Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Healthy minds, healthy workplace

Companies face human, financial costs when employees suffer from mental illnesses

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September is such an interesting time in our lives. We focus on getting students ready for their local schools or transport older students to their new post-high school institutions. Many parents are racing to register their children for swimming or dance classes and/or the many sports activities available within the city. At the same time, many employees as well as retirees are busy perusing college and university calendars for interesting courses. They are also reaching out to the community lifestyles calendars for hobby activities such as sewing, creative cooking, art or photography. Still others use this time of year to seek out volunteer opportunities to keep them occupied during the winter months.

However, the challenge for all of us is taking note of our own personal time and energy limitations. Our enthusiasm sometimes gets ahead of us and before you know it, we are overwhelmed. Just ask me. At one time, I was a member of so many committees that I had to leave early from one meeting in order to arrive late for my other meeting. Somehow, I convinced myself it was important to be at both. How silly!

What shocked me out of my presumptuous stupor was returning home one winter night to find my oldest son locked out of the house, stomping his feet in our garage and freezing his toes. Believe me; I vowed to never again think I was so important that I had to grace every meeting with my attendance. Although I certainly continue to stay busy, I've kept this promise to myself.

However, when people and employees in particular don't pay attention to their own personal time, physical and mental limitations and over-commit themselves at work or in their private life, they set themselves up for total exhaustion and burnout. And by the way, while these are symptoms of a mental-health injury, neither of these conditions will be fully understood nor appreciated in the workplace. In fact, many leaders are pleased to see you work so very hard; they will praise you for it and give you more.

Organizational leaders are not responsible for, nor do they have any influence over, the stress caused by an employee's outside commitments and few truly understand the value of ensuring a psychologically safe and healthy workplace and how it can contribute to employee productivity. In fact, the concept of a "mental injury" has really never been in our leadership vocabulary. Recently however, reports such as the Statistics Canada, Canadian Community Health Survey suggests that one in three Canadians are reporting mental-health issues such as a major depressive episode, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and abuse of/or dependence on alcohol, marijuana or other drugs at some point in their lifetimes.

So, like it or not, workplace leaders will indeed encounter and therefore need to deal with mental-health issues. How this can be accomplished is to create a workplace that contributes to healthy and productive employees. There are three avenues through which to influence the health and well-being of their employees. These include the physical environment, the organization culture and the availability of personal health resources.

In my mind, while each of these three factors consists of specific elements, the most difficult to develop, manage and sustain is the culture of the organization. In fact, the Canadian Mental Health Association suggests that organizational culture factors create two to three times the risk of injury, conflict, violence and mental illness among employees.

It doesn't take much thought to recognize there can be significant costs for failing to create and sustain a psychologically healthy workplace. For instance, employees suffering from stress are more prone to illnesses ranging from colds and flu to cancer, physical injuries, substance abuse, general tardiness and mental-health issues. While each of these issues directly impacts the health of the employee, the financial costs and losses to an organization can be tremendous. Current studies show that mental-health issues cost employers approximately $33 million a year and represent the number one cause of disability in Canada.

With this in mind, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), the CSA Standards and the Bureau de normalization du Quebec collaborated to create the Canadian National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. The standard provides employers with a framework with which to implement a systematic approach to developing and sustaining psychologically healthy and safe workplace. The goal is to assist organizations to embed psychological health and safety into current work practices and policies.

The standard assists leaders to identify the psychological hazards in their workplace and to assess their own workplace hazards and risks and determine ways and means for overcoming these stressors. It identifies specific practices that if implemented would support and promote a culture of psychological health and safety in the workplace and it demonstrates options for measurement and review of systems so as to ensure sustainability.

While at this time the standard is completely voluntary, I can envision that most leading-edge organizations will want to make good use of it. After all, these organizations are always seeking the ways and means to improve productivity while at the same time focus on employee engagement and job satisfaction.

On the other hand, how do organizations start to implement these new standards? Fortunately, the framework has been approved by the Standards Council of Canada and is available at no cost through CSA Group and BNQ websites. As well, the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction has published an excellent how-to manual called The Psychological Health & Safety Action Guide for Employers.

The action guidebook is very comprehensive and is framed around a six-point plan that includes policy, planning, promotion, prevention, process and persistence. It is also consistent with the International Standards Organization (ISO) which is now well known and widespread. One excellent element of this action guide is the step by step outline for each of the elements. In addition, readers will be pleased to note the guidebook also lists a set of resources for each of the six steps. These are very comprehensive, apply to a general public and appear to be very helpful for any leader no matter the level of experience.

For example, the action guide provides at least four superb resources to help leaders build a business case for their organization. One of the resources, published by Great-West Life, called Making the Business Case, Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace -- Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, takes the reader through six clearly defined steps to developing a convincing business case.

As indicated in the guidebook, initiating organizational change requires leaders to engage in significant planning. Thus, I highly recommend their six-step protocol of policy, planning, promotion, prevention, process and persistence. When this framework is followed, you will be well on your way to building a psychologically healthy workplace.

Source: Psychological Health and Safety, an Action Guide for Employers, Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health & Addiction, Jan. 2012; National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace Released, CSA Group, Jan. 15, 2013; 1 in 3 Canadians have had mental health or substance abuse problems, Kristy Brownlee, QMI Agency , Sept. 18, 2013

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHR)P, CMC, M.Ed., CCP is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 H1

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