Fostering A Health, Happy Workforce: Mental Health

July 21, 2017


The vast majority of employees would likely agree that they have many challenges nowadays, and retaining a psychologically healthy workforce and managing mental illness in the workplace is one of those challenges, One in five people in Canada are diagnosed with a mental illness and the obstacles that come with that can be present in the daily work lives of these people. Therein lies the challenge for employers: What are their responsibilities? And how best can they support the well-being, and facilitate the optimal job performance of their employees? Compassion and empathy are good places to start. But there’s more to it. 

Costs associated with the impact of mental illness in the Canadian workplace total $50 billion. These are the costs associated with healthcare, employee downtime and lost productivity. Mental illness has also been identified as one of the top three drivers of short and long-term disability claims for more than 80% of employers. 

These statistics speak volumes and further highlight the importance of employers being part of the response to this challenge. There are many tools to assist employers in establishing their practices and cultures of workplace mental health. And a good place to start is with the recently drafted National Standard of Canada on this issue that was commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada—Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace—Prevention, Promotion, and Guidance to Staged Implementation. The framework of the standard has been designed to facilitate the following: identification and elimination of hazards that pose a risk of psychological harm to workers, assessment and control of the risks associated with hazards that cannot be eliminated, implementation of structures and practices to support psychological health and safety, and fostering a “culture of same” throughout organizations.  Stigma and discomfort associated with mental illness persists in society, despite media campaigns, exposure brought to the issue by many public and celebrity figures and knowledge sharing. It is this stigma that may thwart employers from being fully prepared for dealing with the mental illness challenges of their employees. 

“Illness is illness” is a slogan used by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in social media. The impact of this statement is in its simplicity. Employees suffering from mental illness in the workplace are entitled to equivalent rights and accommodations as are employees with physical illnesses or injuries. What we do know is that employees often attempt to “tough it out” or cope “as best they can” and remain at work (“presenteeism”). This approach may manifest itself in the employee as not only behavioral changes but also performance issues. 

Not all employees are equally resilient to pressures and challenges associated with work or with life in general. The conversation with an employee who has been observed to be struggling from an emotional or psychological standpoint must be a careful one. It may start only with a check-in: “I’ve noticed you’re not quite yourself recently. Is everything all right?” Attempts to encourage the employee are important; however, the level of disclosure from the employee regarding their challenges will depend on the employee’s comfort with the conversation, the relationship between the individuals, and the amount of insight the employee has surrounding their own behaviors and conditions. Either way, providing a reminder regarding an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or an offer to open the channels of communication is suggested. 

At times, the greatest assistance to the employee may be something that may seem such a small accommodation but might really turn things around. Does the employee require flexibility in work hours to attend mental healthcare appointments? Would the employee benefit from a temporary adjustment to work hours or workload? The conversation may return dividends in the form of better rapport with these employees by their knowing that you do care about their well-being. And perhaps, some performance challenges may even resolve in this way. 

Responsible and caring employers will become active participants in supporting employees with mental illnesses to either remain at work or return to work following an absence (“absenteeism”). But it is recognized that an effective psychological health and safety program takes timer and dedicated actions. For the individual who has been absent from the workplace due to mental illness, employers have an interest (and a right) to gather information concerning an employee’s ability to function in much the same way that they do for an employee considering a safe and suitable return-to-work program following a physical injury or surgery. 

"Employers value healthy, happy employees—This is a shared objective."

In the latter case, accommodations may be required for strength-related activities, postural job demands or perhaps ergonomic intervention to improve comfort and productivity at the workplace. Similarly, accommodations for an individual with a mental illness may need to be made: adjustments to the employee’s surroundings to facilitate concentration, more cognitive breaks, adjustments to duties or timelines for certain assigned tasks and assistance managing fatigue. 

Asking “What is the best way that I (the organization) can assist you?” will go a long way. Streamlining work tasks to only essential tasks and approaching assigned work with clear expectations and a documented plan for achieving the outcome may also assist. Employers are learning more and more in recent times that success in this objective generates a return in achievements and successes, and their actions in the area of workplace mental health will demonstrate both social responsibility and good business sense. The fundamentals of becoming a leader in workplace mental health promotion and management involve civility, respect, camaraderie and ultimately, achievements. Together with employees and healthcare providers, we can change perspectives and approaches. Everyone wins in this situation. 

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