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The mental health of employees should be a concern for companies, says Bonnie Rose. (Thinkstock)
The mental health of employees should be a concern for companies, says Bonnie Rose. (Thinkstock)

LEADERSHIP LAB

Do businesses really need a mental health standard for the workplace? Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

As leader of one of the organizations responsible for development of the world’s first national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace, I have heard a lot of feedback over the past year. Most of it revolves around one key question: Do businesses really need a standard for workplace mental health?

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My answer is a resounding yes – and not just because of my business role, but because of my observations as a peer and leader.

Over the course of my career in engineering and management, I’ve seen and felt the pressures of the workplace first hand. Early on, I understood intuitively that stress and anxiety weren’t something that anyone was willing to discuss, let alone address. What I didn’t know then was how widespread mental health issues are: Statistics from the Mental Health Commission of Canada now tell us they affect nearly one-quarter of Canada’s working population.

Today, there is much greater awareness of the problem, and a clear business case for promoting good mental health in the workplace: It is socially responsible, helps attract and keep good employees, benefits your bottom line – and can even keep you from ending up on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

In January, 2013, CSA Group, together with the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Bureau de normalisation du Québec, a standards development and certification organization, introduced the national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace. The first standard of its kind globally, it is a free, voluntary guide to help you take action. It is simple and easy to adopt. You can use as much or as little as you need. And it’s striking a chord with businesses. The standard has already been downloaded more than 16,000 times, which is more than most standards of this type. MHCC recently announced plans to partner with more than 25 Canadian employers on a three-year research project aimed at getting more companies across Canada to adopt the standard.

Clearly, we’re making progress toward healthier workplaces, but I still hear questions from companies about how the standard applies to them. Let me debunk some of the myths.

Myth: It’s too formal for a small business.

Fact: The standard talks about providing education and awareness about mental health in your business, and ensuring key people are trained and competent when it comes to dealing with mental health issues. As we’ve heard from those that are already using the standard, even the smallest business can benefit from this.

Myth: It means creating something completely new.

Fact: The format aligns closely with existing workplace management approaches to occupational health and safety, so it can be integrated within existing policies, processes and programs.

Myth: This isn’t a business imperative.

Fact: It most definitely is. According to MHCC research, the total economic burden caused by mental illness in Canada is about $51-billion a year – and a full $20-billion of that comes from workplace losses. Mental health problems and illnesses are estimated to account for nearly 30 per cent of short- and long-term disability claims in Canada, and in some sectors it’s closer to 50 per cent.

In addition, employers are increasingly being held legally responsible for psychological health and safety in the workplace. The employer may be held liable, for example, if an employee is harassed, bullied or chronically overworked. As a leader, you have a vested interest in helping to prevent the onset of mental and physical illnesses and to promote recovery. I would challenge you to think about some of the issues you’ve faced in the past year, think about your employees on long-term disability and think about how many are tied to mental health issues. That alone should make you understand the value of implementing the standard.

Myth: You need in-house experts.

Fact: The standard specifies that the responsibility to provide a psychologically healthy and safe workplace is shared by everyone, including employees, managers and executives. No one has to be an expert in the field of mental health or psychology. You do need someone with good management skills to drive implementation but the standard provides a good roadmap. It covers, for instance, the establishment of a policy and planning process, and identification of your organization’s mental health hazards, assessing risks and implementing preventive and protective measures. It also walks you through the need to have the infrastructure and resources in place to support the system – and to be prepared in case of a critical event – as well as the collection of data, monitoring and measuring of success while also maintaining confidentiality.

Myth: It’s onerous to roll out.

Fact: The standard provides guidance for changing how mental health and mental illness are approached in the workplace. It sets out best practices that you can implement in whole or in part as you see fit. As with any standard, if you want to follow it, you simply start working toward it. It is a process of continual improvement.

The bottom line: Every step forward counts.

Bonnie Rose is president of standards for CSA Group (@CSA_Standards), a Canadian not-for-profit organization that develops and facilitates the use of standards for products and technology.

Want to take a measure of your stress level at work?

Take our Your Life at Work Survey to find out your Quality of Work Life Score. Check out our infographic that explains your score. Read our scenarios on what this survey aims to do. Read the first one about the survey here, the second one about what a manager can do here, and the third one about coping with stress here. You can find a list of ways to reduce your stress here.

For employers, you can use this worksheet to find out the cost of ignoring your employees’ health here. And we have a shortened version of our survey targeted to employers here.

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