OHS Canada Magazine

Be clear on your workplace mental health north star

Avatar photo

June 13, 2022
By Bill Howatt

Health & Safety mental fitness Mental Health

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Mental Fitness: The next frontier in workplace mental health’ is a monthly series, in partnership with Dr. Bill Howatt of Howatt HR Consulting in Ottawa. This series takes a deeper look at mental fitness — an approach to prevent mental harm and promote mental health.

One positive action for anyone tasked with facilitating workplace mental health is to be clear on “why” the employer wants to engage in workplace mental health initiatives. The why will help uncover the motivation and purpose of investing money, time, and resources into workplace mental health. Slowing down and becoming clear on the employer’s workplace mental health north star helps leaders, workers, and unions align and support the organization’s overall mission and purpose.

More organizations are becoming interested in Environment Social Governance (ESGs) non-financial reporting — particularly the “S” — with what and how they are protecting workers’ well-being. More CEOs are buying into workplace mental health as not some random activity that is discussed. Workplace mental health is a pillar supporting the human capital strategy for organizational sustainability that must be done right, as the cost of failure may be the organization’s sustainability.

Do not assume the “why”; be clear

Do not assume employers promote workplace mental health only to reduce disability claims relating to mental health. Lowering costs, however, may be a part of the reason, especially when the extent of preventable costs to North American workers’ well-being is becoming alarming.

A recent Fortune article shared that many employers are buying into workplace mental health not because it is a nice-to-have but a must-have. The CDC reports that approximately 90% of the $3.8 trillion in U.S. health care spending is for people with chronic physical and mental health conditions. The article suggests because many of these are stress-related diseases, they can be prevented through proactive prevention programming, early detection, and intervention.


Protecting workers from mental harm and promoting mental health is typically the goal. However, the reasons can vary from money to the employer’s core values of how they want workers to experience the workplace. They might be concerned about the “S” for the organization’s viability and sustainability or want to help workers feel psychologically safe and included to drive creativity, retention, and productivity.

A common mistake is slowing down to get the why and locking it down. Jumping to random acts of wellness or initiating programs and policies like EFAP to support workers’ mental health will not be enough.

Workplace mental health impact depends on habits

From my experience, there is little relationship between the number of programs or policies and their impact. A recent CSA study on workplace mental health found that most employers that invested in workplace mental health during the pandemic were more focused on the Plan and Do than on follow-up actions Check and Act steps of the Plan – Do – Check – Act (PDCA) approach. Creating cultural habits requires a continuous-improvement PDCA approach and accepting that there is no goal line. Nothing is perfect. Only through getting feedback and repeated measuring can the organization learn how to move towards its workplace mental health north star.

There is no shortcut nor magic solution to workplace mental health. Key performance behaviours that drive key performance indicators and results are required for impact. Creating Psychologically Safe Cultures at Work, a free ebook, describes how employers can facilitate this outcome.

Organizations that are clear on their workplace mental health north star are motivated to ensure that their programs work and provide value for their employees. Purpose can provide energy to push through and stay focused. It can be challenging and take months or years for a culture to become psychologically safe, welcoming, and inclusive.

Three steps for creating your workplace mental health north star

1. Discover motivation

— Why do we care and want to support workers’ mental health? Take a question like this to senior leadership to provide their input, then engage middle management, frontline leaders, workers, and unions to frame their motivation. More often than not, what will come out of this is that money is a factor, as is a desire to put more humanity into the workplace. There is growing evidence that workplaces must put more humanity into workers’ experience and make it clear that every worker matters. The why will frame emotions like belonging, value, and purpose that employers want their workers to experience.

2. Link “why” to organizations’ purpose

— Workplace mental health must consist of much more than programs and policies to have an impact. When done right, workplace mental health shapes a learning culture that drives out fear and silence. It creates a psychologically safe workplace where workers and leaders perform to their potential to help their organization achieve its purpose.

3. Check

— Build in accountability where workers are asked through focus groups and pulse checks whether the organization is facilitating a psychologically safe workplace. What will come out of this is not how much a worker likes a program or policy but how their colleagues and leaders contribute to their well-being. It also increases workers’ confidence in asking for help and in employers’ programs and supports for their mental health.


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


The Psychologically Safe Workplace Awards (PSWAs) are a national, evidence-based annual competition that measures the employee experience with respect to workplace mental health.


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories