In early 2020, Sean Cammaert, a member of the leadership team at BASF Canada Inc. and its new head of safety, began to witness how the COVID-19 lockdown was impacting employees. For the 163-year-old chemical company, safety was a core value, and Cammaert was concerned that occupational safety might suffer when employees couldn’t keep an eye on one another.
“It was then, the light bulb went on for me – we have to keep people mentally safe too, because they are alone and stressed out,” Cammaert says. “We did a mental fitness index survey that went out across the country from our Mississauga, Ont., headquarters to everyone from senior leadership to shop-floor employees. We quickly found a real call for more to be done around mental health and mental health awareness. Ever since, we have been going all-in to embed mental health awareness and psychological safety into our existing management systems.”
The first step was an effort to destigmatize mental health issues, according to occupational safety and industrial hygiene specialist Erika Harris, who has been involved in the company’s safety organization since joining BASF in 2016.
“In October 2021, Mental Health Awareness Month, we hosted two ‘grow and tell’ sessions, where employees who were comfortable could come forward to talk about their personal experience with mental health,” says Harris. In testimony that, in Cammaert’s words, “left no one with a dry eye,” attending employees heard from colleagues on everything from addiction to suicidal ideation and self-harm.
First, though, they heard from Harris. “During the pandemic, my family and I were struggling with our mental health and I didn’t feel I could communicate that to anyone because I was embarrassed and ashamed. But getting treatment through our Employee Family Assistance Program (EFAP) is what really got me through. It was very fresh in my life, and I talked about everything that my family had gone through because it was important that someone come forward, tell their story and show there were no work repercussions for it and, more importantly, that they are not alone.”
From top to bottom, the employee and management response to the mental health initiative has been overwhelmingly positive, and it continues to grow. What was a three-person Psychological Health and Safety Committee (Cammaert, Harris and BASF corporate nurse Theresa Umbenhower) in 2021 now has 24 members and the same budget as other company employee resource groups. The committee is in the midst of rolling out 13 training modules they created on workplace psychological factors.
There is robust financial support for mental health treatment from the EFAP for employees and their dependents. The psychological emphasis is now part of the company’s recruitment and retention strategies, referenced in the hiring process and job listings, where BASF assures prospective employees that it is committed to their physical and psychological safety.
For Cammaert, what really matters is that the committee’s work benefits both employees and company. “The more we dug into it, the more we saw that if we can protect employees psychologically and physically, the return to the organization is tenfold. Because they know you’re striving to keep them safe. And when people feel safe, they feel they can trust you, and when they feel they can trust you, they’re going to give back. Everything goes up from there.”
Advertising feature produced by Canada’s Top 100 Employers, a division of Mediacorp Canada Inc. The Globe and Mail’s editorial department was not involved.