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A Bright Spot in the Future of Mental Health

May 2, 2017

If the thought of another article about the dismal state of workplace mental health makes your heart sink, keep reading — new research gives cause for hope.

This week, 500,000 Canadians will miss work due to mental health issues. The Hon. Michael Wilson, Chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), highlighted this in a recent speech following the release of the findings of the Case Study Research Project. Beginning in 2014 and ending in 2017, the Case Study Research Project followed 40 organizations implementing the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard).

We’ve covered the Standard and mental health at work numerous times before. In the January/February issue we looked at police, prisons and a hospital, as they strove to overcome the “Suck it up, buttercup” attitude often prevalent in high-stress professions. But does implementing initiatives like the Standard actually improve how organizations respond to mental health issues? The results are in, and the short answer: is yes. If the thought of reading another article about the dismal state of mental health in Canadian workplaces makes your heart sink, keep reading — the results of the Case Study Research Project, released this past March, give cause for hope.


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  1. Objectives were achieved: All 40 organizations who participated in the Case Study Research Project achieved their change management objectives. They did so by using the nine common “promising practices,” listed on page 38.
  2. Management played a key role: Of the multiple reasons managers listed for adopting the Standard, 91% chose “it was the right thing to do,” while only 47% chose “participated to manage costs” as one of the reasons.
  3. There were measurable positive outcomes: Employee trust in management rose, the stigma of “coming out” about mental health issues was mitigated, absenteeism among clinically depressed employees was reduced by an average five days a year and employee engagement rose. The organizations studied became healthier places to work while also accommodating and supporting those with mental health issues generated outside the workplace.

Promising Mental Health Practices

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) researchers distilled the following nine practices, which contributed to the success of the 40 organizations who participated in the Case Study Research Project:

  1. DEFINE a solid business case to justify the investment of resources.
  2. ENSURE commitment exists throughout the organization, especially at the top.
  3. COMMUNICATE widely and effectively to maximize awareness and engagement.
  4. EMBED psychological health and safety in the overall organizational culture. Give managers and peer workers the skills to recognize and refer cases. Increase individual resilience.
  5. DEDICATE the necessary human and financial resources required for implemetation.
  6. TAILOR programs, practices and policies to best suit the organization, rather than adopt somebody else’s plan.
  7. CONSIDER the impact of planned organizational changes on psychological health and safety.
  8. REGULARLY measure the impact and results.
  9. SUSTAIN organizational focus beyond the initial implementation.

The Five Pillars of a Successful Workplace Mental Health Strategy

  1. POLICIES. Make it official.
  2. PROGRAMS. Put the policies into practice. Workplace awareness programs, EAPs, peer support and wellness programs all contribute to reducing stigma and increasing management and peer knowledge of mental health.
  3. RESOURCES. Ensure the commitment is backed up by resources. Many employees find the current budget of $500 to $1,000 a year for psychological counselling to be woefully inadequate. Manulife increased this benefit to $10,000. Moves like this not only help the employee, but it is good for the bottom line by reducing disability claims and absenteeism and increasing engagement.
  4. TRAINING. Increased awareness is great, but improved skills are important too. Just as CPR and first aid training have been extended beyond nurses to many employees, organizations, like the RCMP and Corrections, are now adding programs such as “mental health first aid,” and resiliency training.
  5. ASSESSMENT. How do you know you are doing a good job? Employee surveys that assess what employee’s think of your mental health strategies are key. Many organizations, including the MHCC itself, Manulife, Bell, Rogers and Great West Life, used the Mental Health at Work framework provided by Excellence Canada. They provide impartial third party assessments of progress, to avoid inflated management claims, or debates among stakeholders about the degree to which mental health and psychological safety are being supported. The external assessment gives the organization observations and measures on its strengths and opportunities, and an action plan to guide the organization to the next level on their journey toward psychological health and safety.

Organizations that want to improve mental health at work no longer need to be pioneers. There is a framework that works — 40 large, medium and small; public and private organizations have taken the journey successfully. With the Standard there is help available and a network to consult. There is a growing shift in Canadian organizations toward including mental health in wellness initiatives, so there are fewer impediments, and more resources.

Perhaps it’s time for your organization to make a move. As one Case Study Research Project participant, Chris McDonald of Manulife, observed: “It’s not as daunting as we initially thought.” “You’re not alone, there is lots of help,” agreed Carleton University’s Ed Kane.

Some final advice? Start with a small, committed group. Get top management on your side. Think of the long game, and realize that while attention to mental health and safety issues at work is voluntary now, it may become required soon.

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Paul Crookall
Dr. Paul Crookall is a researcher, writer and management consultant. He was formerly an executive with the Correctional Service of Canada.

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