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Minding mental health

By Mari-Len De Guzman
Mandi Luis-Buckner

Employers are starting to recognize psychological health as the new frontier for occupational health and safety management. Mental health advocates are promoting resources for creating psychologically healthy and safe workplaces.

Mandi Luis was at the height of her 27-year career in the banking industry when she was diagnosed with major episodic depression more than 10 years ago. This sent her down a completely different path than she may have envisioned for her life before the diagnosis.

But it wasn’t the mental illness that eventually forced her out of a job she’s held most of her professional life. It was the corporate system that, frankly, did not know how to deal with the consequences of her condition in a positive, supportive way.

“It’s not what (the employer) did to me; it’s what they didn’t do,” says Luis. “All I wanted to do was heal and get back to work, but it didn’t work out that way.”

After being off work for six months to recover, Luis returned — but she was unable to get the support she needed, given her condition. Eventually, she accepted a severance package from her employer.

She may not have realized it at the time, but Luis says leaving her workplace then was perhaps the best thing she could have done for herself and her illness. She embarked on a journey of healing that led her to a new passion: helping others get through the same situation she endured more than a decade ago.

Today, Luis works as a return-to-work coach and employment specialist for immigrant professionals at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont. She also volunteers for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) as a peer support specialist, focusing on mental health recovery coaching. In her work with the CMHA, Luis talks about her experience with mental illness in the hopes of increasing awareness around mental health and how workplaces and workers can effectively cope.

“I use my story whenever it’s needed… to show people that, ‘yes, it happened to me,’” Luis says. “To show them there’s hope.”

Unfortunately, Luis’s story is not uncommon in the workplace. Stress and mental health issues are becoming a major concern for Canadian workers and employers. A recent Ipsos Reid survey, commissioned by Great-West Life’s Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, shows more than one in five Canadian employees report they are currently suffering depression, while another 16 per cent say they have experienced depression in the past.

Another Ipsos Reid survey reveals 71 per cent of Canadian employees have varying degrees of concern about the level of psychological health and safety in their workplaces. Fourteen per cent of them say their workplace is not psychologically healthy and safe.

The issue of mental health in the workplace is nothing new, says Mike Schwartz, vice-president of group benefits at Winnipeg-based Great-West Life. It has, however, got significant attention in the business community in recent years, partly due to the establishment of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable for Addiction and Mental Health led by Bill Wilkerson, an award-winning advocate for mental health. This initiative brought mental health to the consciousness of business leaders.

“There is certainly financial impact on employers,” says Schwartz. “It comes in a number of ways. At the extreme issue, you have the disability cost… 30 per cent of long-term disability cases across the insurance industry are primarily related to mental health.”

Mental health issues are also attributed to increasing absenteeism and presenteeism among workers, Schwartz says. Presenteeism occurs when workers are at work but distracted by stress or other psychological or emotional factors. Like absenteeism, presenteeism can negatively affect a worker’s productivity.

The significant costs to employers of the workplace consequences of mental illness are increasingly putting workers’ psychological health on the radars of organizations, moving them to action. Employers are recognizing that psychological health and safety is as important to the bottom-line as the physical health and safety of the workers.

“Some of the service businesses that we run into — where their business is people — they have tended to recognize this issue and recognize that you don’t deliver a great service with unhealthy, stressed out, miserable employees,” says Schwartz.

Mental health-related issues in the workplace have also given rise to human rights complaints against employers, says Donna Hardaker, workplace mental health specialist at the York Region branch of the CMHA.

Human rights claims can be extremely costly, financially and emotionally, and organizations would be better off avoiding the possibility of any human rights issues against them, Hardaker says.

Tracking the Perfect Legal Storm, a 2010 report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), indicates financial rewards for damages caused by mental injury at work have increased 700 per cent in the last five years.

University of Toronto professor Martin Shain, an academic lawyer and expert in workplace mental health issues, authored the MHCC report. Employers are now being confronted with a legal duty to maintain not only a physically safe workplace, but a psychologically safe one as well, he says.

“(Mental health) has not gotten the same level of attention as the physical safety side,” Great-West Life’s Schwartz says. “The physical safety side has been our focus for so many years now.”


Emotional intelligence[/strong]

Mental health experts believe when problems related to mental health arise in the workplace, the outcome depends heavily on the way managers handle the situation. Managers who are not equipped with the knowledge and training to effectively deal with these types of situation are doomed to fail.

“Managers need support in this area,” says Luis. “When people are struggling, you really need someone who, at least, has empathy skills, and really has interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.”

As managers are often considered the face of the employer, it is important for organizations to ensure managers are able to effectively deal with the issue of mental health. Without proper training and knowledge, managers will continue to fail employees suffering from mental illness, says Luis.

Hardaker agrees. Like Luis, she also struggled with mental illness and also ended up leaving a career she worked so hard to build.

“What is really emerging now is that emotional intelligence as a competency for managers is crucial,” says Hardaker. “That means organizations need to step back and look at their hiring practices and policies.”

If a recent Ipsos-Reid survey is any indication, Canadian managers are still challenged when it comes to emotional intelligence. Although 91 per cent of managers and supervisors recognize the importance of improving their emotional intelligence in the workplace, a measurement of their skill areas for emotional intelligence shows more challenges than strengths.

According to the Ipsos-Reid study, the skill areas where respondents experience the most challenges in working with distressed employees are “communicating effectively” and “understanding their own emotional reactions.” Nearly one-third of managers and supervisors had some challenges in these areas.

