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For decades, Canada’s productivity has been a matter of concern in business and government. Part of that concern includes maintaining a healthy work force – or employee well-being – and organizational performance. The fact is, a healthy and happy employee is a productive one. The concern is that the situation isn’t quite so happy or healthy. Our 2019 survey of 84 Canadian companies, as part of our Employee Recommended Workplace Award program, indicated that 52 per cent of Canadian workers – half the work force – are experiencing health challenges that, if not addressed, could have a negative impact on their productivity.

Knowing that 52 per cent are at risk, the conventional assumption is that early intervention is a smart strategy. Typically, that means intervening when someone starts to show symptoms or a decline in work performance that suggests a risk of disability-related absence. While early intervention truly is smart, it’s time to rethink whether the scope of this definition makes sense today, given that it only touches a small percentage of that 52 per cent – likely 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the total work force at most and, more likely, much less. The concern here is that “risk” is not only an issue for those with visible signs to illness or imminent of disability.

Consider these data points from our 2019 and 2020 mental-health research:

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  • Nearly half (45 per cent) of survey respondents indicate that the mental demands of their current job have increased in the past two years.
  • More than a third (36 per cent) indicate that financial stress is having a negative impact on work productivity.
  • More than a third (37 per cent) indicate continuing difficulties with sleep.
  • Four in 10 (42 per cent) feel they struggle with their finances more than others with their same income.
  • Nearly half (47 per cent) of employees who reported extreme or very poor mental health also reported high isolation at work.
  • Nearly half (45 per cent) indicate isolation in their personal lives.

These are all mental-health risk factors that affect many at some point in time. Also consider our current societal norms. Multiple demands and multiple points of constant stimulation keep our brains in a hyperexcited state, which impedes our ability to sleep, focus and remain calm – just when the demands of an ever-changing environment require sleep, focus and calm the most. The question for business leaders today is: How can you help?

Focusing on early intervention

A key part of the answer is to address undue strain through early intervention. Employers should consider the fact that every individual needs to continuously build the skills required to deal with the pressures affecting their well-being, both inside and outside work. The challenge here is that skills aren’t acquired overnight. They take time, practice and, ideally, proper coaching or mentorship to acquire.

Continuing access to skill-building resources is essential. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) offers a great example of this type of support. CBT is a mental health care modality that helps people understand and adapt their thinking style and emotional responses to life’s challenges. CBT is effective in managing depression and anxiety through behaviour modification. CBT, or its online version, iCBT, is scalable to a large group, and can be applied to improving how you function at work. But the benefits go beyond that. Knowing more about your thinking patterns and emotional responses is both a life skill and a professional competency.

Asking the right questions to support your people

As you consider the effectiveness of the well-being strategies in your organization, here are some questions worth reflecting on:

  • Is your approach to early intervention focused too narrowly and too late in the game?
  • Is there an opportunity to embed mental well-being skills and support into your day-to-day work experience?
  • Do you understand the stressors that are affecting your people and their well-being?
  • Do you have an infrastructure in your organization to ensure your well-being strategies can be successfully implemented and sustained? That infrastructure requires senior leadership commitment, management training, effective internal communications and, most of all, easy access to support resources for your people.

For many organizations, there needs to be a shift in approach to become truly pro-active. We first need to rethink our assumptions about early intervention and then build well-being more deeply into our business culture. If we accomplish that, our organizations will also be healthier and more productive. Everybody wins.

Paula Allen is the senior vice-president of research, analytics and innovation at Morneau Shepell.

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.

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