Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting & MFIQ Inc. Michael Cooper is the vice-president of development and strategic partnerships for Mental Health Research Canada.
Senior leaders can no longer ignore the affect poor mental health is having on their employees, workplace culture and the bottom line.
Even with all the discussion on workplace mental health in Canada, among small- and medium-sized employers, only 39 per cent said they offer mental-health services to their employees, according to a survey by software company Capterra. On average, mental health issues account for 30 to 40 per cent of short-term disability claims.
The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (PHS) suggests that to protect and promote workers’ mental health, programs should have a plan-do-check-act framework, which all starts by understanding how big the problem is.
The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated to be at least $51-billion annually, with $6.3-billion resulting from lost productivity, according to a Centre of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) report. The World Health Organization reported in 2022 that an estimated 12 billion working days are lost to depression and anxiety globally, costing US$1-trillion annually in lost productivity.
Coming out of the pandemic, the U.S. Surgeon General reports that isolation and loneliness profoundly affect workers’ health. A recent Boston Consulting study found that around 40 per cent of Canadian workers aged 18 to 24 are at a mental health “breaking point.”
Employees’ expectations are changing regarding what they need from their employers to be attracted or stay. Recent Gallup workplace research found 61 per cent of respondents reported work-life balance and well-being as very important. A recent Qualtrics study found 58 per cent of employees say their job is the primary source of their mental health challenge.
When done correctly, workplace mental health can increase retention and engagement, improve productivity and lower disability costs.
For leaders to increase their mental health literacy, they must understand the differences between mental health and mental illness. Mental health concerns fall on a continuum from mental harm (for example, feeling overwhelmed by life) to mental injury (for example, trauma). Mental illness results in a functional impairment that impedes workers’ ability to perform to their potential at home and work.
Mental health refers to a person’s perceived emotional well-being and capacity to cope with stress. Employees with good mental health spend more time flourishing (feeling charged) versus languishing (feeling blah). Employees’ mental health success depends on two-way accountability between employers and employees.
ISO, an independent, non-governmental international organization that develops voluntary standards, guides the psychosocial factors that can positively or negatively affect employees’ experience and mental health. It suggests psychosocial factors fall into three categories: how work is organized, interpersonal interactions and physical equipment and space.
Psychosocial factors can be drains or chargers. For example, when employees feel their workload is overwhelming, the frequency, duration and intensity can increase their risk of experiencing psychosocial hazards such as fatigue, anxiety, burnout, loneliness and accidents.
To create a psychologically safe workplace, employers must take action to mitigate the negative affects through policy and procedure decisions and facilitating protective factors that mitigate mental harm and promote mental health.
The PHS north star is to drive out fear, have all employees feel psychologically safe to speak up without fear of retaliation and have a sense of belonging and inclusion. PHS success requires enforcing accountability and providing opportunities for learning without fear of making mistakes. The experience of employees influences the degree they feel trusted and psychologically safe.
The primary purpose for Occupational Health and Safety programs is to protect employees’ physiology (bones, eyes, ears, bodies) from danger that can create physical harm. PHS is what employers can do to protect employees from emotional harm. How employees feel matters because they make 70 per cent of their decisions emotionally.
Setting up workplace mental programs begins with clear direction from directors, CEOs and executives that it is a priority, not a nice-to-have.
The next article in this series will provide guidance on designing a workplace mental health strategy aligned with an organization’s maturity.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.