Reframing mental health in the workplace

There is an important trend emerging in employee health and wellness programs: greater openness and support for mental health in the workplace. The Mental Health Commission of Canada cites that mental health issues represent approximately 30% of all short-term and long-term disability claims. Furthermore, in 2010, 47% of all approved disability claims in the federal civil service were related to mental health, which is nearly double the percentage twenty years earlier. Whether due to decreased stigma around mental health, better education about the assistance available, or the genuine increased need for support due to societal factors, one thing is clear: supporting mental health is a growing, vital initiative that impacts employers of all shapes and sizes.

Recently, a number of excellent examples of mental health support in the workplace have surfaced. These news items reveal three distinct ways that employers are increasing mental health support for their employees:

1. Placing greater emphasis on preventative wellness.

Companies that provide support for health and wellness in the workplace typically don’t just offer counseling services. They also have programs to help with a variety of work/life balance issues to offer support before mental health is impacted.  An example is Ceridian’s Employee Assistance Program and Wellness Solutions (called ‘LifeWorks’) that focuses on prevention and early intervention. The program encompasses a range of programs that most employees find useful. Examples include help with legal or financial questions, as well as help in caring for aging relatives. Providers confidentially offer advice (online, over the phone, or in-person), as well as provide referrals to help employees cope with situations that make achieving work/life balance difficult. Ceridian has leveraged technology and created a comprehensive app for customers to find the information they need. Using technology to help employees find information, as well as connecting them with experts who can help (virtual counseling sessions, for example), are ways in which progressive companies are providing wellness solutions to more people, more efficiently than ever before.

2. Increasing funding for mental health support.

Just last month, Starbucks Canada announced that they will increase employee funding for therapy from $400 to $5000 per year per employee. The change comes after consultations with their staff where the topic of mental health support was what they wanted to talk about most. The majority of Starbucks’ employees represent the millennial generation (the average age of employees is 24) and increased funding for mental health support plays an important role at a critical time in their lives. Although the increase in funding seems dramatic, the company expects that only a fraction of employees will take full advantage of the program. However, the funds are there for all employees (who work more than 20 hours per week) if they find that they need the support.

3. Creating an environment where employees are encouraged to be open about the state of their mental health.

Vancouver-based bookkeeping firm, Bench, is on the forefront of encouraging dialogue among employees about mental health awareness, thereby reducing stigma surrounding the issue. The company created a ‘Mental Health Guide’ (which they have also released to the public and it can be found at: tinyurl.com/benchmentalhealth) to foster an environment for open discussions about “how work affects your mental health”, “addressing workplace stressors”, and “supporting your peers”. Bench’s Director of People Operations, Sarah Blackmore, describes having open discussions about mental wellness at a team level even before releasing the guide. The result is a more engaged workforce that feels genuinely supported by their employer.

To summarize, increased mental health support for employees is evolving in exciting ways, as part of a more holistic view of health. It is highly likely that all employees can benefit from mental health initiatives in the workplace, if for no other reason than to feel an increased sense of trust and support from their employer. However, the success of these programs rely heavily on management training to recognize employees who would benefit from these programs and provide resource options, often referred to as ‘Mental Health First Aid’. This type of training is greatly needed to increase participation in often under-utilized services.  For more information, programs, and ideas about supporting mental health initiatives, please visit www.mentalhealthcommission.ca.

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Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.