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mental health week

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

Register for the 2019 Employee Recommended Workplace Awards at

How can we make mental health support more accessible to more people?

One path is the workplace. Many employers today are putting more programs in place to support employees’ mental well-being. These include employee and family assistance programs (EAFP), increasing paramedical psychological services coverage and adopting the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. However, many companies don’t know where to start, or have not yet made the link to the benefits with respect to mental health, productivity, and profitability. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 42 per cent of Canadian business leaders are interested in addressing mental health but haven’t acted, due to barriers such as lack of time, resources and know-how.

Successful organizations want their employees to come to work feeling well, ready to contribute, to find personal fulfillment from their work, and to leave each day with enough energy to enjoy their home life. This can happen when organizations demonstrate through their actions and words that employees’ mental health matters.


Leaders who are aware of the impact of their words and actions on employees’ mental health and demonstrate caring and commitment to supporting employees in times of need can have a profound, positive impact on the organization’s culture.

“The key driver for a mentally healthy workplace is culture, and culture depends on leaders who understand the importance of fostering trust, empowerment and transparency,” says Jennifer Elia, assistant vice-president, integrated health solutions at Sun Life Financial. “When leaders see the gaps and opportunities to improve support for mental health, they are typically motivated to take action.”

Developing good supports not only comes down to what services or resources an employer can provide. It’s indicative of an organization with a strong level of awareness, commitment and compassion.

“Above all else, people want to feel supported. We want all employees to feel welcome to contribute to their full potential and bring their whole selves to work, reducing stress and anxiety,” says Ms. Elia.

Providing mental health support increases the likelihood for high-performing teams that daily support all members equally, without bias or judgement.

Organizations that have made this level of commitment to engage all their leaders and teams can ensure workers know that support is in place when needed to help them thrive.


Organizations can coach their leaders to support employees’ health informally and formally. Support can range from informal check-ins to talk about workloads and timelines, working collaboratively to set realistic expectations and priorities, and exploring flexible work schedules. They can also promote the value of a variety of mental health-related services in benefit packages, such as psychological services and employee and family assistance programs.

“Sun Life supports our employees’ mental health through enhanced benefits coverage for psychological services, a flexible work environment, and a strong commitment to mental, physical and financial wellness programs,” says Ms. Elia.

Just having resources or programs available is only half the work. Employers need to show accountability by following up with regular communication and encouragement that empowers employees to feel confident and safe to access available programs.

“We regularly communicate about the mental health resources available to employees, and we provide a mental health toolkit to people leaders,” says Ms. Elia.

Having tool kits ready for managers so they know what resources exist for employees and can publicize what is available helps maintain a strong communication loop.

“Day-to-day, clear expectations, a sense of control over one’s work and regular feedback go a long way in creating a mentally healthy work environment,” explains Ms. Elia. “By training people leaders in the ‘soft’ skills, employers can foster strong leadership and effective communication, creating a healthy workplace culture that can help mitigate against stress.”


Here are four ways to take action:

Take the temperature of your employees – Identify gaps in mental health by using a survey framework such as the Employee Recommended Workplace Award that measures the total heath of the work force, including mental health. This total health assessment provides insight on current programs’ impact and guidance on how organizations can support employees to improve their total health.

Outline a mental health strategy that makes sense for your organization – Not every organization can provide all available supports and resources needed. Be selective and pick programs that can have an impact (such as EAFP, depression care, prevention, resiliency training, manager training). Decide what policies the organization needs in order to create a psychologically safe workplace, evaluate current benefit packages, communicate clearly what you offer, and be sure to evaluate the take-up and impact on a regular basis.

Have a strategy for off-work and return-to-work – When employees are off work or returning to work due to a mental health-related issue, have a plan for how the organization will support their return to work. Stay in touch when they’re away, and as they prepare to return, have a conversation about what changes they need to their work demands or work hours. Prepare teams to support them, establish appropriate accommodations and define responsibilities and timelines.

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