Head Start: How to do something about mental health in the workplace
You’ve been talking about mental health in the workplace for a while. Now it’s time to do something about it
by Alix Kemp
Doing the math on mental illness:
1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental health problem or mental illness in any given year
In January, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the Bureau de normalisation du Québec and the CSA Group released a new national standard on psychological health and safety in the workplace, the first in the world to address the issue of mental health at work. Before you start to panic, don’t worry – it’s voluntary. The standard provides a framework for businesses to create psychologically healthy workplaces, with guidelines and suggestions for organizations of all sizes.
Illustration Matthew Daley
We’re past the raising awareness stage. You know mental illness is a real issue – you may even have experienced it yourself – and you want to provide a supportive environment for employees who may be struggling. You’ve heard all the arguments, and you know investing in your employees’ mental health can save you money, make you a more competitive employer and keep your staff happier and more productive. But knowing mental illness is a problem and knowing how to deal with it in the workplace are two very different things. Fear of mishandling a delicate topic has kept many small businesses from confronting it properly.
Knowing where to start
If you have no policies in place right now, taking the first step can seem challenging. Luckily, there are resources to help you get started. The federal government recently released a voluntary national standard on mental health in the workplace, which provides guidelines for businesses that want to implement supportive programs to promote mental health. There are also numerous organizations and free resources that can help. Morgan Craig-Broadwith, the manager of the workplace mental health program at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) Calgary region, suggests getting in touch with an organization focused on mental health issues, whether that’s CMHA or Alberta Health Services, to ask questions and get advice. “The first phone call or the first email is probably not going to cost anything,” she says. “There is also a ton of free resources out there, it’s just that sometimes they’re hard to get a hold of, and we know where they are.”
Craig-Broadwith also suggests looking at companies the same size or in the same sector as yours to see what they’re doing well and if any of their programs might fit in your business.
All on Board
even if you don’t have any official policies in place, there’s a good chance you’re already doing at least a few things right. The best way to find out what you’re doing well (as well as what you should be doing better) is to ask. An anonymous internal survey of employees can help you figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what areas your mental health policy should focus on. Some organizations, like Guarding Minds @ Work, offer free online surveys you can use to collect data on work/life balance, office atmosphere anwd other factors that contribute to psychological health. That may also help you determine what is most important to your employees and which segments of mental health you should prioritize.
Even if you don’t go the formal survey route, Craig-Broadwith says bringing your employees on board is vital. “You don’t have to do this alone,” she says. “Yes, you need to take a lead role on this, but you want to get employees engaged in this. When you do that, you’re including them in something they’re going to be deeply involved in. It’s important to get their insight and commitment.”
Involving your team is also a good way to make sure everyone is aware that their workplace is one that considers and supports mental health.
In some cases, one of the primary factors that prevent people from accessing mental health services at work is that they simply aren’t aware they’re available.
It’s not just that accommodating those with mental illnesses is the right thing to do – it’s also your legal duty, says Will Cascadden, a partner with McCarthy Tétrault in Calgary. “If someone can’t walk, then an employer would be obligated to put in a wheelchair ramp so an employee can get into the office. With a mental illness, it’s much more difficult and every situation is distinct,” he says. You can’t fire an employee because of a mental illness, since that would be discriminatory. But what happens when the employee can’t do their job? At what point can you claim undue hardship?
Cascadden suggests that your best choice may be to either grant your employee a leave of absence to treat their illness or transfer them into an easier position. Unfortunately, for many small businesses, that may not be possible. “In extreme cases, where an employee’s illness is such that it’s impossible to continue to employ him, in that case, the employment relationship may be ‘frustrated,’” he says, which means that it’s impossible for the employment contract to be fulfilled. However, claiming frustration of contract isn’t a cure-all, Cascadden says, and there’s still a good chance you’ll face a claim that you failed to accommodate to the point of undue hardship.
Doing the math on mental illness:
$50 billion – the amount mental illness costs the Canadian economy annually
There’s a good chance you’ll encounter some opposition introducing programs to accommodate mental health issues. While programs to counter stigma have had some success, 46 per cent of Canadians still believe that “mental illness” is just an excuse for bad behaviour, and you may encounter people in your organization who vocally oppose accommodating those with mental illnesses. Those detractors, rather than simply being unhelpful, can make things worse for employees who are struggling. As many of two-thirds of those suffering from a mental illness won’t get help because they worry about the stigma of admitting they have a problem. Considering the cost of untreated mental health problems, that means your skeptics are costing you money. So how do you bring them around?
Craig-Broadwith suggests that when dealing with cynics, the best approach is to show them the numbers on how much mental illness could be costing your organization and the savings you’ll see when your employees are healthy and happy. “That often presents a very convincing argument to someone who may not be supportive of mental health initiatives,” she says. “When you make a case that it’s fundamentally affecting the bottom line of your business, that’s probably going to be more convincing than, ‘We should do this because it’s good to do.’”
once you have a mental health strategy in place, it’s not as simple as saying the door is always open and hoping your employees are up front about any issues. As the boss, it’s your duty to make sure that everything is okay. But how do you recognize when there’s a problem, and how can you initiate what’s often an awkward conversation with an employee? “It really comes down to if there’s a change in a person you’re working with,” Craig-Broadwith says. That can mean anything from a usually gregarious employee becoming withdrawn to someone’s work quality going into decline for no obvious reason. “The process we use is a three-step strategy called, ‘I notice, I’m wondering, and let’s focus on solutions at work,’’’ she says. That means sitting down with your employee and simply saying, “I’ve noticed that something changed, and I’m wondering if everything is OK,” then working together to find accommodations that work.
If you’re still feeling a bit out of your depth, Craig-Broadwith says most companies already have internal resources available to them that they may not be aware of. Employee assistance programs often offer coaching for managers, and if you have an HR department or consultant, they may have resources to help as well.