Health and Safety

Using the Standard: A new study reports what works, what doesn’t and what we can learn about supporting psychological health and safety in the workplace

By Melissa Campeau

As Canadian workplace priorities go, psychological health ranks high: This country’s Deputy Ministers are now assessed on the health and wellbeing of their departments. That means a portion of their performance pay is directly tied to how well they build a respectful and psychologically healthy workplace.

Helping responsible employers support workers’ mental health was the impetus behind the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard), a set of resources and guidelines – the first of its kind in the world – published by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) in 2013.

Now, a new study reports back on how the Standard is being applied in Canadian workplaces. The just-released Case Study Research Project (CSRP), led by MHCC, followed more than 40 Canadian organizations as they worked to implement the guidelines, detailing best practices and lessons learned along the way.

Shifting paradigms

“One of the most surprising findings of the study is that organizations chose to adopt the Standard simply because they felt it was the right thing to do,” said Louise Bradley, president and CEO of MHCC. In fact, a full 90 per cent of organizations indicated their primary motivator for implementing the Standard was to “protect the psychological health of employees.”

“I suppose the skeptical side of me found that surprising because I really thought it would be looked at as a way of trying to achieve a better bottom line,” said Bradley.

Those employers represent a major shift in how organizations view employee psychological health, and how they perceive their responsibility to support it. Although, it’s not hard to understand the competitive upside of a workplace free from bullying, harassment and other overt stressors.

“Given that we spend 60 per cent of our waking hours in the workplace, an employer would be wise to invest in a healthy workforce,” said Bradley. “I think we’ve all worked at some organizations that are great and some that are less than great, and we all know we’re more productive in the one that’s a positive place to be.”

Mike Teed of the Williams School of Business, Bishop’s University, and researcher with the CSRP, points out the impact a psychologically healthy workplace could have on an organization’s ability to recruit and retain staff, as well.

“Think of the ‘return on expectations,’” said Teed. “For instance, in my classes, my students tell me they are interested in working for organizations that will really value their psychological wellbeing and their health. Addressing their expectations might be more important, in the long run, than thinking about immediate ROI.”

Greater awareness, greater need

The last few years have seen workplaces – and the general public – become much more aware of psychological health issues.

“There’s hardly a week that goes by when we don’t see or hear something about mental health in the media,” said Bradley. “So the timing is ideal for implementing the Standard and talking about these issues. We still have a long way to go, but the stigma around the subject is certainly less than it used to be.”

While workplaces are becoming more proactive in addressing the problem, there’s also a growing need. A staggering 7.5 million Canadians will face a mental illness this year, and that almost certainly includes members of your workforce.

“When you look at the numbers of people missing work because of disability claims related to their psychological health, they point to a huge problem,” said Bradley. “There are no two ways about it.

“It has amazed me, over the course of my career, just how prevalent issues like harassment and bullying are in the workplace. Quite frankly, those behaviours are making people sick and it’s costing the country billions of dollars in lost productivity every year, both from absenteeism and presenteeism.”

Not starting from zero

The good news, for most organizations, is that they’re likely already doing many things right in support of employee psychological health.

“Having certain policies in place – for example, anti-harassment or anti-bullying – those are mental health policies,” said Bradley. The first thing we tell organizations is to find the low hanging fruit and realize you’re already doing some things really well. Maybe you’re even doing something no one else is doing. Celebrate those successes.”

Using the right language, too, can help raise awareness and promote change.

“Many organizations in the study took advantage of existing structures, such as health and safety committees and wellness committees, and then renamed them as psychological health and safety committees,” said Merv Gilbert, with the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health & Addiction, Simon Fraser University, and lead researcher with the CSRP.

“In almost every case, organizations already have some initiatives in place they can use as a foundation and build upon,” said Bradley.

Best practices in action

While there was no one clear path to successfully implementing elements of the Standard, the businesses taking part in the CSRP did share some common ground.

Most (66 per cent) orchestrated activities to raise awareness of psychological wellness in the workplace, including workshops, seminars and social activities. And the majority (70 per cent) made sure their employee assistance programs (EAPs) were designed to address and support any mental health issues their employees might need.

Gilbert points out tailoring the types of activities and initiatives to suit the organization is another common element of successful implementation.

“There can be a bit of a tendency for organizations to just take things off the shelves and try to implement them, whether or not they’re a good fit,” said Gilbert. “Ideally, they’re basing their steps on what their actual needs and issues are, and that the programs or initiatives they adopt have some evaluations behind them, so they’ll do the job they expect them to do.”

That means engaging in research to understand the risks, hazards, issues and strengths of a workplace.

“We actually built a tool, called Guarding Minds @ Work [see sidebar], designed to help a workplace identify its employees’ areas of concern, with respect to psychological health,” said Gilbert.

Committed leaders, employee champions

Teed pointed out the importance of highly visible and influential support from within the workplace.

“It’s crucial for each organization to have someone charismatic and who genuinely cares about the issue to stand up and act in ways that show support,” said Teed. “And not just one person; you need multiple people, including official leaders and unofficial leaders. That way, if there’s ever a turnover with the leadership, you’ve still got the support and the torch can be passed on.

“Ideally, you’ll find people who are intrinsically motivated and who will build their own momentum. For them, being involved won’t be seen as a chore, but will be something they value and see as crucial.”

Workplace must-haves for success

Investing in workers’ psychological wellbeing is just that: an investment.

“Organizations need to make sure there are adequate resources,” said Gilbert. “Those organizations that had the greatest success in implementing the Standard gave personnel – usually HR personnel – some budget, some authority and access to relevant information within the organization in order to do the job well. Implementing the Standard is an ongoing process, not something that happens quickly, and there are going to be somewhat different resource demands over time.”

Another must-have for success: Ensuring any initiatives are backed up by a solid communication plan.

“What we found in some of the organizations in the study was that while the dedicated leaders and some of the other facilitators knew about the Standard, employees weren’t necessarily aware of what the organization was doing,” said Gilbert. “That really is critical to success. Employees need to be aware of – and feel trust in – any actions their employer takes.”

All the puzzle pieces put together still need a little “X-factor” to be successful.

“I would look at engagement of the workplace in that process of change,” said Dan Bilsker, with the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health & Addiction, Simon Fraser University, and researcher with the CSRP. “If you don’t get people in the workforce excited and hopeful that something really different could be done and trusting that the organization is going to have their backs and support them, then you don’t really get engagement of the workforce in the change process. And that’s really when change happens, with that specific and focused engagement.”

An investment over time

“As HR professionals know well, culture change takes time and is an evolutionary process,” said Gilbert.

It’s an investment of effort and time, but one that’s becoming essential for employers hoping to build trust-based workplaces that attract and retain top talent.

“Psychological health may be a popular topic at the moment, but it’s not the ‘flavour of the month,’” said Gilbert. “This is something that’s increasingly embedded into our regulations, into our workplaces and into the expectations of the current and upcoming workforce.”

“Not so long ago, mental health was something you might not have talked about because you felt ashamed,” said Bradley. “Now, to have it as part of everyday work, it not only helps employees and employers, but it has the potential to spread to the family and then to communities as a whole. I think it has the potential to be quite transformational.”