May 5 marks the start of Mental Health Week in Canada, which is designed to encourage people to learn, talk, reflect and engage with others on all issues relating to mental health. These discussions are increasingly taking place in the workplace, where the focus is on acknowledging, supporting and accommodating employees who experience mental health challenges.

Setting the standard

Much of the recent emphasis on workplace mental health stems from the January 2013 release of the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). The National Standard is a voluntary set of guidelines, tools and resources for employers so that they can promote employees’ mental health and prevent psychological harm in the workplace.

Paula Allen, vice-president, research and integrative solutions with Morneau Shepell, likens the burgeoning interest in employee mental health to the evolution of occupational health and safety measures.

“Employers are required to understand on-the-job physical risks to their employees, and communicate and manage those risks. It is as much in their interest to do so mental health risks,” she says. “Even though the Standard is voluntary, it’s quite possible that we’ll see more specific mental health legislation passed in due course. We have already seen changes in some provincial workers’ compensation acts to expand the definition of compensable stress, and some occupational health and safety act to address workplace harassment, noting the impact on psychological safety.”

The cost of mental illness

Organizations should be motivated to do what they can to reduce workplace mental health risks. According to the MHCC:

  • more than 500,000 Canadians will not go to work because of mental illness each week;
  • more than 30% of disability claims and 70% of disability costs are attributed to mental illness; and
  • aapproximately $51 billion each year is lost from the Canadian economy because of mental illness.

Employers thus have both direct (claims costs) and indirect (productivity, risk management, employee attraction and retention) financial incentives to focus on improving employee mental health.

In fact, the rationale for helping employees with mental health issues extends beyond workplace causes: many employers are not only providing employee and family assistance programs, but proactively encouraging employees to use them, along with other initiatives that help promote better mental health (information, one-on-one counselling, etc.) while protecting confidentiality.

Tackling the issue

Michelle Steinowicz, vice-president, client strategy, with Morneau Shepell, finds that, while many employers recognize the business case for investing in improving mental health and genuinely want to help their employees, they aren’t sure where to start. “The National Standard is fairly high level,” she states. “Employers need to develop their own strategy to meet it.”

Allen provides an overview of what it takes to develop a psychologically healthy workplace: conduct a risk audit, provide supervisor/employee training, document policies and perform ongoing reviews.

“When employers do a gap analysis to determine what they’re not doing, training is quickly identified,” says Steinowicz.

One source for that training is Canada’s first university-certified Mental Health@Work Training Program, launched in January by Bell Canada and Morneau Shepell, in collaboration with the Faculty of Health Sciences at Queen’s University.

Lucie Dutil, Bell Canada’s vice-president, human resources, explains that Bell became involved in order to provide its people managers with “deeper knowledge and training regarding real-life workplace situations.” About 5,000 of the company’s people managers will complete the two first mandatory training modules, and those completing the third module will become certified under the program.

“The training is changing the way our managers are dealing with workplace mental health,” she explains. “They are more empathetic, better active listeners, and manage these issues more efficiently and uniformly across the organization.”

Heather Stuart, a professor at Queen’s University, is the first Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research chair as well as a senior consultant to the MHCC’s Opening Minds initiative. She is also very involved in the Morneau Shepell training program, which is certified by the school.

“We’re not making therapists,” she stresses. “Managers learn to recognize and address possible signs of mental illness, provide initial help by directing employees to available resources and monitor the situation.”

The training also deals with removing the stigma of mental illness that deters so many people from getting help, as well as understanding the employer’s obligation to accommodate workers with mental disabilities.

The course consists of three modules and blends live roleplaying with online learning. There is an exam after each module, and certification for graduates. “The program offers a rare—if not unique—type of partnership that marries academia with the working world,” says Stuart.

The first graduating class will become certified this spring. Dutil encourages other employers to invest in training: “The bottom line is that our managers are better equipped to support our employees and that translates into tangible benefits like lower absenteeism and higher productivity.”

Marcia McDougall is a freelance writer and the president of InteGreat Marketing PR Events Inc.:

Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

Join us on Twitter

Add a comment

Have your say on this topic! Comments that are thought to be disrespectful or offensive may be removed by our Benefits Canada admins. Thanks!

* These fields are required.
Field required
Field required
Field required