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Stephen Liptrap is president and CEO of Morneau Shepell Every organization should have a workplace mental health strategy. The case is clear and compelling.

Mental health issues impact a sizable proportion of the workforce – one in three working Canadians report a current or past mental health issue. Because most of us spend a significant amount of time at work, these issues have a noteworthy impact on organizational effectiveness, from decision-making to retention to safety to relationships to attendance and productivity. According our data, absences alone cost Canadian employers $28-million per 10,000 employees, with mental illness being the leading driver.

So, why do only 39 per cent of Canadian employers have a workplace mental health strategy? The answer I most often hear is, "we don't know where to begin." Like any framework, developing a workplace mental health strategy is no easy task. But, there are clear steps that organizations can take to get started. Let me walk you through them.

First, the good news: many employers already have tools and core services to directly support a strategy. These typically include a combination of training, disability management and employee and family assistance programs (EFAP) that can be strengthened and better integrated. That's an excellent foundation. But what comes next?

Setting clear objectives: A simple starting point to any strategy is agreeing on clear objectives. At Morneau Shepell, we focus on 5 Rs: removal of stigma, resilience building, recognizing risk, recovery and return to work.

From there, we urge organizations to embrace the Mental Health Commission of Canada's National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Available for free, the Standard provides a framework that is intended to:

  • Reduce people- and cost-risks related to mental health
  • Promote productivity and engagement
  • Reduce potential liabilities related to workplace legislation and employee mental illness
  • Develop and continuously improve work environments

Getting buy-in: The most successful mental health strategies start at the top. Visible commitment and ongoing support from a senior leader cannot be underestimated – for proof, look at the vital role Bell Canada CEO George Cope played in launching Let's Talk and the company's internal mental health strategy.

Senior executive champions inform their counterparts about the relevance of workplace mental health, reduce stigma in just a few words and sow the conditions for improved outcomes. But they must be committed, believe in what they're preaching and truly lead. Employees can see through someone going through the motions.

The next step is training. Canada's top organizations make workplace mental health training mandatory – from senior executives to frontline managers. People leaders are taught about proper messaging, anti-stigma, recognizing behaviour changes and how to engage a colleague with a potential mental health issue. Role-playing and simulations often lead to excellent results.

These efforts are best complemented by a cascading communications strategy, from the C-Suite to the frontline. A strong and consistent campaign focused on reducing stigma, raising awareness and bringing to view spokespeople with meaningful experiences will ensure that a strategy feels real and relatable.

Design, implementation and evaluation: Design and implementation are, by far, the most challenging parts of a mental health strategy. The National Standard, while an incredible tool, can be a tad overwhelming. My advice, don't bite off more than you can handle. Prioritize and focus. Whether you start with an anti-stigma campaign or by modernizing an existing program, do a few things well rather than several things poorly. Also, remember that adding more programs will not necessarily improve outcomes. Strengthening and better integrating an existing suite of programs can go a long way.

Measurement and evaluation: I can't fully articulate how important this step is. For a mental health strategy to be taken seriously, it must be held to the same standard as other business measures. That means collecting reliable data and regularly keeping tabs on the value of and return on your investment. To that end, consider three types of measures:

  • Outcome measures: Absence and disability costs, EFAP utilization and employee engagement.
  • Risk indicators: Workplace total health, employee and manager sentiment and audits based on the National Standard.
  • Program effectiveness measures: A thorough and regular audit of programs asking the following questions: Are programs working as intended? Are people aware? Are they using them? Are services having an impact?

Finally, the most important step is to simply start. The issue of mental health in the workplace is significant, the ability to help or hinder compelling, and the opportunity for improvement is overwhelmingly clear.

In the spirit of Canada 150, let's set a big, hairy, audacious goal: By 2020, every organization in Canada, regardless of size or sector, has a workplace mental health strategy.

Executives and human-resources experts share their views in the ongoing Leadership Lab series. Find more stories here and follow us @Globe_Careers.

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