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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 conference in late spring. Sign up to receive an e-mail about registration for 2018 at www.employeerecommended.com.

How effectively is your organization supporting employees' mental health?

Compared with even five years ago, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of owners, boards and senior leaders who are challenging their management teams to answer this question.

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Mental health is gaining more attention in the news and corporate boardrooms, leading to increased focus and awareness. The new challenge for management teams is providing evidence of the effectiveness of new mental health initiatives, to demonstrate that they're having a positive impact on the company by supporting employees' mental health.

The economic impact of mental health problems and illnesses on companies also is gaining attention as awareness grows about the related number of short-term disability and employment insurance disability claims. Expenditures related to mental health are evidence of organizations monitoring their costs and trends. Furthermore, increased research in this area tells a compelling story, with a British health and safety organization reporting that the average claim for mental illness is 5.75 days longer than for a physical on-the-job injury.

This series of articles will focus on helping employers gain insight on designing and implementing mental health initiatives.

I will be doing this series in partnership with Louise Bradley, the President and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), which led the creation of Changing Directions, Changing Lives: The Mental Health Strategy of Canada, and is at the forefront of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

The mental health conversation benefits everyone. We all perform at our best when our psychological health is optimized. Everyone has to look after their mental health, especially employees who are experiencing chronic stress and strain, or a mental health problem or illness.

Mental illness can be genetic or caused by environmental factors such as geographic region (such as a war-torn area), exposure (such as a traumatic event), culture (including beliefs around asking for professional help), diversity and stressors from both work and home.

Mental health issues can vary in degree of complexity, type, frequency, intensity and duration. No two are the same. As well, a person can have more than one mental health issue or another chronic disease (such as diabetes) at the same time, which can complicate matters.

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Senior leaders who are not well-informed on mental health topics may rely on their own limited knowledge, subsequently drawing erroneous or stigmatizing conclusions. They may think that some people claiming to have a mental health problem are "faking it" or trying to "play the system."

This can encourage a damaging "suck it up" mentality, which implies life is hard and there is going to be stress, so deal with it. These attitudes can shape a workplace culture that propagates stigma and elicits fear among people living with a mental health problem that asking for help could negatively impact their career.

One senior leader, who was frustrated by the increased mental health claims in his organization, said to me, "this mental health stuff is all in their heads." I paused and replied, "You're correct. It's all in their heads. And now how are we going to help them with this so they can learn to feel better, be more in control of their lives, and find some internal peace?"

This resulted in a conversation where I taught this senior decision maker how mental illness affects both emotions and cognitions. That leader was then able to understand how a person can have discouraging thinking that can result in ineffective choices that affect their health, engagement and productivity. And most importantly, that leader realized the role he could play in supporting employees' mental health.

A simple metaphor: suppose you broke your leg in the first kilometre of a 10-kilometre race and as you were lying on the ground a group of onlookers started yelling at you to "suck it up" and finish the race. Of course, for most of us this situation is beyond the realm of possibility, but a person who is struggling with a mental health issue is no different.

Before they can get back on the road and live their life to the fullest they need time to heal, get mentally fit and ready to start again. No words nor motivational phrases can heal a bone; same for the mind. It needs the right nurturing and support to heal. However, while the body does the work to heal a bone fracture, for an employee with a mental health issue, getting well involves active participation in the healing process.

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The next challenge for many motivated leaders of mental health strategies is that senior leaders, after making an investment, will want to understand how the program is working and what they are getting in return for the investment.

Each article in this series will offer strategies and explore programs that will support a company's mental health initiatives. If employees are an organization's greatest resource, their mental health must be top of mind.

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.

Add your voice and take part in our short mental health survey: (tgam.ca/mentalhealthsurvey)

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