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Promoting healthy minds

Mental health in the workplace is a critical and costly issue

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Let's face it, most people like consistency in their daily work life. That's because consistency of policies and procedures create guidelines for behaviour that helps employees address any of the issues that arise in their daily duties.

From an organizational perspective, adopting specific industry-related standards of quality, safety and best practice help to ensure reliability, consistency and trustworthiness in their services and/or products. In fact, standards form the building block for everything that is accomplished in an organization. On the other hand, standards also have both a marketing and public relations function. For instance, customers use their knowledge of standards to compare and contrast the various products and services.

One of the results of standards, policies and procedures is it forms the development of organizational culture. Culture is often defined as "the way we do things around here" and includes such things as organizational values and beliefs, norms, language, systems and symbols. Organizational culture is very powerful and impacts what employees believe and how they behave toward each other, to clients and to other stakeholders. At the same time, organizational culture is extremely difficult to change.

It takes commitment, time, persistence and effective leadership. And from my own personal point of view, changing organizational culture requires education -- and lots of it.

Organizational culture is the one key reason I'm concerned the new national standards for mental health in the workplace brought forward earlier this year will fall by the wayside. While the standards have been approved by the Standards Council of Canada and provide a framework for organizations to create a mentally healthy workplace, they are simply voluntary. Unfortunately, this means many organizations will view the standards as "nice to have" rather than as a best practice that offers multiple benefits.

At the same time, I appreciate the fact many employers will look at these standards and be overwhelmed with the implementation and change-management challenges they would face. For instance, the document suggests new infrastructure and resources would be required, as well as the knowledge of psychological health and safety into management systems, operations, processes, procedures and practices. In addition, specific individuals would need to be trained in assessment, analysis and auditing.

Each of these needs requires committed financial support as well as committed human resources, otherwise organizational change and support for mental-health issues in the workplace will simply not occur. In other words, mental-health issues will continue to be seen as an "add-on" task that will be put aside for other, more pressing, needs.

However, employers are continually being confronted with factual evidence that managing mental health in the workplace is a critical and costly issue. For instance, approximately 30 per cent of all disability claims are related to a mental-health issue and this is expected to increase to 50 per cent in the near future. If this rise in costs does occur, employers must certainly take steps to mitigate their risk. Frankly, I can't imagine anyone willingly supporting the continuance of poor performance, absenteeism, presenteeism, accidents, and/or a general lack of productivity in their workplace.

At the same time, there is also a growing body of factual evidence a strategic investment in preventing and resolving potential mental-health issues in the workplace does provide significant benefits. This includes both financial benefits as well as the improvements stemming from healthy, high-performing employees.

For instance, the Occupational Rehabilitation Group of Canada (ORGOC), a Winnipeg-based company led by president Don Smith, has been promoting education as a key tool for improving mental health in the workplace for the past 13 years. As a result, ORGOC developed a unique program called Vital-Life wellness and more recently conducted an evaluation of their results.

The Vital-Life wellness program is a group work-sharing and learning strategy that provides coaching and support to participants experiencing stress-related symptoms. The group work and coaching consists of an active, skill-based and structured framework that includes a thorough and in-depth self-evaluation process and training on the causes and symptoms of mental-health issues in the workplace.

Participants then identify and become aware of the specific factors that contribute to their own mental-health issues, such as low mood, anxiety, stress, conflict and issues with personal/professional boundaries. Using cognitive behaviour therapy, goal-setting strategies and an introduction to specific stress-reducing tools, the participants are taught how to improve their vitality and resiliency against stress and mental-health issues.

Recently, an evaluation of the Vital-Life mental-health program was conducted and served to demonstrate employee coaching through group support was an effective workplace strategy and one that offered apparent long-term benefits. The pre- and post-participant evaluations and six-month review showed those participants who thought they were functioning well were actually experiencing symptoms of anxiety and low-level depression. These individuals recognized they were engaging in "presenteeism," which in turn created their low general productivity.

The program evaluation identified that participants successfully decreased their overall symptoms of distress while at the same time improving their perception of time management, mental and interpersonal functioning and general work output. The six-month review demonstrated these improvements were sustained over this time frame.

While this is good news for employers and substantiates the value of dealing with mental-health issues in the workplace, Smith indicates educating employers, front-line managers and supervisors is absolutely critical to long-term success. In his view, management education must be comprehensive, starting first with building an understanding of mental-health issues and their impact on the workplace.

Secondly, the education must be focused on how to recognize the typical behaviours exhibited by someone suffering from mental-health issues and what to do to when these issues arise. In fact, Smith's advice to managers is to think mental health "first and foremost" when dealing with under-performance or other employee issues. Subsequent to this, training and education must focus on creative corporate-wide strategies to build a psychologically healthy workplace.

With mental-health issues in the workplace being responsible for a frightening $20 billion of Canada's entire economic burden, there is indeed significant value to investing in a mentally healthy workforce.

Source: Psychological Health and Safety, an Action Guide for Employers, Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health & Addiction, January 2012; interview with Don Smith, president, ORG Canada.

Barbara J. Bowes, CHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 H1

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