OHS Canada Magazine

Employers need to take an extra step or two to impact workplace mental health


Employers have invested money into policies and programs designed to impact workplace mental health over the past decade. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of mental health apps have been developed; digital mental health using integrated cognitive behavioural therapy (ICBT) has grown dramatically, and many organizations have offered wellness programs.

Despite these efforts, mental illness still afflicts many, and employers have grown unsure if what they are doing to help is enough – or if in fact, they can still do better.

Addressing the need

The motivation for investing in workplace mental health varies. Some initiatives are aimed at reducing disability costs and presenteeism; others at increasing retention, engagement, profitability, and organizational sustainability.

Based on a plethora of research from leading organizations like Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), and Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC), the pandemic has negatively impacted employees’ mental health. Workplace mental health has become a global problem. In March, the WHO reported that mental health risk, including death by suicide, increased.

While investing in programs and policies is prudent, it’s not enough, based on the growing trends and concerns about workplace mental health. Employers are engaging in a two-step dance instead of a four-step dance. They are not clear on what steps they want – and need.

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Workplace mental health needs a four-step dance

The CSA Z1003 Standard on Psychological Health and Safety promotes a four-step approach: Plan – Do – Check – Act (PDCA).

A recent study called Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace: Employer Practices in Response to COVID-19 confirmed a thesis I have held for a few years that many employers are only taking the first two steps: Plan and Do.

The gap is in that most employers take little to no effort in determining if what they planned and implemented are valued by workers and leaders or if it’s not. They miss step three – Check – and in turn are not able to do step 4 – Act – on the basis of an effective evaluation.

Another misstep by employers is failing to give a full view of the mental health programs and policies to employees, who in turn fail to develop good habits.

Take for example the idea of resiliency in the workplace: some employers understand this as an essential trait of employees, but are not clear on what experiences, types of environment, and education drive employees to be resilient.

Expecting psychological health and safety to improve because employees attended a workshop on resiliency is short-sighted and not congruent with how humans learn and develop habits. It takes support, repetition, and re-learning to create habits.

Measuring workplace mental health

Employers should focus on the behaviours they want from senior leaders, mid-level employees, workers, workplace mental health facilitators, and unions. Workplace mental health is behaviour-based and can be measured like other Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) factors.

Regardless of the program or policy, it is prudent to clarify the top three key performance behaviours (KPBs) workers and leaders are expected to practice daily. KPBs influence key performance indicators (KPIs), and outcomes and can be measured and audited.

CEOs and leaders are motivated by financial performance and results. Organizations with the highest workplace treatment scores (e.g. healthy and safe workforces) on average outperformed others by 4.7% on the Russel 1000. Employers receive an additional $2.30 in performance and productivity for every dollar saved on direct health care costs.

It pays to take that extra step

When asked why missteps are happening, workplace mental health facilitators have two common responses: “We don’t want to measure, in case it’s not working,” and “We simply do not have enough budget to measure and audit all the programs we have.”

The lesson for employers is to have a clearly-defined list of KPBs expected from leaders and workers for every program and policy. Improving KPBs positively impacts monetary and non-monetary outcomes.

Taking more steps may mean fewer programs and policies for employers, mainly due to limited resources and budget. However, completing the four steps will turn goodwill efforts to evidence-based decision-making for Mental Fitness Index scores.