The do’s and don’ts of workplace mental health initiatives

Employees discussing workplace mental health

According to a 2011 study, 21.4% of the Canadian working population suffers from a mental illness that affects their work productivity. Despite these high numbers, a substantial percentage of workers don’t want to talk about it: in a 2014 survey of Ontario workers, approximately 39% wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing their mental illness to a manager.

Workplace mental health expert Mary Ann BayntonClearly, promoting workplace mental health can be challenging, but sticking with it can provide quantifiable benefits, from better employee engagement to increased productivity.

“It’s not just a feel-good strategy; it’s a business strategy,” says Mary Ann Baynton, program director for the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace. “The overarching goal is to maximize the potential and energy of every employee.”

In short, discussing mental health in the workplace can be difficult, but it’s worth the effort. Here’s a run-down of the things to do – and what not to do – when implementing a workplace mental health initiative.

Do: Familiarize yourself with the standards

The first step for employers is the standards set out by the CSA Group and Bureau de normalization du Quebec, and the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s step-by-step implementation guide. “There’s really a framework of best practice that exists,” says Baynton.

Do: Set goals

“It’s important to have objectives, such as reducing turnover or improving employee engagement – measures of agreed-upon outcomes,” says Baynton, warning that workplace mental health programs can often move to the back burner when other priorities come along. “If what you’re doing has an impact, the program becomes a good business strategy.”

When setting goals, it’s important to work with your employees to ensure that their unique needs are addressed. “When you try a cookie cutter approach, you might not be addressing the most significant causes of stress,” she says. “Make sure that any program is developed by and with the members of the team.”

Don’t: Focus only on employees suffering from mental illness

The biggest mistake that employers make when starting a workplace mental health initiative? Thinking that it should only be aimed at employees with a mental illness. “Positive mental health is how you maximize the energy of every employee,” say Baynton. “It should be aimed at everyone.”

Do: Start at the organizational level

Baynton describes this as the organizational approach – looking at the policies and processes that define your company.

“At every team meeting, every change management discussion, every policy review, ask this question: how does this impact the health and safety of our workforce?” she says. “This can fundamentally change and improve mental health in the workplace without investing millions of dollars into a new program.”

Do: Empower your managers

“They have more influence and control, and therefore more responsibility,” says Baynton. Work with your managers and other team leaders to ensure they’re aware of the overall goals you’re looking to achieve, and what is expected of them in the process.

Don’t: Confuse mental health initiatives with parties and perks

The second-biggest mistake? Confusing mental health discussions with office social events, like potlucks. “They’re nice, but they do not impact the quality of work in the same way that an approach to psychological health and safety can,” she says.

Do: Bring it to the team

At the group level, the goal of any workplace mental health initiative is to encourage discussion and address how teams interact together. There are plenty of online resources to help employers begin the discussion – On the Agenda, for example, provides videos, PowerPoint presentations, and other material to facilitate discussions of 13 psychosocial factors that impact employee mental health, like civility and respect, and workload management.

Baynton’s centre also suggests a series of activities designed by trauma, resilience, and emotional intelligence experts that can engage team members without overhauling the whole work day – “easy activities for any manager, even if it’s on the shop floor,” she says.

In “Musical Chairs,” for example, employers call a team meeting and let everyone take a seat before asking them to get up and change to a different seat. The goal is to increase self-awareness of how team members react to change.

Do: Encourage breaks

Employers can help team members think about mental health on an individual level by, simply, letting them take breaks. “Evidence shows that if you take your break, you’re actually more productive,” says Baynton.

Create an activity box with items like Frisbees, puzzle books, exercise challenges, and more to encourage staff to step away from their computers for a few minutes.

Don’t: Cross the line

“The responsibility of the workplace is to ask an employee, ‘how can I help you be successful at work?’” says Baynton. In other words, personal health issues, finances, and family relationships are off-limits. You can offer resources for these issues, she says, “but it’s not ethical for a manger or employer to start giving advice, because they’re in a power relationship.”

Keep team activities and discussions focused on work-related topics at all times. “If we get into pseudo-therapy, we’re crossing the line.”

See also:
Mental wellness in the workplace – an employer’s duty
6 cool workplace wellness programs


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