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How leadership can impact workplace mental health

This is the introduction to a three-part series for Mental Health week, May 7-13. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Read about the 2018 winners of the award at tgam.ca/workplaceaward.

Register for the 2019 Employee Recommended Workplace Awards atwww.employeerecommended.com.

Thousands of books claim to include the most important knowledge and skills required to be an excellent leader. However, there’s much less written on the key knowledge and skills required for a leader to effectively prevent stigma, promote mental health and support employees’ mental health in the workplace.

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Many employees and leaders keep their mental health stories private due to stigma. In its 2018 national survey, Morneau Shepell found that 71 per cent of workers indicated concerns about workplace stigma regarding mental health. In a survey by the Canadian Mental Health Association, only 32 per cent of Canadian business leaders said they were taking action to address workplace mental health. Yet the economic burden of this inaction is significant – $51-billion in Canada alone.

When a corporate, political, or community leader takes that first step to engage their work force regarding mental health, this can break the ice and change the conversation from fear to finding new ways to get support and help. Leaders who create the conditions that make it OK for employees to share their mental health experience – and also show compassion and interest in decreasing mental health risk in the workplace –can help drive down stigma and empower employees at risk to seek help early.

Awareness

With so much of our lives spent at work, the workplace is a key place to start when it comes to supporting people’s mental well-being. A welcoming and safe workplace will empower and enable employees to do their best. Leaders play an important role in creating these conditions.

“At the core of a good workplace is a fundamental belief that employees will only give their best when they have a supportive work culture,” says Rupert Duchesne, former chief executive of Aimia Inc. and co-chair of CivicAction’s Mental Health in the Workplace Champions Council.

Speaking up also underlines the importance of viewing mental health on the same level as physical health – one of the reasons Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Member of Parliament for Whitby, another member of the council, decided to share her experiences: “I decided to publicly talk about my mental health and commit to workplace mental health because, as a woman of colour, it is necessary to show that taking care of yourself mentally is as important as physical health. In communities of colour, mental health is often taboo. By telling my story, I am hoping to make it easier for others to do the same and get the help they need.”

Accountability

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Establishing a strong workplace mental health environment is an all-hands-on-deck effort. It requires a culture change within an organization and the work of many people. When leadership from the top sets a good example for others, it can be the catalyst that sets the organization on the right track to a rewarding mental health journey.

“If the CEO and the executive team are seen to care about the issue, actively de-stigmatize discussion around it and personally support staff who are facing issues, then employees will believe it’s safe to speak up and seek the assistance they need,” says Mr. Duchesne.

If leaders are unsure what the current state of their own organization’s workplace mental health is, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes urges them to look within.

“HR Directors and CEOs who need convincing should take a look at the numbers of people calling in sick or taking extended leaves, and then consider how a mental wellness strategy could improve those numbers.”

Leaders are encouraged to think about workplace mental health from their unique position within the organization – one of authority and influence that considers both the human and economic importance of workplace mental health.

“The thing about workplace mental health is that not only is it the right thing to support, but the economic arguments are irrefutable in terms of productivity, absenteeism and employee engagement,” says Mr. Duchesne, “Even the most hardened executive, or one who feels awkward discussing mental or neurological illnesses, has a safe haven in the economic benefits that will result from a properly institutionalized workplace mental health program.”

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Action

Workplace mental health leadership doesn’t have to be a grand gesture – first steps don’t have to be leaps. Following are three actions leaders and managers can consider:

Consider making an all-staff announcement on your commitment to mental health – Whether it’s a staff meeting or through an e-mail, announce your commitment to workplace mental health. Make sure the announcement comes from a top-level executive or manager who will oversee all actions and personally support mental health and well-being activities.

Put mental health on the agenda – At your next team meeting put the topic of mental health in the workplace on your agenda. Have an open discussion on the business and societal benefits for improved workplace mental health and let the team add their two cents on what it means to them. Ensure follow-through by tying a director or manager’s performance to the mental health and well-being of their team – something the federal public service is doing with deputy minsters through their Workplace Mental Health Strategy.

Encourage owners and management to publicly show their commitment to workplace mental health – If your organization is further along in developing mental health activities at work or has gained key insights from a mental health strategy, why not show it? Consider participating on a workplace mental health panel and share lessons learned, or sign a charter or declaration that affirms your commitment. Be an example, internally and externally, for others to follow.

Take the MindsMatter assessment. Complete the CivicAction free online assessment tool for employers to foster those first or next steps. MindsMatter/SoutienBienÉtre is aligned to the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

Sevaun Palvetzian is the chief executive officer of CivicAction, which brings together senior executives and rising leaders from all sectors to tackle the biggest challenges facing the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

You can find all the stories supporting the Employee Recommended Workplace Award at: tgam.ca/workplaceaward

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