While Canadian employers have spent millions of dollars to address and support employee mental health during the coronavirus pandemic, the co-author of a new study says employee feedback is key to addressing gaps in the improvement of workplace psychological health and safety.

“We’ve got random acts of wellness and we’re spending millions of dollars on workplace mental health, without any evidence [that supports] what we’re doing is working,” says Bill Howatt, president and founder of Howatt HR Consulting. “We’re encouraging employers to move mental health from program to policies — in other words, what are the key performance behaviours required to create workplace mental health?”

The CSA Group study, which analyzed responses from 295 Canadian employers, examined employers’ adherence to the organization’s standard on psychological health and safety in the workplace. While about half (49 per cent) of employers said they’re using the standard in some way, 28 per cent of these respondents said they’re using it as a reference, but not necessarily adopting it. In addition, 14 per cent were adopting parts of the standard and just right per cent claimed to be fully adopting it.

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The standard emphasizes the importance of employee feedback in measuring the impact of mental-health programs, says Howatt, citing the example of an employer hosting a workplace resiliency program for an afternoon. “[The employer] checks the box and says, ‘That should do it.’ But at the core of the standard is the worker’s voice. If you’re going to do something, unless you go back to the worker and say, ‘Is this actually working?’ and doing program evaluation, you’re not doing continuous improvement.”

The study also found daily communications (87 per cent) was the most common initiative used to support employee psychological health and safety during the pandemic, followed by adjusting remote working policies (85 per cent), upgrading technology (78 per cent) and employee assistance programs (76 per cent).

While employee communications are important, employers need to remember it’s a two-way street, says Howatt. “Communication involves sending information and receiving feedback. What we hear a lot from employees in focus groups is they don’t know what to focus on, because every day there’s a new communication. . . . If the employee doesn’t see value in [that communication], then the employer needs to sit down and determine whether it’s working for employees.”

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