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More than 60 per cent of Canadian organizations report that they don’t have a mental health strategy in place. Yet, mental health continues to be a major concern in Canadian workplaces. Significant benefits could be gained if more organizations were committed to improving employee mental health.

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Notwithstanding the positive effect on employees, a greater emphasis on the promotion of mental health in Canadian workplaces can reduce presenteeism and absenteeism, thereby increasing productivity. Research by The Conference Board of Canada found that improved treatment for depression could boost the economy by $32.3-billion a year, and better treatment for anxiety could add up to $17.3-billion a year – that’s a significant potential economic gain for these two types of mental health conditions alone.

Mental health strategies focused on prevention (such as building resiliency and coping skills to eliminating stigma) and early intervention (such as providing access to employee and family assistance programs (EFAP) supported by internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy) can result in positive changes for employees and employers alike.

Supports are available to organizations to help them strategically address mental health in the workplace. The National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) provides guidance on policies, processes and information for employers on how to curb risk of mental injuries and promote mental health.

In addition, The Conference Board of Canada in partnership with Morneau Shepell and the Mental Health Commission of Canada have been hosting Workplace Mental Health workshops across the country since 2014. The workshops provide HR leaders with a roadmap for enhancing or developing their organization’s mental health strategy by improving employees’ health, engagement, and productivity.

Whether your organization is in the early stages of developing a mental health strategy or is looking to improve its current plan, these five key takeaways from the workshop series, Leading a Mentally Healthy Workplace, can help to promote mental health in the workplace:

1. Leverage existing health initiatives;

2. Adopt a total heath model;

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3. Be open to engaging in formal and informal strategies for promoting employee health;

4. Commit to designing and implementing a mental health strategy;

5. Look for opportunities to promote, prevent, intervene and manage.

When implementing a mental health strategy, there are a few key factors to keep in mind. Set the stage by getting senior leadership support, creating a wellness committee, and building a business case for why mental health is important. Formulate a mental health policy and develop a program for healthy employees. Ensure that employees are consulted in the design and that organizational practices are consistent with the messaging. As part of the strategy, consider providing managers with training and practical resources in mental health, and including access to an employee and family assistance program. Whether your organization is small and local or large and international, it is important to not confuse a few activities with a strategy. A check-the-box approach should be avoided.

One discipline and mindset that can help employers take the idea of a mental health strategy and operationalize it is to adopt an occupational health and safety approach to mental health. This approach uses a management system to reduce the number of work-related injuries and accidents. Increasingly, employers are looking to the discipline of health and safety when addressing mental health in the workplace.

Once a strategy is implemented, efforts need to be evaluated. A mental health strategy that’s likely to achieve desired results will work on a continuous feedback loop. Tangible metrics for reporting should be identified and tracked for quality improvement and elevating efforts to senior leadership. Seek feedback at least once per year and review what was done and, if needed, make revisions to the program design.

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Everyone has a role to play in workplace mental health. Leading a mentally healthy workplace requires a team effort between the employee and employer as well as the coming together of multiple disciplines.

Charles Boyer is a senior research associate at the Conference Board of Canada.

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

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