, particularly over the past decade. With support from the Centre, I sought to summarize recent developments in the workplace mental health landscape in the recently released report, The Evolution of Workplace Mental Health in Canada: Research Report (2007–2017); downloadable at www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/centre-initiatives.

Myself and a team of excellent research associates (Dylan Davidson, Marissa Bowsfield) and expert advisors (Drs. Mark Attridge, Graham Lowe, Martin Shain) investigated the Evolution of Workplace Mental Health across a handful of domains, including the legal and standards domain, shifts in business priorities, trends in the media, changes in the education and training landscape and evolving research priorities. Our information was collected via reviews of empirical and gray literature, semi-structured interviews with key informants (experts in the area of workplace mental health) from across Canada, as well as a national survey assessing attitudes and current business practices regarding workplace mental health.

Notably, the survey in our national Evolution of Workplace Mental Health project was distributed to 23,973 HRPA members, and 23,700 members of other provincial human resources associations. Fifty-one per cent of our 2,148 respondents indicated having at least some responsibility for human resources at their organization. Thus, we considered our collective respondent group to be an informed one – keenly aware of the state of and gaps surrounding their organization’s psychological health and safety.

Numerous positive developments were observed, including but not limited to: the release of comprehensive frameworks (most notably the development of a National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard)) and legislation (e.g., workers’ compensation for workers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)) that improves accommodation of mental health issues in the workplace; attitudinal and behavioural shifts among numerous organizations toward increased recognition and effective accommodation of mental health issues; and a surge of online resources, as well as educational opportunities (e.g., online university certificates, such as the psychological health and safety certificates I have created through the University of Fredericton) that train workers and managers to respect and manage workplace mental health issues.

Supplementing our findings are the results of a national public opinion survey on employee and manager levels of support and beliefs pertaining to workplace mental health, conducted by the market research organization, Ipsos, on behalf of the Centre. Ipsos identified several positive findings, including: a decrease since 2009 in the number of Canadians who consider their workplace psychologically unhealthy or unsafe; higher ratings and understanding of psychological health and safety for workplaces that have adopted the Standard; and a significant increase in the number of Canadians that have knowledge about mental health conditions such as depression. Our research results revealed similar findings for these variables. It is encouraging to witness relative consistency in our findings within the same frame of time, in addition to positive improvements in workplace mental health compared to survey results from only a few years ago.

The research landscape
In terms of the history of pivotal initiatives and developments in the Canadian psychological health and safety landscape, almost 10 years ago, the Centre’s program director, Mary Ann Baynton, and I connected at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA)’s Bottom Line Conference on workplace mental health. We commiserated on the absence of credible resources that employers could easily access to address workplace mental health issues. Baynton connected me with Dr. Martin Shain – a lawyer with a keen interest in issues relating to psychological safety in the workplace – and Guarding Minds @ Work (GM@W) was born. Over the next several years – with the support of the Centre – I led the development of GM@W, a free, evidence-based collection of resources that allows employers to evaluate and address 13 specific psychosocial factors shown to have a sizeable impact on collective organizational mental health, individual employees’ mental health and financial stability. GM@W was a response to an identified gap in the landscape with respect to evidence-based employer tools that could aid employers in assessing the psychological health and safety of their work environment.

GM@W’s design was informed by extensive research, including consultation with experts from across the country, reviews of national and international best practices, as well as existing and emerging Canadian legislation and case law. Organizations opting in to implement the GM@W program’s principles and strategies in their workplace are presented with several options for collecting data on the psychological health and safety of their employees during the initial assessment period. Post-assessment, those organizations seeking to fill gaps in their workforce’s mental health are provided with resources for acting on and continuing evaluation of organizational mental health, both of which require ongoing commitment to workplace psychological health and safety from the employer.

A significant factor contributing to workplace managers and leaders’ ability to ensure workplace psychological health and safety is their ability to remain disciplined under stressful situations, and exhibit the level of emotional intelligence necessary to mediate conflicts and other difficult situations in the workplace. Thus, with support from the Centre once again, I led the development of “Managing Emotions” – a module of the Centre’s Managing Mental Health Matters framework. “Managing Emotions” constitutes several important lessons for managers, such as how to respond to distressed workers, methods of resolving sensitive workplace conflicts, using assertive but non-defensive communication and effectively managing personal and work-based stressors. Guiding each facet of the module are video lessons that exemplify the most effective methods for managers to manage their emotions in the workplace. Learners are also presented with exercises such as skills assessments and self-evaluations of what they have learned from the module’s lessons.

The Standard
One of the most significant, tangible developments I have witnessed in the broad landscape of workplace mental health has been the development and release of the Standard. The Standard is championed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, was developed by the Bureau de normalisation du Québec and the CSA Group and is supported by the Centre and other agencies. Broadly, the Standard encourages employers to prevent reasonably foreseeable psychological harm to employees by making every reasonable effort to ensure respectfulness, fairness and consideration as core values driving everyday interactions in the workplace. The Standard also proclaims a central definition of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace, and provides employers a voluntary, systematic set of guidelines for fostering and maintaining a psychologically safe and healthy work environment. These guidelines specify how to identify, assess and address workplace risks to psychological health, as well as establish policies that promote psychological health and make it an organizational goal. Numerous organizations across Canada have begun adopting the Standard – an act that is an investment in the benefits of a psychologically healthy workplace, as well as a signal to employees that the organization is committed to their psychological health. As a member of the Technical Committee that developed the Standard, it was a pleasure to witness the convergence of great minds in the form of legal experts, researchers, industry representatives and clinicians, all of whom stand as champions of what is clearly a bright future for the maintenance of workplace mental health across Canada. It was additionally rewarding – both personally and professionally – to have GM@W and its associated 13 psychosocial risk factors inform the development of the psychosocial factors identified in the Standard as being a key part of a psychologically healthy and safe work environment.

Human resources professionals are poised to be true leaders in ensuring good mental wellbeing in the workforce. In fact, 81.1 per cent of our respondents in the Evolution of Workplace Mental Health national survey indicated that the attitudes of HR professionals toward workplace mental health issues have somewhat or significantly improved since 2007 – higher than reported attitudinal improvements among executives and leaders, union representatives, managers and supervisors and general employees. In light of organizations’ evolving duties to simultaneously prevent workplace-induced mental health issues, while accommodating employees with pre-existing ones, it falls to HR professionals to remain privy to developments in this landscape, and to actively promote the principles of psychological health and safety in their workplace. ■


Dr. Joti Samra, R. Psych., is program lead at the Centre for Psychological Health Sciences, University of Fredericton and an organizational, research and media consultant through Samra Psychology Corporation.