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Mental Matters: Why your workplace should have a mental health inititative

Workplace mental health initiatives improve not just employees’ health and happiness, but businesses’ bottom line, too

Mar 20, 2017

by Jenn Mentanko

A productive employee used to be one who could work quickly: They could hammer lots of nails, churn out lots of product, all while never missing a day’s work. Sick days were a lost opportunity for a day’s wage and taking a mental health day was unheard of. Today, strength, stamina and a perfect attendance record are not attributes we list first on our resumés. With automation and the shift from goods-producing to service professions, intellect is number one. A valued employee is no longer one with just physical prowess, but one with resilience, problem solving skills and innovative ideas as well. According to Jeff Moat, president of the mental health campaign Not Myself Today, “Maximizing the potential of people has never been more important.”

As brainpower drives business, it should be obvious, then, that the health of this valuable asset is a top priority. But for many organizations, it isn’t – a fact Moat calls “unacceptable in this day and age.”

“I don’t want to paint a dire picture,” he says, “but it really does depend on an organization. Managers should be trained in how to deal with someone who comes forward to disclose they have a mental health problem.” While employee assistance programs are miles ahead of the in-house alcohol treatment programs they originated from in the 1940s, not all organizations have such plans in place – many don’t have a mental health initiative at all. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, this can cost them. This week, 500,000 Canadians will miss work due to a mental health issue, meaning significant losses in productivity. That doesn’t count for presenteeism in the workplace either – employees who are physically at work, but not mentally present. In 2011, $6 billion in productivity was lost because of mental health issues.

Canadian mental health campaigns have gone into overdrive in the past few years, hoping to eradicate the stigma associated with mental illness. Many have been supported by corporations; witness Bell’s Let’s Talk initiative every year. Despite those efforts, many people still don’t see the personal connections they have to mental illness. “To some, it’s a crazy group of people over here that they have nothing to do with,” Moat says. The reality is, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem in any given year and those of prime working age are hit the hardest: 20 per cent of the working population in Canada is currently struggling with their mental health. As a business leader, if you’ve never faced the issue in the workplace, you’re just not listening.

If you’re an established organization, it’s never too late to address the problem. Andrea Shandro, principal of the employee benefits firm Vital Partners, says it’s the perfect time in Alberta to cultivate an open and communicative workplace. “In Calgary today, there are tons of employees whose spouses have been laid off,” Shandro says. “[With] the threat of losing your job and the financial pressures, you see performance fall.” Shandro works with small businesses and entrepreneurs to develop tailored benefits plans for employees, and she recommends an Employee Family Assistance Program (EFAP), which offers everything from financial counselling to health coaching and psychological counselling for workers and families, to cover your bases. Once this support is in place, Shandro says it’s important to make those initiatives known so employees and families actually take advantage of the program. “Insurance companies are communicating with companies a lot more to start paying attention to employees’mental health,” she says.

“If there is an EFAP, there are posters that get delivered to make sure those workplaces are talking about it.”

Then there are initiatives like Not Myself Today which offer business leaders resources on how to tackle mental health problems in the workplace. The Workers’ Compensation Board, named Alberta’s best workplace for health and safety in 2014 by Alberta Venture – and a Not Myself Today partner – has experienced great success using this initiative in conjunction with an EFAP.

“We take a holistic approach to recognize mental health,” says Joanne Arsenault, WCB’s manager of corporate wellness. “The utilization [of an EFAP] is higher than the industry average; we know the program is successful.” WCB’s corporate wellness division is a three-person team, separate from human resources, that promotes these initiatives, and employees can speak to them directly about a health or wellness concern. “The diagnosis of why someone is off work is not the driver,” Arsenault says. “We don’t question, we just make sure they get the assistance they need, whether it’s a broken leg or a broken heart.”

Having a mental health initiative is step one in establishing an open and accepting workplace. Educating leaders on how to practically approach issues once they arise is the second. That’s why Patrick Galenza, program chair of NAIT’s radio and television program, made sure his entire staff took mental health first aid training provided by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The course delves into common mental health problems and teaches participants how to prevent stigma and discrimination, and spot signs and handle symptoms of mental health issues.

“Coming out of the course is empowering,” Galenza says. “We learned early detection, and questions we can ask to engage [with someone] and point them in the right direction.” If introducing a benefits program conducive to mental health isn’t in the budget for your business, equipping leaders with basic mental health first aid can be a manageable way to introduce this initiative. It’s not all about spending money either: Simply acknowledging that your organization recognizes the importance of mental health and is open to discussion can make a difference to your employees’ overall health, productivity and your business’s bottom line.

It’s time to talk

Recognizing the importance of mental health is one thing, but actually talking about it is another matter

Mental health can be a sensitive topic, and business leaders who aren’t prepared to have conversations about it can discourage employees from coming forward with an issue. The worst-case scenario is having an employee suppress the problem for fear of ramifications or discrimination. With the goal of creating an open, cooperative workplace in mind, here are some tips on how to remove the stigma and begin the conversation.

From the top down
Supervisors of all levels should be equipped to handle a mental health concern. Patrick Galenza, NAIT’s radio and television program chair, has taken the Mental Health First Aid course offered by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and says staff and students tend to bring up issues with the person they feel most comfortable with. “Coming to the chair might be awkward or intimidating in some cases, so everyone [on staff] has that foundation and can point them in the right direction.”

Lend a hand
If you don’t have the know-how to solve an employee’s issue on your own (assuming you’re not a registered psychologist), don’t leave them hanging. Point them in the right direction, whether it’s to the Employee Family Assistance Program or to an outside resource. Galenza says one of the most valuable aspects of the Mental Health First Aid training is being equipped with resources he can direct staff and students to. “Who knew there are probably 90 different companies or groups [in Edmonton] that are at the ready, from Poundmaker’s Lodge Treatment Centre, to Alberta Health Services, to Catholic Support Services,” he says. “The staff feel more comfortable when they have numbers at the ready.”

Check in
Simply saying hello to staff members can help you spot if something is wrong. If an employee is especially quiet, or their performance is falling, ask what’s going on. “I can tell if a staff member is having a tough day,” Galenza says. “Lots of times you can tell if something is going on and you can ask what’s happening.” Have your ear to the ground and be aware of staff morale.

Don’t overshare
For employees coming forward with a mental health concern, talk to the supervisor you feel most comfortable with one-on-one. Don’t feel the need to disclose every issue of your illness; it’s not necessary to share sensitive information for the sake of defending your illness.

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