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Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting & MFIQ Inc. Michael Cooper is the vice-president of development and strategic partnerships for Mental Health Research Canada.

Positively affecting employees’ mental health requires committing to facilitating habits that protect and promote mental health and accepting there are no shortcuts. Psychological health and safety (PHS) programs, similar to Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) programs have no end line.


Pain is a powerful driver of human behaviour. Examples of financial pain that motivate some leaders to focus on workplace mental health include growing disability costs because of mental health, workplace stress leading to sick days, presenteeism and turnover. There is also positive motivation, but many leaders are concerned about the risk to human capital’s sustainability and productivity.

A first step for senior leaders is to be clear on their motivation for why they want to invest in a PHS program. Motivation defines the north star that frames their purpose and vision. All OHS programs have clear key performance indicators (KPIs) that define expectations. Psychological health and safety programs need similar guides for reducing mental harm and promoting mental health.


Once expectations for the PHS program are set, the next step is doing a reality check. A mental health transformation journey must begin with finding out where the organization falls on the following maturity continuum.

  1. Static – Traditional thinking is mental health is not a priority for senior leadership. Getting workplace mental health into the culture is a struggle and not top of mind for leadership.
  2. Evolving – Senior leadership understands the value of workplace mental health. However, resources are limited, programs and policies are ad hoc and there is little to no thinking about a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) model. The focus is on planning and doing.
  3. Partnering – Senior leadership is all in, has set expectations for continuous improvement (PDCA) and expects to see a workplace mental health scorecard factoring in inclusion.

The goal is to reach the point where a PDCA process drives workplace mental health transformation. Recent Canadian Standards Association (CSA) research suggests many employers engage in workplace mental health initiatives focusing on the Plan-Do. To have an impact, it is critical to ensure senior leaders are on board as champions and all initiatives that impact employees’ experience are checked to ensure they are achieving the desired outcomes. An introduction to workplace mental health assessments will be in the next article of this series.

Continuous measuring and progress reporting against the defined KPIs prove to senior leadership that the PHS program is achieving its purpose and objectives.


Here are four places for leaders to focus on to start their journey, regardless of where an organization falls on the maturity continuum.

  • Obtain an evidence-based baseline – Collect data through quantitative or qualitative means. For example, the Workplace Psychological Safety Assessment (WPSA) collects data on employees’ experience with psychosocial factors and hazards, stigma, help-seeking behaviour, OHS factors (for example, bullying) and the value of current programs (for example, employee family assistance program). Also assessed are team psychological safety, psychological safety with direct leaders, inclusion levels, intersectional population differences, employees’ resiliency and percentage of time flourishing and quality of social connections. WPSA also gives employees a real-time report that promotes two-way accountability. Listening tours ensure that employees’ voices are heard regarding what is charging and draining their batteries. This data defines the appropriate key performance behaviours (KPBs) to begin with, based on the organization’s maturity, resources, budget and access to the workforce. A free assessment tool to obtain a baseline of 13 psychosocial factors’ impact on the workforce is provided by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) and employees can benchmark their scores against similar organizations provided by Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC). Use the data collected to determine what actions will be taken to prevent and support employees’ mental health.
  • Support in-house psychologically safe facilitators to develop their skills – Preparing those responsible for facilitating PHS with the competencies to match data to the organization’s maturity through a PDCA framework requires foundational skills. Random acts of wellness do not create an impact. PHS aims to create a program that drives habits to achieve targeted KPIs. Consultants can help if the expertise is not available in-house. However, the goal must be to build internal competency because workplace mental health is not going anywhere. It’s here to stay.
  • Focus on prevention, not just supports – Too often, workplace mental health focuses on implementing support programs like EFAP (for example, access to counsellors to help with problem-solving), extended benefits (for example, access to psychologists) and disability management programs. Ensure employees know the programs and how to use them and evaluate their impact beyond utilization. Ensure there is a focus on prevention and topics such as stigma elimination, suicide prevention, mental fitness and peer support.
  • Psychologically safe leadership training – According to Steven Covey, 90 per cent of leaders are command-and-control types. One place to start is preparing leaders with new skills that position them to build trusting and inspiring interactions that promote positive emotions and experiences. Ensure training programs are credible and meet some standards. An example is university senate-approved programs like University of New Brunswick’s micro-certificate in psychologically safe leadership. With the increased focus on workplace mental health, many people are self-reporting as experts without academic or professional credentials.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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