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Chief research and development officer of work force productivity, Morneau Shepell, Toronto.

How committed is your organization to reducing mental health injuries or mental health issues in the workplace?

Most of us, without realizing it, will answer this question based on our degree of awareness and personal experience with our organization's policies, procedures and programming that have been developed and implemented to prevent and protect the workforce from mental health injuries (e.g., exposure to bullies) and work-related factors (e.g., workload) that negatively impact employees' mental health.

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Organizations, as well as their commitment to preventing mental injuries and mental health issues, can be classified as small, medium or large. But an organization's size doesn't determine its commitment. Its readiness and its senior leadership's understanding of the business case as to why making this investment is good for business does. This includes cost saving and increases in productivity and workforce sustainability. Often, decision makers need more reason to act than that it's the right thing to do. Dollars and cents matter.

I'm starting to notice in organizations that have stepped up and made this investment that some are experiencing challenges getting most of their workforce fully engaged. There can be different reasons why.

One reason is the organization's lack of preparation around the concept of accessibility. For example, having the best burger in town is of little value if only a few people know about it, know how to find it, know why it's the best, and have time to eat it.

The dictionary definition for accessibility includes: the quality of being easy to use and the quality of being easily understood.

When I mention accessibility I'm referring to the above and the specific kinds of communications strategy and time allotment for accessing and participation. As well, the degree employees understand the value and are prioritizing the importance of accessing and engaging in the policies, procedures and programs are important factors. Within the context of facilitating mental health and safety in the workplace, accessibility success is dependent on both employer and employee commitment.

From the employer side, one way in the early days, before metrics, audits and results, to test the degree of accessibility for its policies, procedures and programs aligned to mental health is to:

1. List all the policies (e.g., mental health and bullying policies), procedures (e.g., adopting the "Standard" to facilitate a psychologically healthy and safe management system needed for annual internal audit and management review) and programs (e.g., EFAP, training for managers) available and active in the workplace.

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2. Through one-on-one interviews with 10 to 15 employees randomly selected or with a focus group, explore what each policy, procedure and program means to them, where they can find it, why the organization is doing it, and the value to them.

3. Listen closely to ascertain how accessible each is to them.

Exploring accessibility through the above lens can help to uncover employees' engagement and concern with respect to current policies, procedures and programs to reduce mental injuries and mental health issues.

Employers must understand that having policies, procedures and programs in place doesn't necessarily mean that most employees understand or are accessing them. Also, not every employee is at the same level and ready to engage and access programs. The workforce can be put into three buckets: green – motivated to engage; yellow – interested but have some perceived barrier preventing them from fully engaging; and red – don't buy in, believe or trust, or are distracted.

Tips for facilitating accessibility:

1. Never assume – Expect that it will always take a minimum of three separate communications and follow-up from employees and frontline leaders for most of the workforce to become aware of any new concept or initiative with respect to what it is, how it can be accessed, and the expectations for when employees are permitted to access it (e.g., during or after work hours).

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2. Expect resistance – Because not everyone is at the same level of readiness, not every idea will be of interest or anticipated. Some employees may even push back. For accessibility, it's important to be clear on what rules are not negotiable, and that all employees are accountable, regardless of their interest. As well, make it clear for all what is optional, and why it's being offered with respect to value and the benefit for both employee and employer.

3. Build an accessibility map – This provides a visual overview of all the organizational policies, procedures and programs for mental health, where each fits in the following three categories, and where they can be found:

  • Primary prevention – objective is to prevent harm (e.g., anti-stigma campaigns).
  • Secondary prevention – objective is to support people when a risk is identified to get information or skills to reduce their risk level (e.g., provide coping skills training to employees struggling to cope).
  • Tertiary prevention – objective is to provide support (e.g., provide access to treatment for depression through EFAP or paramedical).

4. Monitor access – By using Google analytics you can flag different URLs to track and monitor what policies, procedures and programs are being successfully accessed. This can be an early indicator as to what future results can be expected.

When it comes to accessibility, sometimes organizations with fewer things working well have more success than those that keep adding programs without paying attention to who is accessing what. There can be wisdom in the phrase from a Robert Browning poem: "Less is more."

Executives and human-resources experts share their views and advice about leadership and management in the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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