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You can improve mental health at your work without a costly program.Alexander Raths/Getty Images/iStockphoto

There's more talk than ever about mental health in the workplace, owing largely to Bell Canada's "Let's Talk" campaign, now in its fourth year. But talk is cheap. It's harder to get a slice of the company budget for mental health programs when it's difficult to prove the return on investment.

So, where do you start? There are a number of changes a company can make without having to invest a huge amount of time or money, Lucie Dutil, vice-president of human resources at Bell Canada, said earlier this week to an audience of corporate executives.

"We all know we want to do something," she said, acknowledging that initiatives to improve mental health are not often at the top of a company's packed to-do list.

"The impact of mental health on your workplace is very significant and it's hard to measure," Ms. Dutil said, making it challenging to convince top brass to put scarce dollars towards these initiatives.

Mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety and depression, are the No. 1 cause of workplace disability claims, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which estimates that 10 to 25 per cent of those claims could be avoided with the right care early on.

Three years ago, Bell Canada implemented a mental health training program for leaders. Since then, the company's employee assistance program (EAP) usage is up significantly and relapses in mental health disability cases are down.

Human resources leaders don't need to wait for their company to fund a big mental health improvement project in order to get started, Ms. Dutil said.

The first step is to leverage whatever resources are already in place in order to help any staff who may be suffering, she said. That includes looking at your company's EAP to see what services it includes, such as counselling or other programs, that can help you, your company's managers and staff.

Companies should also organize and centralize all the information they have regarding mental health in the workplace. Often that's best done on an internal website so that managers and staff know they have one place to go to find the resources available to them, she said.

HR can also examine what other companies do to manage mental health issues in their workplace, and then create a plan that works for your firm, Ms. Dutil said. But don't expect change to occur overnight, she warned.

"A change in culture takes time and not everything needs to be done at once," she said.

companies should also ensure managers know the signs that staff are struggling to cope with the stress of work and life. It also helps if there's a designated group within the company to assess any disability claims and help arrange a back-to-work plan for anyone on leave, she said.

In addition, companies can enroll managers in the recently launched workplace mental health training program developed by Queen's University's faculty of health sciences. It follows the federal government's National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, released last year.

"We want to see people's creativity at work and for that they need to be well – both physically and mentally," said Bill Morneau, executive chairman of Morneau Shepell, an EAP provider and host of the conference.

But stress in the workplace is not always bad, said sports psychologist Saul Marks, who consults with Canada's Olympic athletes. Anxiety is part of being at the top of your sport, so the question is how to cope with it and how to use it to fuel your performance rather than hinder it, he said.

At work, there can be times of excessive work or stress, when employees need to overreach, he said.

"Sometimes that's expected from employees," he said. "They need to be warned that this will be tough."

The key is for companies to balance those periods of heavy stress with periods of recovery, Dr. Marks said.

Too much stress can lead to depression and disability claims, he said, and that hurts employees and affects a company's bottom line.

Managers need to watch their employees to see how they're coping with their levels of stress. Pronounced fatigue, insomnia, a lack of concentration, anxiety, mood swings, irritability and escalating personal conflicts are all signs that an employee is under more stress than she can manage, he said.

Sometimes managers need to step in, he said, and lessen someone's workload, set more realistic goals, get employees to leave work earlier, and keep communication lines open so employees can let managers know how they're managing. Companies also need to encourage healthy coping mechanisms such as proper nutrition and hydration, as well as exercise and relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation.

And there needs to be a clear message from all levels of the company that speaking up when they're feeling too stressed is completely acceptable, Dr. Marks said.