Sounding Board: Workplace mental health requires all hands on deck

More than ever, mental health is at the centre of our national conversation. From mayors to chief executive officers to well-known Canadians, mental health has never had so many different champions. And rightly so. Mental health exists where we do, extending from our homes, throughout our communities and into the workplace.

It’s at the workplace where the cost of doing nothing can be alarming. Any given week, 500,000 Canadians miss work due to a mental-health issue. Inaction has economic costs, too, at $51 billion in Canada.   

Canada’s business leaders want to take action, but 42 per cent of respondents to a recent survey by the Canadian Mental Health Association said they weren’t doing so due to lack of resources, time or know-how.   

Read: 2017 Group Benefits Providers Report: Insurers playing a role amid rising emphasis on mental health

We saw an opportunity to help. Alongside a 40-member champions council of experts, employers and people with lived experience, CivicAction launched a free online assessment to help employers take that first or next step towards better workplace mental health. Since its launch in December 2016, we’ve seen more than 750 businesses and organizations take the assessment to make those first or next steps on a mental-health journey. Overall, these organizations have the potential to benefit up to 1.7 million Canadians.

Today, employers are increasingly showing that those first or next steps to better supporting their employees can start small and still have a substantial impact.

Getting to where supportive workplaces are today has taken time, but key campaigns and resources have created momentum. Most notably, the Bell Let’s Talk campaign has been a driver of de-stigmatization, empowering people to share their stories and raising record funds. The national standard of Canada for psychological health and safety in the workplace, a first of it’s kind globally, has also been a catalyst for the development of new workplace resources and programs.

Among employers, early adopters have recognized the value of strong leadership and a solid business case when it comes to turning good intentions into concrete actions for workplace mental health. 

Read: Bell aims to ‘walk the walk’ during annual mental-health campaign

At the core of a good workplace is the fundamental belief that employees will only give their best when they feel supported. A 2015 survey conducted by Morneau Shepell Ltd. indicated that employees who rated their workplace more favourably on psychological health and safety indicated lower personal stress, less absenteeism and higher engagement. In addition, it found that if the chief executive officer and executive team publicly support mental health for their staff and drive more open conversations, employees will feel safe to speak up and seek assistance.

In terms of dollars and cents, there’s a benefit to the bottom line as well. More than 30 per cent of disability claims and 70 per cent of disability costs relate to mental illness. But as some employers have seen, investing in mental-health training for managers has lowered those costs by 20 per cent, while improved access to counselling has decreased the incidence of mental-health-related time off work by 13 per cent.

As such, workplaces across Canada are making real progress towards a workplace culture that values mental health through open and honest communication, a commitment to staff training and support and clear examples of leadership. Take these three cases:

Read: Tackling stigma key to Co-operators’ award-winning mental-health efforts

  • Dundee 360 Real Estate Corp.:

Shortly after becoming chief executive officer of Dundee 360 Real Estate Corp. in 2016, Brad Henderson signalled mental health as a priority. He talked about it with employees and launched a survey for staff, first as a baseline in 2017 followed by a second one in 2018. Along with communication around strengthened mental wellness supports and direct messages from Henderson to his employees, those simple steps boosted staff awareness of mental-health supports to 85 per cent from 28 per cent. 

  • Ryerson University:

Launched in 2016, Ryerson University’s Notice, Engage, Refer workshop has introduced almost 300 employees to skills for noticing when a colleague may be in distress, engaging in an empathic way and referring to a resource where appropriate. Through train-the-trainer events, Ryerson now has a cohort of facilitators for the program, allowing for a broad spectrum of university employees to participate, including academic, maintenance and administrative staff. 

  • CGI Canada Inc.:

With more than 10,000 employees in Canada, CGI Canada Inc. recognized the likelihood of its employees experiencing a mental-health issue at some point in their life. In May 2016, it launched a focused mental-health month, running various activities and fundraisers to raise awareness around the issue. Its efforts have helped CGI’s leaders to better recognize signs of psychological risks in their teams and open a dialogue to support employees in need.

Read: Leadership, expansive programs key to University of Calgary’s mental-health strategy

Bringing all workplaces onto the workplace mental-health path requires all hands on deck. While there has never been more momentum, the first steps already taken by employers need to come with others that respond to the needs of employees and recognize the changing world of work. It’s important that we don’t stop devising new strategies to keep our people supported and empowered at work. There has never been a better time to act.

Sevaun Palvetzian is the chief executive officer at CivicAction. Rupert Duchesne is the former group chief executive at Aimia Inc. and is co-chair of CivicAction’s Mental Health in the Workplace Champions Council.