How employers can address their responsibility to support mental health

This week (May 1st to 7th) is Canadian Mental Health Week, and the theme for 2023 is “My Story”. As 1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental health issue or illness every year, our collective stories are integral to acknowledging, understanding, and navigating mental health realities.

How those stories play out in the workplace – and the degree to which employers support them – is an essential aspect of mental health. Now, more than ever, employers need to understand that mental health issues and mental illnesses do, and will, impact their people – and their organization as a whole.

Over the last few years, the pandemic highlighted mental health in a way never seen before. While the statistics presented a bleak reality, it was an important step in understanding and helping to normalize and break down stigma. Now that we’ve largely moved on from the grasp of COVID-19, we mustn’t consider that step as a ‘one and done’. Although COVID certainly had a negative impact on mental health, it was only one factor in the lives of millions of Canadians.

Why is it important for employers to support mental health?

Whether it’s the 1 in 5 that will personally be impacted this year, mental health issues/illness will undoubtedly impact employees directly through their own experience or indirectly through that of someone they love. As the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) further outlines, by the time they’re 40, half of all Canadians will either have or have had a mental illness. Additionally, a 2022 study in the US found that, even pre-pandemic, over 92% of employees had mental health challenges that impacted their work.

Notwithstanding the personal and individual effects of mental health issues, their impact on the workplace can be significant. As reported by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), mental health is the primary cause of disability in Canada. At least half a million Canadians are unable to work every week due to mental health challenges/illnesses resulting in over $6 billion dollars in lost productivity every year. Not surprisingly, these numbers have been increasing annually.

How can employers help address and support employee mental health?

In previous posts, we’ve talked about the importance of employers making mental health a critical priority, normalizing it in the workplace, and the ways they can support employees. Some of these include:

  • Ensuring benefits allow for psychological supports, including having an employee assistance program (EAP) in place
  • Checking in regularly with employees, particularly when they don’t seem to be “their usual self” and making efforts to truly see and hear them
  • Facilitating flexibility and balance, and considering a 4-day workweek where it makes sense
  • Making it okay to talk about challenges and providing a safe space for employees to do so
  • Modelling healthy actions
  • As is now legislated in Ontario, putting in place “disconnecting from work” practices
  • Investing in CMHA’s Not Myself Today mental health program for your workplace

Most importantly, look carefully at your workplace culture overall; is it one that supports the realities of mental health and helps build resilience? Or is it one of working longer, harder, faster and that erodes employees’ ability to cope/breaks down resilience?

A key aspect of building a culture of resilience is ensuring your leaders and managers have the knowledge, training, and resources to support mental health. In her book, “Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work”, Melissa Doman highlights the importance of this – citing an unprecedented lack of mental health providers corresponding with the need and what she believes to be the next epidemic (i.e., rising mental illness). She suggests that, given their duty of care to provide a safe workplace, employers need to learn how to hold space for personal and difficult conversations and help provide access to resources.

Support mental health week and encourage #MyStory

While it is by no means a ‘one and done’, if you’ve not already implemented measures to support mental health in the workplace, let mental health week be the time to start. How can you encourage employees to share and learn from one another’s stories in a safe and meaningful way? As part of Mental Health Week, consider getting the #MyStory toolkit and encouraging your people to share in a way that makes sense for them and your organization as a whole. 

Jouta’s HR Consultants can help you build a supportive and resilient culture.