Workplaces have ‘role to play’ in mental health

6 key goals, 100 recommendations make up mental health strategy from MHCC
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/28/2012

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has launched the country’s first mental health strategy.

Unveiled in May, the strategy is designed to improve the mental health and well-being of Canadians and create a system — which includes workplaces — that can meet the needs of people living with mental health problems, said MHCC.

“We have made some progress but more needs to be done to improve how we deal with mental illness in this country. We are still very far from where we need to be,” said David Goldbloom, chair of Calgary-based MHCC. “Everyone has a role to play — every government, corporation, organization, community, service provider and Canadian.”

The strategy was developed through input from thousands of Canadians over five years. When MHCC was established in 2007, with funding from Health Canada, the creation of a national mental health strategy was a key element of its mandate.

In any given year, one in five people in Canada experiences a mental health problem or illness, which costs the economy more than $50 billion, according to the strategy. And mental health problems account for more than $6 billion every year in lost productivity costs due to absenteeism and presenteeism.

Changing Directions, Changing Lives: The Mental Health Strategy for Canada outlines 100 recommendations grouped into six key strategic goals.

Promoting mental health

The first goal is to promote mental health in homes, schools and workplaces. To promote mentally healthy workplaces, an employer should first conduct an assessment of its environment to determine what changes need to be made, said Margaret Tebbutt, senior consultant for workplace initiatives at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s British Columbia division in Vancouver.

“What are the key factors that are working well and perhaps not working well? For example, is it really clear what leadership expects in the workplace? Is there civility and respect? Are there good opportunities for recognition and reward or for involvement in decision-making and influence over how things are done?”

An employer should also make sure it promotes work-life balance with a manageable workload and appropriate pace of work, said Tebbutt.

“When you bring somebody in, you don’t know them 100 per cent. There could be some depression, there could be other related issues… and we all live in a world where there’s not enough time to do a lot of different things (so) we’re under a lot of pressure today in trying to seek that work-life balance,” said Jim Facette, president and CEO of the Canadian Propane Association (CPA) headquartered in Ottawa.

The 400-member association has partnered with MHCC to create an information service to provide CPA members with better access to mental health resources.

Training is another important aspect in creating a mentally healthy workplace, according to the strategy. Managers should receive training on how to recognize changes in employees’ behaviour and performance, and how to support them, said Tebbutt. Employees should also receive training on mental health in general.

“(Training will) reduce some of the assumptions and stigmas that are there as well as (help employees to) recognize some of the behaviours that might be harmful, to recognize that something might be going on, and how they can be supportive in an appropriate way to co-workers,” she said. “And to understand where to go for help.”

Foster recovery, well-being

The second key goal of the strategy is to foster recovery and well-being for people living with mental health problems. If an employee is on leave due to a mental health issue, it’s very important the employer maintain contact with the employee, said Halifax-based Charles Bruce, chair of MHCC’s workforce advisory committee.

“Line managers are often hesitant to make that phone call because they think they’re being intrusive… but it’s not to be intrusive, it’s to keep them up-to-date and engaged in the workplace.”

Mental health problems typically account for 30 per cent of short- and long-term disability claims and are rated one of the top three drivers of both short- and long-term disability claims by more than 80 per cent of Canadian employers, according to MHCC.

An employer should work with an employee to develop a formal return-to-work program, which may require basic accommodations such as modified duties or flex-time, said Bruce.

Access to services, treatment

The third priority is to provide access to services, treatments and supports. An employee assistance program (EAP) is one tool employers can offer to support employees with mental health issues. The strategy also recommends employers offer peer support programs. These bring together employees who have direct or indirect experience with mental health problems to support each other, said Bruce.

“If one person in any setting talks about it, I am convinced it will invoke a response — either they know someone or they have been touched by mental health issues in some way,” said Facette. “As long as someone feels comfortable to address it and talk about it, it’s amazing what happens.”

Diverse, remote communities

The fourth goal of the strategy is to improve access to mental health services among diverse communities and northerners.

“Any employer who is based in more remote locations or in the North or has branches or people working in remote locations needs to keep in mind those factors that constitute a psychologically healthy workplace,” said Tebbutt. “Do you provide that kind of social support to a person who may be working on a line way up in a mountainous area?”

Aboriginal Peoples

The fifth goal is to work with First Nations, Inuit and Métis to address their mental health needs while acknowledging their distinct circumstances, rights and culture.

“Always keep in mind what is the cultural background of this workplace. If you have First Nations in your workplace, there are going to be some cultural norms that need to be respected as we go through this as well,” said Tebbutt.

Mobilize leadership

The sixth and final strategic goal is to mobilize leadership, improve knowledge and foster collaboration at all levels. Business leaders need to display a commitment to mental health and talk about it on a regular basis, not only within their own organization but their broader business community, said Tebbutt.

“Everything starts at the top. It’s amazing when a company owner or senior executive speaks about or takes any kind of initiative in this area — it really cascades from there,” said Facette.

“People take direction as an employee and if a senior executive is saying, ‘This is important and here’s why’ and opens up a little bit about it, it makes a world of difference.”

National mental health strategy

6 key goals

The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s mental health strategy includes six strategic goals:

• Promote mental health across the lifespan in homes, schools and workplaces, and prevent mental illness and suicide wherever possible.

• Foster recovery and well-being for people of all ages living with mental health problems and illnesses, and uphold their rights.

• Provide access to the right combination of services, treatments and supports, when and where people need them.

• Reduce disparities in risk factors and access to mental health services, and strengthen the response to the needs of diverse communities and northerners.

• Work with First Nations, Inuit and Métis to address their mental health needs, acknowledging their distinct circumstances, rights and cultures.

• Mobilize leadership, improve knowledge and foster collaboration at all levels.

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