“We focus a lot of our attention at Mental Health Works (a national program of the CMHA) on the conversation between manager and employee who is struggling, and we train managers on how to have that conversation. And that’s because it is so crucial; it’s a pivotal thing,” says Hardaker.


One of the biggest barriers to advancing mental health in the workplace is the stigma around mental illness. Experts believe the best way to break the stigma is to raise the conversation around it.

“The stigma of mental illness is best eliminated through contact with mentally ill people,” Roger Bertrand, co-chair of the technical committee on mental health in the workplace, said in a June 2012 discussion on mental health in the workplace during the Canadian Standards Association’s annual conference.

“It removes barriers when you can see someone who suffers from mental illness is a person, not a problem,” he pointed out.

In Ontario, the passage of Bill 168 in 2009 — adding workplace violence and harassment prevention to the Occupational Health and Safety Act — helped pave the way for more open conversations around mental illness, according to Elizabeth Mills, president and CEO of Mississauga, Ont.-based Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS).

The requirements under Bill 168 caused employers to take a long, hard look at their organization to identify and prevent violence and harassment. As a result, mental health was moved to the forefront.

Conversations around mental health can start by asking questions about respect and inclusion in the workplace, Mills suggests.

“Those don’t all have to be stigma-removing questions. They are actually really what respect in your culture, respect in this workplace — that we’re all in together —looks like and feels like. Those are all neutral words that can draw out from employees what it is they need to feel attached to the workplace culture,” she says.

Training is also an important element in eliminating the stigma on mental illness, says Hardaker. Training and education will raise awareness and literacy about the issues so people can start talking appropriately about mental illness.

“What often happens is we don’t know how to talk about it, so we use derogatory terms or negative terms or terms that demonstrate inappropriate assumptions that we make about people. So we need to raise the literacy,” Hardaker explains.

Designating a mental health “champion” within the organization is another way of breaking down the stigma, she adds. It may be someone who feels passionately about the issue of mental health and can push the organization towards sustainable change.

“Sometimes it’s a person who steps forward because they themselves have a mental illness. They are well into recovery, they are doing really well, they have a lot of positive things happen for them at work. They want to make sure the good experience they had continues for all staff and so they become the internal champion,” says Hardaker.

Employer resources

Although there seems to be increasing awareness around mental health in the business community, many employers are still looking for guidance on the best and most effective ways to address the issue.

When it comes to mental health, the issue is no longer whether employers should embrace it, but how, WSPS’s Mills says.

“What I find when we get into the majority of employers, it’s not a lack of willingness. It’s almost a hesitation around, ‘how do I start?’” says Mills. “Where are the sources and the tools and the tips?”

In the last decade, however, resources and information around effectively managing mental health at work have increased significantly — and many of them are freely available. The Guarding Minds at Work (GMW), commissioned by the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, is one such resource.

GMW offers comprehensive information designed to help promote psychological health and safety in the workplace.

GMW was developed by researchers from the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction at Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Health Sciences in Vancouver. It focuses on 13 psychosocial risk factors identified by the researchers as impacting an organization’s health: psychological support; organizational culture; clear leadership and expectations; civility and respect; psychological job fit; growth and development; recognition and reward; involvement and influence; workload management; engagement; balance; psychological protection; and protection of physical safety.

“The Guarding Minds questions, I think, are a great starting point for employers to, not only assess how big is the perception gap between what they think they are doing and what their employees are feeling, but it also gives you an opportunity to just focus on some very neutral and positive ideas,” says Mills.

On Jan. 16, 2013, Canada’s first national standard on psychological health and safety in the workplace (CAN/CSA-Z1003-12/BNQ 9700-803/2012) was launched. The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), CSA Group and the Bureau de Normalisation du Québec (BNQ) collaborated on the development of the standard, which is the first of its kind in the world, according to Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the MHCC.

This new voluntary standard establishes the framework for organizations to prevent mental injury, reduce psychological risk and promote a mentally healthier workplace. It provides a systematic approach to developing and maintaining a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.

The standard includes tools and information on:

• identification of psychological hazards in the workplace

• assessment and control of risks in the workplace associated with hazards that cannot be eliminated, such as reasonable job demands and stressors due to organizational change

• implementation of practices that support and promote psychological health and safety in the workplace

• growing a culture that promotes psychological health and safety

• implementing measurement and review systems to ensure sustainability.

Mills says the standard presents a huge opportunity for employers to start putting in place programs and policies that will help them provide a safer and healthier workplace, both physically and psychologically.

“I hope that employers take the opportunity to take it up that level and use the standard,” says Mills.

The new standard on psychological health and safety in the workplace is initially being offered as a free download to encourage more organizations to embrace the issue of mental health and take positive steps to improve the psychological health and safety of their workplaces.

“We view the standard really to be a pivotal event in this whole area,” says Great-West Life’s Schwartz. The company was among several organizations — including Bell Canada and the Government of Canada — that provided funding for the development of the standard.

“I would encourage employers not to view it as a threat or a burden, but to embrace it as a way that they can improve their organizational performance — whether they be in manufacturing or service or whatever business they are in,” says Schwartz.

“Corporately, we have determined that we will be willing to publicly say that we will start working towards the standard ourselves,” he adds.

For Luis and Hardaker — both successfully overcoming their mental illness and are now helping others do the same — mental illness is not just a personal health issue and individual concern. It makes moral and economic sense for employers to start looking at this issue as a workplace concern.

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