This is part of a series examining the mental health experience in Canada’s workplaces. Take part in our short survey (tgam.ca/mentalhealthsurvey) and add your voice to this important conversation. This article provides employers insights to help them better support employees with mental health issues. This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell’s Employee Recommended Workplace Award, which honours companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Winners for 2017 will be announced at a HR summit on June 21 in Toronto. Sign up to receive an e-mail about registration for 2018 Award at www.employeerecommended.com.
What is a mental health strategy?
At its core, an effective mental health strategy preserves, protects and retains human capital. It supports employees’ mental health so that they can leave work in the same – or better – mental health as when they arrived at work.
A mental health strategy enhances the experience of all employees by preventing psychological injury, promoting psychological wellbeing, and supporting employees who are experiencing a mental health problem or illness.
The Workers Compensation Board in Prince Edward Island recently awarded damages to a woman after ruling that her husband’s death by cardiac arrest had been linked to workplace bullying. This landmark case reinforces the importance of the design, implementation and monitoring of a mental health strategy.
Building a business case for investments in mental health in the workplace can inspire senior leaders to support a mental health strategy as a good business decision – in addition to being the right thing to do for their staff.
Two organizations will rarely have the same needs, so any employer exploring a mental health strategy should reflect on the reason for implementation and the desired outcomes. Doing so will ultimately shape a strategy suited to the organization’s goals. Let’s take a moment to examine the three pillars of an effective mental health strategy, as outlined above.
· Preserve –This is when an employer acts to reduce workplace stress, ensure its culture is not toxic, and aims to retrain or eliminate ineffective managers. The preservation of mental health also implies that employers give their employees the opportunity to gain access to resources and tools, such as coping skills training, which can curb risk for mental illness and enhance and promote mental health generally.
· Protect – This is when an employer acts to reduce the risk for workplace hazards such as bullying and harassment, and mitigate the impact of occupational stress injuries. Removing the stigma of mental health issues through anti-stigma training such as The Working Mind, and providing a flexible accommodation policy are also essential to protecting and promoting employee mental health. These go hand-in-glove with implementing the right benefit structures.
· Retain – This is when an employer actively engages the work force to contextualize their contribution to the broader mission and vision of the organization. More concretely, retaining employees involves taking steps to reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, and implementing accommodation/return to work policies.
Employers of all sizes are downloading the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) and using the 13 workplace factors that affect employee mental health as a guide to shape their thinking and mental health strategy design.
A mental health strategy should have the same level of rigour and discipline as an occupational health and safety framework. In fact, it needn’t be a stand-alone initiative. An existing Occupational Health and Safety framework can be expanded to include mental health.
A thoughtful mental health strategy is not a cluster of programs or random acts of wellness. It’s an accountability framework that has a defined strategy with a clear set of objectives and metrics, and senior leadership support.
Its programs have specific expectations for prevention, early intervention or treatment, with defined performance targets, ongoing measurement, annual audits, and reports to senior leadership. Furthermore, a good mental health strategy should be integrated into the overall culture of how an organization does business.
It is recommended that organizations consider expanding their mental health focus to a total health strategy that includes physical, mental, work and life health initiatives.
Here are a few recommendations for a mental health strategy to be successful:
· Get senior leadership support – For a mental health strategy to be allocated the required time, resources and investment, senior leaders play a critical role in ensuring the right resources are allocated to sustain implementation efforts. However, implementing a strategy like the Standard takes commitment and buy-in from all levels of an organization.
· Design a strategy to fit the organization’s needs first – A small business will have different needs than a large one; which is why the Standard is not a boilerplate solution, but rather a set of recommended guidelines, tools and policies that can be adapted regardless of a company’s sector or size. It’s important to measure impact and report results to senior leadership on a regular basis.
· Support employees’ self-discovery – Offer employees tools to help them gain insight. For example, the total health index may curb mental health risk by providing real-time results with recommendations and access to programs and resources.
· Engage the work force in the mental health conversation – Stigma is real. Invest in a structured communications and engagement strategy so that all employees can learn the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness, along with the types of programs and support systems in place and how to access them.
· Make mental health a core pillar – Mental health needs to be viewed by the work force as a core pillar that supports employees across their career lifecycle.
· Monitor the program mix – Many mild to moderate mental health issues can be prevented through intervention, when the root cause is psychosocial stress or addiction. Monitor the percentage of dollars and programs that focus on prevention, early treatment and intervention. Some mental illnesses are genetic and can be helped by programs that support mental health.
To learn more about how employers are implementing the Standard, the MHCC’s recently launched Case Study Research Project Final Report offers a summary of promising practices and lessons learned from 40 organizations striving to promote employee psychological health and prevent psychological harm.
Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto and creator of an online Pathway to Coping course offered through the University of New Brunswick.
Louise Bradley is CEO and President of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
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