Making mental health a priority at work

County of Wellington says culture of respect is key
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/01/2014

Employees at the County of Wellington aren’t just protected from slips, falls and workplace accidents.


The county also puts a strong focus on psychological safety and mental wellness as part of its overall safety and HR initiatives. 


Wellington County  — located in southern Ontario, encompassing the area that includes the City of Guelph —  won the inaugural psychological safety gold award in the 2014 Canada’s Safest Employers awards, presented by Canadian Occupational Safety, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter. The county also took home another award that night — gold in the public sector category. 


“The county won in both categories (which) shows that a safety culture that includes both physical and psychological safety not only can exist but can support organizational success,” said Mary Ann Baynton, program director of the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, which sponsored the psychological safety award.


“With this award, we celebrate organizations like Wellington County, which are pioneering efforts to protect their employees from psychological injury.” 


The psychological safety award is the first-ever national award that focuses exclusively on mitigating risks to employees’ psychological safety, said Baynton. 


Award-winning initiatives

The County of Wellington was honoured to be recognized for its work, said Andrea Lawson, human resources director. And a lot of the credit is due to county counsellors, senior management and employees. 


“This was a County win, not an HR win, and their daily contributions made it possible for us to be recognized,” she said. 

The county’s many mental health and wellness initiatives are built on a culture of respect, said Michele Richardson, health and safety co-ordinator at the County of Wellington.


“It really (requires) a culture of respect to make a psychologically safe workplace and we start that right from day one here, at our new hire orientation,” she said. 


One of the county’s most popular initiatives is called “Walk the Talk,” in which employees are encouraged to have face-to-face conversations instead of sending emails all day, said Richardson. 


“It’s very easy to send an email to someone who’s just down the hall from you or even next door. So we really encourage people to get up and go physically to someone’s office and have that conversation,” she said. “It allows that human contact, it allows for people to check in and see how someone’s doing that particular day.”


Training and education are also a critical piece of the county’s mental health initiatives. Employees are trained in respectful workplace, verbal de-escalation techniques and workplace violence policies, and learn to report psychologically unhealthy situations to managers. The county recently introduced mandatory mental-health tool kit training for all employees across the organization, said Richardson. 


“We will actually be having classroom, face-to-face training with all 800 employees.”


Managers also receive in-depth training around recognizing and responding to mental health issues, said Lawson. 


“We (train) our managers to recognize if there’s been a change in their staff, so they’ve got formal training on how to approach the difficult subjects,” 


HR pays close attention to data from the county’s employee and family assistance program (EFAP), said Lawson. 


“If we see that we’ve got a spike in certain areas on our employee assistance, we’ll try to have (someone) come in to do a lunch-and-learn on that.”


The initiatives are not just about recognizing and responding to crises — they’re about building and maintaining mental wellness, and taking preventative measures before mental health problems ever arise. 


“We have two gyms which are extremely well-utilized, we do yoga in the park, social services has meditation sessions… so there’s something for everybody,” said Lawson, adding that by participating, staff feel like they are part of a family.


“(That) contributes to the psychological wellness of an employee. If you like coming to work, you feel valued, you feel that there are outlets and resources for you when you get here, you’re preventing issues before they even occur.”


Making the case

A major reason those initiatives have been so successful is because of strong support from senior leadership, said Richardson. 

The costs of the programs are minimal, said Lawson, but the benefits are huge — and the unified support from all levels of the organization made the initiatives easy to implement. 


“We’ve had such incredible support from our council, from our CAO and from all of our managers. And the costs have been negligible,” she said.


“We’re a public sector employer… we’re very accountable for what money we do have to spend, so we have to be pretty resourceful in our initiatives.”


Employers that are considering implementing similar programs should make the business case  to senior leadership, said Lawson. 


“Let them know what the statistics (are) on mental health in the workplace, and the potential risks of absenteeism and the costs of absenteeism by not doing anything,” she said. 


It’s a widely known statistic that one-half of employee absences are related to mental health issues, said Richardson.

“And that’s across the board — it doesn’t matter what kind of employer you are. That’s a lot of people away from work and a lot of people that are struggling,” she said. “And if we can help someone not be afraid to come forward and look for an avenue for some help, or through the EFAP program, or just help with their workload so it can be more manageable, and we can keep that person at work, that’s a win-win for both sides.


“It’s very, very easy to forget the health in health and safety, and that’s one thing that we make an effort to focus on.” 

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