OHS Canada Magazine

Workplace mental health programs often fail to meet potential: Here’s why


October 11, 2022
By Bill Howatt

Human Resources Bill Howatt Mental Health Psychological Safety

(Biscotto87/Adobe Stock)

The recent Mental Health in America: A 2022 Workplace Report stated that about 78 per cent of employers offer or plan to offer mental health resources over the next 12 months. Compare this to the American Institute of Stress research that found 83 per cent of US workers suffer from work-related stress, costing businesses approximately $300 billion annually.

Workplace research indicates the story in Canada is no better regarding concerns about work-related stress that can result in mental harm, injury, and illness. One key takeaway for CEOs, senior leadership, and OHS and HR decision-makers is getting workplace mental health right can positively impact an organization’s sustainability, finances, and potential. This suggests workplace mental health is no longer a nice-to-have but an operational imperative.

The primary objective of workplace mental health programs is to reduce mental harm and promote mental health. Many employers use the CSA Psychological Health and Safety Standard Z1003 as their north star for decision-making. This standard is grounded in a continuous improvement Plan-Do-Check-Act approach, which is necessary to engage workers and listen to their voices.

Why programs fail to achieve their potential

Good intentions do not guarantee impact. This logic can unpack why many employers’ programs fail to achieve their full potential. I estimate that 90 per cent of employers are doing the following:

Planning: A program is selected based on observation, data or point of view. Often, programs are picked using informed decision-making. A program is chosen because it sounds like a good idea based on input from others instead of another that scientific evidence shows has facilitated a targeted change and habits. This is critical as all programs’ primary goals are to provide knowledge and skills and facilitate behavioural change and habits that protect workers and support mental health.

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Doing: The evaluation standard used by 90 per cent of organizations is the percentage of workers who attend and their level-1 feedback, like perceptions. There is no plan to collect the data needed to determine the level of competency achieved and evidence of how the program’s knowledge and skills help workers and leaders do their jobs and flourish in the workplace.

The good news is these employers have committed resources and are trying. The bad news is they are missing an opportunity to set up their programs to achieve their full potential. This happens because of a failure in the planning stage to understand barriers that can negatively impact workers’ participation and ability to benefit.

Discover and eliminate barriers

Many employers implementing workplace mental health programs are keenly aware that self, peer, and organizational stigma is a barrier to accessing workplace mental health supports. However, many other barriers can inhibit a program’s potential. One is the lack of adult learning design to ensure all employees understand the programs’ why, what, and how. Having 10 programs and just half the workforce knowing about them is a barrier, which is why I often coach less is more. Employers need to educate employees on the benefits of each program.

Following are examples of barriers that can negatively impact workers’ and leaders’ ability to benefit from workplace mental health programs:

  • Employees lack the motivation to change and do something for their mental health.
  • No focus on a trauma-informed workplace (e.g., racism, oppression).
  • Lack of buy-in from senior leaders that employees’ well-being matters.
  • Leaders are unaware of their wake and impact on employees’ experience.
  • Employees are unclear about when they may access and use programs during work time.
  • No time after work hours to leverage programs due to family responsibilities.
  • Adherence slips, preventing new knowledge and skills from becoming habits.
  • No consideration for the workforce’s literacy.
  • One-and-done programs omit the impact of the forgetting curve on habit development.
  • Employees’ privacy concerns.

What employers can do to confront barriers

Accept barriers and commit to confronting them and mitigating their impact. Add barrier-planning to the planning phase and follow up and check on what is being done is reducing barriers. I suggest my clients track stigma levels year-over-year to evaluate if what is being done is helping to eliminate stigma.

I challenge employers to motivate employees to engage in mental fitness to help them develop skills to regulate stress and spend more time flourishing. Mental fitness is influenced by the employee experience, not just by what they do. Mental health in the workplace is a two-way accountability period.

Though there can be several barriers, I coach employers to focus on one or two at a time and work with their workers and leaders to see if what they are doing is having an impact.

  1. Discover: Work with employees in each program’s planning stage to evaluate the concern for each of the 10 barriers, including stigma. Pick the one or two most critical barriers to confront based on their feedback.
  2. Explore: Survey how a targeted barrier impacts employees’ engagement experience through their lens. Understanding and exploring what can mitigate this barrier can provide ideas to help employees access a program.
  3. Plan: Decide what will be done to eliminate barriers to increase the program’s ability to achieve its potential. This step accepts that only through continuous improvement and checking in with workers will the employer learn what is and is not working and what other barriers must be confronted. There is neither a goal line nor perfection. The objective is to maximize the potential for the program to create habits that will protect and promote workers’ mental health.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.

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