Sounding Board: Management style, employee expectations key to supporting mental health

Workplace mental health is a priority issue. Currently, one in four Canadians leave work due to anxiety, stress and depression. The Canadian Mental Health Commission estimates mental health costs the economy $50 billion annually, and every week more than 500,000 Canadians are off sick due to mental stress or illness. Mental illness is one of the top three drivers for 80 percent of short and long-term disability claims.

Canadian Mental Illness Awareness Week, which is Oct. 1-8, 2017, offers employers an opportunity to talk about mental health in the workplace. It’s essential to foster an environment where mental health and wellness can be addressed in a transparent and non-judgmental manner and to develop a proactive, mental health-ready work environment.

Read: Aligning mental-health strategies to business values key to program’s success

Here are five ways employers can make changes to management styles, employee expectations and access to technology to improve mental health in the workplace.

1. Encourage open communication and two-way dialogue.

Employees should be encouraged to talk about mental health. In a post that went viral on the internet in July, an employee wrote a letter to her chief executive officer about her need for a mental-health day. The chief executive officer encouraged her to take it and applauded her honesty. Ideally, all organizations should foster transparent discussions about mental wellness, where open dialogue is encouraged between the employer and their employees.

2. Look for markers of mental stress and be cognizant of potential hazards for workplace stress.

Human resources should be trained to detect signs of mental stress and offer immediate assistance, such as facilitating an appointment with a mental-health professional and reviewing all other supports available to the employee. Employers tend to primarily focus on protecting employees from physical risk factors in the work environment, but they need to be equally aware of risk factors for mental stress. These can include poor leadership, unrealistic expectations placed upon employees, lack of support, job mismatch and a lack of growth and development within the organization. Employees need to feel safe and validated to thrive within their workplace.

3. Provide mental-health first aid training.

Since 2007, more than 250,0000 Canadians have taken mental-health first aid training. Supported by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the international program has proven to be effective, showing people trained in the program how to recognize signs, symptoms and risk factors to help someone experiencing a mental-health crisis. People trained in mental-health first aid learn to identify relevant professional and self-help resources and are taught how to increase their own mental wellness.

Read: Mental-health first aid training targets rising disability concerns in electricity sector

4. Know how and when to approach an employee who’s in need of help.

It’s important to recognize signs of mental stress early and approach employees in an open, non-threatening and non-judgmental manner. Look for marked changes in the employee’s behaviour or work performance and address those first. For example, rather than saying, “You look depressed,” say, “I’ve noticed you have been coming in late and you’ve missed several deadlines, which is unusual for you. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” Open dialogue is key, and always offer employees access to resources as early as possible.

5. Provide wellness coaches and wellness credits.

Exercise and wellness programs should be part of any workplace strategy. Research shows a direct correlation between exercise and improved mental well-being. Being active also leads to improved sleep, and sleep disorders affect 40 per cent of Canadians. Exercise also helps with stress and anxiety, a leading cause of disability claims, and can prevent a recurrence of depression. Provide employees with wellness credits they can use for gym memberships, fitness classes and equipment, and provide flexibility by including exercise-related activities in a health-care spending account. Another option is to invest in workplace wellness coaches. 

Read: A creative way to use wellness credits to boost productivity

Canadians spend the majority of their lives at work. If your employees are suffering from mental-health issues, you should get them help immediately. The workplace can be a source of stress or strength, so employers should create an environment where mental health thrives, increasing confidence, self-worth and purpose among employees. With the right education, technology and effective communication strategies, a workplace can be a safe and positive place for everyone.

Dr. Gina Di Giulio is director of psychology at the Medcan Clinic.