Several years ago I was working with a midsize organization in British Columbia to help them to improve mental health absences. They noticed that despite the mental health policy they believed to have in place, they were losing employees to mental health disability leaves, and they didn’t seem to return to work.

What Leadership Thought About Their Mental Health Policy

I was impressed with the passion the senior leaders shared about mental health; they shared stories about their own family or friends who experienced mental health challenges and overcame them to return to work. Many of the stories included open dialogue with employers about the need to adjust work roles and increase support at work. These senior leaders cared about, and believed that, they supported their staff through an employee assistance counseling program. They expected their intentions to support staff would be revealed when I continued research through the rest of the organization.

What Was Really Happening

In my final meeting with senior leaders, I presented my findings and the reality of the organization; the good intentions and values of caring about staff through mental health challenges was not transmitted through to the workforce. The staff thought the organization didn’t let people come back to work after “stress leave” or needing time off for mental health; and they didn’t think they could safely tell someone if they were struggling. The only information they referenced was observation of a key employee who left and never returned after a very public breakdown at work.

Not only that, more than 70% of staff worried about their mental health and the stress of workload, and thought that if they needed time off, they would lose their job. Some had accessed confidential counseling, but felt it was not enough to remove the risk they felt. The staff didn’t know that additional support was available and thought they would be identified as weak and sabotage future career options if they told anyone. In short, the workforce was concerned about psychological safety in their workplace.

Considering that 1 in 5 employees will experience mental ill health, this was a shocking example of how the organization’s work force was fearful of and didn’t know how to ask for or get support for a health issue that could interrupt their career, despite good intentions of senior leaders to support their workforce.

Developing an Effective Mental Health Policy in Your Organization

The senior leaders then understood the need to build a strategy to help staff feel secure to ask for help, to develop appropriate resources, and to increase healthy dialogue and positive examples of mental health and work outcomes.

This organization is not unique; an Ipsos Reid study in 2012 identified that 70% of workers in Canada have concerns about psychological health and safety. In 2013, a key tool to help employers in this arena was launched in Canada; the National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety.  Since then, other resources have come available for employers to assess the risks in their workplace, create a strategy, and implement a step by step plan to improve the mental health culture. There is compelling financial incentive to reduce the costs of mental ill health due to work absence through the adoption of the National Standard. But more importantly, developing a strategy in your workplace can reflect the values of your company and the intention to support your staff.

Here are some steps you can take to improve mental health culture in your organization:

  • Learn as much as you can about psychological health and safety. There are many no-cost tools available to get you thinking differently about your workplace. Here are a few of my favourites:
  • Develop a written mental health policy that includes clear value statements, aligns with your intention to support staff, and includes strong processes to identify and deal with any risks to psychological health and safety.
  • Build a team in your organization to work with you. Consider using existing resources such as your Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee, union representatives who can work with you, your Employee Assistance Plan Representative.
  • Develop and use a psychological health and safety lens. Start viewing your workplace and situations that occur through that lens. You may be surprised by what you see. Start talking and sharing; there are others in your workplace who can help and by talking about your intentions, you can invite support and ideas.
  • Develop a simple clear plan with measurable outcomes; look to the resources suggested for templates and examples of all the tools you need.
  • Focus on sharing the information about your strategy openly as in as many venues as possible. Be sure your employees know what you do to support and protect them.
  • Provide training opportunities to improve mental health literacy, reduce stigma and increase the dialogue in your workplace.

The senior leaders in the organization moved forward with written mental health policy and education for their workforce.  They noticed improvements immediately as employees started to come forward to express their concerns and needs, and the organization could now address the needs they knew about. The dialogue in the workplace changed and workplace mental health has become a regular conversation.

Diana Vissers is the Founder and Director of Corporate Services at Work to Wellness Rehabilitation Inc. – a Canadian company providing expert disability management services to Canadian customers. She is in the business of making your place of business healthy, safe and productive. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter for the latest news and updates on health, wellness and integrated disability management.