Healthy, happy employees foster a more effective work environment (Getty Images/ Pixelfit)
A growing number of employers are focusing their efforts on improving workplace mental health assistance and policies. Beyond the benefits for employee health and well-being, investing in a culture that encourages and supports access to resources and open dialogue makes good business sense.
“If employees are not well, they are not productive. Healthy, happy employees foster a more effective work environment,” says Denis Trottier, FCPA, chief mental health officer at KPMG in Canada. “While there is a cost to investing in mental health, the return on investment can be greater than the dollars spent within the first year.”
Rayhan Hossain agrees. “When employers promote a positive mental health environment, there is less turnover, less time lost, and fewer workplace injuries and accidents,” a registered psychotherapist at the Canadian Mental Health Association – Toronto Branch says. “At the same time, morale, productivity, creativity, and loyalty increase.”
Employers have made significant strides in developing employee family assistance programs (EFAPs) and change management efforts. Yet much more needs to be done, according to experts. Here they share their insights into how employers can build a meaningful mental health culture.
MAKE MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES MORE ACCESSIBLE
“There is a tendency for employers to have websites saying here are the tools, do a course on resilience, learn how to meditate,” says Merridee Bujaki, FCPA, professor, accounting at the Sprott School of Business and co-lead, accounting case, Healthy Professional Work Partnership.
But often, those resources can be challenging for employees to navigate, says Trottier. “One of the things I always ask clients is to take their mouse and find their mental health benefits on their website. If it takes more than two clicks, you have lost someone who is in distress. The button for mental health benefits should be on your home screen.”
One area where employers can do a much better job is highlighting free resources outside of the company on their sites, suggests Trottier. “BounceBack, for example, is a free program offered across Canada where anybody over 15 can self-refer for counselling. Movember.com has amazing tools, as well as Jack.org. MindBeacon is a virtual mental health therapy app that provides access to a wide range of mental health supports.”
In a world focused on equity, employers also need to make sure access is provided to mental health services that their people feel comfortable with, he adds.
MAKE EDUCATION A PRIORITY
“Just like there are CPR and basic first aid courses, employers should offer mental health-related training to leaders, managers or people leaders. Many of these are available across Canada through organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the Mental Health Commission. You don’t have to build them in-house because they are there already,” says Trottier. “One of the best resources is your benefits suppliers. All the major ones host seminars.”
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Eileen Chadnick, principal of Big Cheese Coaching, notes that one of the first things some of her leader clients did when coming back from the pandemic was to encourage authentic conversations, whether one-on-one or within teams where people shared their experiences. “The feeling of, ‘We are all in this’ can be empowering. Make it clear to your people that if they have a personal need they can come to see you and speak freely.”
Walking the talk is also essential, says Trottier. “I can tell you what doesn’t work — organizations host seminars and senior people don’t attend. You might as well send a note that the problem lies with employees and not managers.”
Leaders must take care of their own resilience as well, says Chadnick. “If you’re suffering from burnout, you can’t do any of this well. You need to have the oxygen to be a good leader.”
Also, don’t be afraid to share if you are having a challenging day, she adds. “Authenticity goes a long way. When others perceive you are just like them, it creates a sense of safety for others to come for help.”
MAINTAIN A POSITIVE MENTAL HEALTH CULTURE
“If you don’t have the right culture you are just ticking boxes,” says Trottier.
It is important to create a culture where people can talk about mental health without fear of discrimination and harassment, adds Hossain. “Give them the confidence to disclose what is important in their minds. If you can focus on that in the early stages, you may be able to prevent mental illness or distress further down the road.”
There’s a lot employers can do to push the dial, says Trottier. “Building mental health support into your leadership culture can sometimes be as simple as including the topic in town hall meeting agendas. Provide a space where people are comfortable talking about mental health issues. Bring in more culturally appropriate speakers. Try to find times throughout year to embed something mental health related in your culture.”
ESTABLISH ACCOMMODATION AND REINTEGRATION PROTOCOLS
Organizations could do a much better job of accommodating team members suffering through mental illness, says Trottier. “It’s an area employers really need to look at in the way of providing more meaningful support. There are so many things you can do to help a person on the recovery path, such as taking them away from client-facing functions, or assigning them to help others review files and reports.”
Accommodation can be formal or informal, says Hossain. “Perhaps you can relieve them from attending unnecessary meetings or provide the opportunity to do certain things on their own. Give them some controls so they can focus on their contributions and strengths.”
Chadnick often talks with her clients about instilling boundaries around emails. “Leaders might be lacking awareness of the impact that emails sent late at night or on weekends can have on someone else’s well-being. Good leaders can write emails when they think of them, but schedule to send them once they are in the office. Something as simple as that can make a big difference.”
Also, avoid imposing surprise deadlines where possible, she says. “Oftentimes leaders who are falling behind on something will issue short deadlines without warning. Do your best to organize your own work so you don’t have to create those surprises. Allow people to make space in their minds and calendars. That can make a massive difference.”
Employers should encourage staff to take care of their mental health. Hossain recommends simple policies, such as making sure employees take lunch breaks, vacation time and mental health break days when needed.
Starting meetings with a five-minute mindfulness exercise, such as breathing, or talking about favourite foods or hobbies is also a good way to build a sense of connection and belonging.
“Employers also need to establish a balance between how much is demanded of employees and what resources are available,” says Hossain. “Distress can often happen when demand on the job exceeds their ability to cope with what is expected of them.”
Clarity when assigning tasks is another factor, says Chadnick. “When leaders don’t provide clarity, it can create a tremendous amount of confusion and stress and deplete resilience.”
KEEP THE MOMENTUM GOING
Don’t be one of those leaders who assumes people are okay if you don’t hear from them, she stresses. “A lot of people will hide the fact they’re not okay. Managers should be engaging in regular ‘check-ins’ to see how people are doing, either with workload or generally. Perhaps they may need extra time or people, or some other kind of support.”
“It’s not enough to say you support mental health in the workplace,” says Hossain. “Employers can play a huge role in being aware that mental health matters for themselves and taking steps to promote mental health effectively and creating an environment where they care about their employees’ mental health and overall well-being.”
PROMOTE MENTAL HEALTH IN YOUR ORGANIZATION
Find out more about common stressors for accountants, and why it’s imperative to look at mental health not just as an HR issue, but a corporate issue. And learn more about Denis Trottier’s mental health journey and how he became an advocate for employee wellness.