Mental wellness in the workplace – an employer’s duty

An employer’s responsibility to foster a healthy working environment has been a popular topic of discussion in recent years. Along with the rise of the Chief Wellness Officer, companies are implementing programs dedicated to supporting the overall physical and mental wellness of their people, but the focus on mental health in particular remains a sensitive and complex issue.

According to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, mental health issues in the workplace are often hidden for a number of reasons, including losing an employer’s respect, putting one’s job or promotion at risk, being shamed by colleagues, being afraid to ask for accommodations, long-term career goals being impacted, and the acute anxiety that comes with admitting to having a mental illness.

It’s also difficult to know when or which of your employees may be dealing with the stress of a mental illness, so how can employers help?

Here are 4 major triggers of mental stress and illness that employers can look out for as they work toward shattering stigma and supporting their employees.

1. Work-life balance Work-from-home options offer employees better work-life balance – an important factor that can contribute greatly to increased anxiety. Last year, for example, people were still commuting to work during a record-breaking snow storm in Ottawa. The flexibility to work from home would have relieved a lot of stress and anxiety. Robin Mews, the executive director of WORKshift, an organization that encourages the adoption of flexible work practices, blamed this on a ‘culture of presenteeism.’

“A more flexible work culture is an important method for attracting young people into the public sector,” Bews said to the CBC. “There’s a lot of wins associated with organizations getting their heads wrapped around this…organizations that still feel like they need to see their employees physically in the office are a little bit antiquated.”

Create fair practices and policies pertaining to remote work, remembering that the overall happiness of an employee increases when managers believe in their abilities and trust them to do their work from wherever they are.

2. Presenteeism A recent study by Statistics Canada on chronic health conditions states that “lost productivity from presenteeism is up to 7.5 times greater than the productivity loss caused by absenteeism.” Canadian businesses lose between 15 and 25 billion dollars annually due to the fact that people believe their attendance at work is a must, even when they’re not at 100%. The study also reveals that only 39% of low-wage employees are actually allowed any paid time off for personal illness. Being unable to take time off when unwell, or not feeling comfortable enough to ask management for time away has the potential to create disconnect. Employees can be made to feel powerless for various reasons, like the fear that work will pile up, that they’re placing pressure on colleagues during their absence, and placing their position at risk. Communicate with employees for a better understanding of what they need and offer options like flex hours or an extended leave of absence that can accommodate the needs of your valued employees and your business.

3. Stigma and Discrimination – How in touch are you with your employees? Does your company culture encourage camaraderie and friendship? The way people speak and interact at work can tell you a lot about their views on most subjects, and is a great indication of the type of environment you’ve created. An inclusive environment that encourages open dialogue is ideal for all employees, not just those dealing with a mental illness. Work toward developing a space where employees can speak freely and respectfully about issues involving mental health. It’s also a good idea to consider incorporating workshops or talks where experts can discuss resources that aide in coping with mental illness at work.

4. Stress – Willis Towers Watson’s global 2015/2016 Staying@Work Survey revealed that 85% of Canadian employers rank stress as their top health and productivity concern. The survey also found that employers and employees disagreed when it came to ranking the causes. For example, both sides felt inadequate staffing and too many organizational changes worsened stress levels, but couldn’t come to an agreement on which of the two caused more stress. An inability to come to terms with what accounts for the major causes of anxiety at work makes it difficult to come up with solutions to combat the issues. Stay on top of the areas you can control, because you can actually take the steps to minimize work-related stress if you know what’s causing it. Also ensure you are on the same page as your leadership, and encourage open door policies that enable employees to discuss work-related stress with their mangers and mentors, without feeling judged.

Last year, a Morneau Shepell case study reported that “PepsiCo Canada’s focus on improving employee health productivity resulted in operational efficiency savings.” They achieved this by adopting a holistic approach to absence management that supported employee health and safety. Its implementation resulted in multi-million-dollar direct savings in its first year, a decrease in the overall absence rate, a significant reduction in workers’ compensation days, and short-term disability duration.

All professional settings should support employee mental health initiatives, and as we work toward empowering people to talk about mental illness openly, it’s important to remember that empathy and communication are key in addressing and improving awareness.


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