OHS Canada Magazine

Telling a story, with empathy and data, to support mental health

August 21, 2023
By Lidia Pawlikowski

Lidia Pawlikowski. associate vice-president of health consulting at HUB International.

The mental health of Canadians is declining. In fact, one-third of working Canadians are at high risk for mental health challenges. Yet, only roughly one-quarter would feel comfortable to share their mental health struggles with their employer.

Organizations are recognizing that they can play a role in improving the mental health of their employees. And a majority of Canadians would like their employers to address mental health in the workplace, since ignoring the problem leads to a toxic workplace affecting both productivity and the overall workplace culture. On the other hand, when struggling employees have access to appropriate supports, they can get the help they need and perform better at work.

This is the time for organizations to consider how they can improve their employees’ mental wellbeing. This doesn’t mean offering an isolated benefit or two, which may offer a quick fix but doesn’t provide long-term help or support for struggling employees. It also doesn’t mean jumping on the mental health bandwagon, talking a lot with the latest buzzwords but not following through.

Rather, a more effective way to support mental health in the workplace is through developing and implementing a comprehensive strategy. The strategy should include all the components of any other major plan, carefully aligning it with company values and including mental health considerations in other company-wide programs.

This type of strategy really comes to life through storytelling. When an organization shares its own narrative on mental health awareness, it shines a much-needed spotlight on a topic that’s often kept in the shadows. It demonstrates that the organization is interested in the mental wellbeing of its employees. And it not only offers unwavering support and understanding to employees, but it stands behind that support with quality employee benefits and resources.


That’s certainly a story worth telling. Here’s how:

Open the conversation on mental health with empathy

Begin with an open conversation around mental health. Express care and concern for employees’ mental health and provide examples that demonstrate organizational support. Be sure employees understand why their mental health is of concern to the organization.

Build the story from the most important talking points, including:

  • Understanding – Gather employee feedback as their input is essential to building your story. Employees will help you determine what to change and to also understand what should stay. This will ensure you won’t take away something employees actually want.
  • Communicating – Share information regularly, whether through informational guides, fact sheets or online resources, to help employees assess and identify mental health issues. Be sure employees know where to go for help.
  • Evolving – Point out areas where your organization’s mental health program has grown and changed over the years. It may be useful to provide an example of a benefit that was offered at one time but was replaced by something more useful. Encourage employees to share their needs as well so you can offer better resources in the future.

Use data to support the story

Whether you know it or not, your organization has a variety of data already that can help you tell your story. Familiarizing yourself with that information can help your organizational leaders talk about mental health in a way that is both understanding and appropriate for your employees.

Start by talking with your employees to better understand the factors affecting their mental health. Be sure to ask explicitly for suggestions of how the organization can better support their struggling employees – and if there are specific benefits that workers are expecting. Consider focus groups or 1-on-1 sessions with people leaders to ensure everyone is a part of positive change.

Then look closely at the benefits you already offer. Whether it’s short- and long-term disability coverage, employee and family assistance programs, or even a drug plan, measuring rates of use provides a window into what your employees are already utilizing. Organizations can then use this information to identify specific health risks their employees are facing, as well as how those risks may impact their mental health.

Train, coach and identify are key to strategy and part of the story

In today’s world, part of the role of a people leader is to direct employees to internal supports that already exist for mental health issues. Yet many people leaders simply don’t have these skills. Organizations must provide training to support people leaders in identifying signs of declining mental health, and to provide ways to have meaningful conversations with these individuals. Having discussions around mental health can be tricky to navigate, but having these conversations are critical to the health and well-being of the workplace. Keep your people leaders informed about supports available to employees to share with their team members through purposeful communications so that they understand their role or “call to action”. This way, people leaders will clearly know what to do with the information that is being passed on to them.

Many organizations can add training for mental health awareness into an existing program rather than developing a brand-new offering. For example, it could be folded into a training for the employee recognition program, new hire onboarding, or return-to-work plans. Similarly, when employees do return to work after a leave, it may be a good idea to introduce ongoing assessments to support mental health in the future.

Telling an organizational story around mental health means introducing a complete strategy into the organization. From active, ongoing communication and empathetic support, to training leaders to being open to change, the steps to identifying and developing that strategy can be a challenge. Yet taking that challenge seriously – and being certain your employees know that the issue is important – sends a strong, positive message to employees that their mental health matters.

Lidia Pawlikowski is the associate vice-president of health consulting at HUB International, with 20 years of well-being industry experience in designing, implementing, and evaluating strategic health-related programs in the workplace. The Health Consulting Practice at HUB builds strategies in two specialized areas, Well-Being and Absence & Disability Management. 


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