NEW STUDY: Evolution of Workplace Mental Health in Canada

August 4th, 2016

You are invited to participate in a survey of workplace mental health in Canada. We would greatly appreciate approximately 20 minutes of your time to complete the on-line survey, which can be accessed by clicking here or going to:

The survey is part of a larger research project examining the evolution of workplace mental health strategies in Canada over the past 10 years. The research will assess progress, existing gaps, and sector-specific trends in this area. With support from the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Dr. Joti Samra, through the University of Fredericton, is leading the research project with advisory support from Dr. Mark Attridge, Dr. Graham Lowe, and Dr. Martin Shain. Study findings will be presented in 2017 at multiple venues, including the HRPA Annual Conference in Toronto in February and a joint Great-West Life Centre/Mental Health Commission of Canada special event in September. A publically-available research report and book also will be published in 2017.

Questions about the project can be directed to Dr. Joti Samra:

Please note that the survey will be available in French in the coming weeks.

The New Resilience: What It Means for Leaders and Organizations

February 11th, 2016

Resilience is an old concept that is finding new resonance today. Decades ago, psychologists studied the sources of personal resilience among children who overcame significant disadvantages to succeed in school and life. This early research showed that resilience is an individual’s capacity to thrive despite adversity.

Now, the concept of resilience is being applied to leaders and organizations. The Harvard Business Review calls resilience the new leadership skill. A growing number of cities around the world – including Calgary after its 2013 flood – recognize the importance of cultivating resilience within the community and its organizational ecosystem in order to prepare for future disasters. And the need for greater resilience within the workforce was amplified by the 2008-2009 global financial crisis and Great Recession and now in Alberta, plummeting oil prices.

We know that resilience involves psychological traits and personal behaviours that can be learned – a crucial insight for leadership development. Resilient people don’t bounce back; they bounce forward, finding new strength and equilibrium. They move to a new normal that enables them to keep progressing toward a better future. Resilient people don’t just adapt to change, they find opportunities and renewed strength as they confront it.

Furthermore, people need a supportive environment to be resilient. That’s why it is so important for leaders today to cultivate resilience, both personally and among their employees, in order to effectively manage the constant challenges, changes and pressures of organizational life.

Resilient leaders skillfully – and proactively – respond to stressors, learning from failure, develop renewed strengths and show others how it is possible to thrive in the face of adversity. By fostering resilience traits among their employees, resilient leaders set the stage for higher levels of performance, support and well-being. In short, they foster a resilient workforce that is better prepared to deal with the unexpected.

Resilience also can be viewed as an outcome of a psychologically healthy workplace. This is the organizational context needed to cultivate a resilient workforce.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada, in partnership with the Canadian Standards Association, has championed psychologically healthy and safe workplaces. The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, launched in 2013, provides a guiding framework and resources that employers can use to reduce risks to psychological health, remove the stigma associated with mental health issues, and in general foster employees’ psychological well-being as a route to enhanced organizational performance.

The Standard’s key workplace enablers of psychological health provide the organizational conditions required to foster a more resilient workforce. These workplace factors include:

  • Supportive managers and co-workers
  • A culture that values individuals’ well-being
  • Skilled people leadership
  • Respectful working relationships
  • Support for employee’s personal growth and development
  • The resources needed to manage workloads and job demands
  • Employee involvement in decisions
  • Recognition for contributions
  • The flexibility needed to achieve work-life balance

All these factors are essential for a resilient workforce and a humanly sustainable organization.

Research shows that a manager’s capacity to be resilient is closely associated with a transformational (as opposed to a transactional) leadership style, higher work engagement, and positive well-being. Resilience can be learned and, increasingly, is being incorporated into leadership training. These are the traits that resilient leaders must acquire:

  • A sense of confidence and optimism about the future
  • Knowing how to respond to their own work pressures and helping others do the same
  • The self-care skills needed to look after their own physical and psychological health
  • Emotional intelligence skills that cultivate self-awareness of the impact of their actions and decisions on others and empathy for how others are struggling with change
  • The ability to learn from failures and see these as a source for new strengths
  • And the skills needed to show others how to thrive as they grapple with challenges in their jobs and lives

In sum, resilience is a 21st century organizational survival skill. Any organization can apply the above insights to develop the kind of leaders and workforce it will need to thrive in an uncertain future.

4 questions about better workplaces and my responses

September 16th, 2015

I’m speaking at The Better Workplace Conference 2015 at the Hilton Lac Leamy Conference Centre in Gatineau this October 14 to 16. All speakers have been asked to respond to 4 questions that amplify conference themes.

The questions, and my responses, are below:

  • Q: What do you think is getting in the way of progress towards achieving a positive workplace culture in organizations today?   A: We’ve heard lots about how a lack of leadership, no clear return-on-investment, time-scarcity, organizational silos, or the intangibles of culture being significant barriers. What I think can help break through these barriers is a compelling vision of what a positive culture looks and feels like for your organization, clearly articulated by champions at all levels — not just from the top. This vision expresses the ideal future and gives change agents a rallying point for their efforts.
  • Q: What is the one ‘leadership decision do-over’ you wish you could have that could have impacted your organization in a more positive way?   A: None – I’m a self-employed consultant. But to put a slightly different and positive spin on the question, the one ‘do-again’ decision that shifted my career trajectory was to leave a university professorship for the world of independent consulting. That was 12 years ago. As a result of that decision to leave the confines of a university, I think I have been better able to help others become effective change leaders in their own organizations.
  • Q: What leader do you most admire and why?   A: Innovative collaboration has become a critical survival skill for people and organizations. Cultivating these capabilities requires inspired leadership. I find useful insights on how to do this by listening to  great orchestras. Two favourite examples: Wynton Marsalis (Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra) and Jeanne Lamon (Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra) have inspired groups of talented musicians, all soloists in their own right, to work together to create uniquely beautiful music. The process is an inspired collective effort, with a light touch from the conductor, and no two performances sound exactly alike.
  • Q: Words to live by…for a better workplace?  A: Isadore Sharp, founding CEO of the luxury Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, attributes his corporate success to the pursuit of a simple business philosophy: treat other people how you want to be treated (The Golden Rule). This ethos has made Four Seasons an exceptional place to work and ensures consistently outstanding experiences for guests. Simple, yet so powerful.

Lessons in How Communities Can Promote Healthy Workplace Practices

March 27th, 2015

I’ve just returned from the Vermont Worksite Wellness Conference, held in Burlington, where I had the honour of giving the keynote talk and facilitating a workshop on creating healthier organizations. The conference featured the annual Worksite Wellness Awards, presented by the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. My big take-away is that the State of Vermont has figured out how well-crafted public policy can foster healthier workplaces, businesses and communities.

Vermont was an early leader in promoting healthier workplaces. The Awards are in their twentieth year. Clear signs of progress are that this year, the conference had 430 participants and 92 employers were recognized for excellence in promoting a culture of physical, social, intellectual, emotional and occupational wellbeing.   These employers are small and large, in all sectors of the economy.

What has enabled this success?

First, there is strong leadership from public policy makers. Governor Peter Shumlin told the conference that nothing is more important than empowering employees to be healthy and well at work. Actions to promote worksite wellness are critical to larger healthcare reform goals, he went on to emphasize, particularly reducing the high cost of healthcare in the US. And the Governor made it very clear that Vermont’s success in healthcare reform — it has embraced Obamacare — depends on grass-roots efforts by employees in workplaces around the state.

Second, business leaders also walk the talk. A good example is Don George, President and CEO of Blue Cross Blue and Shield of Vermont, which provides health benefits to about 80 percent of Vermonters. Don received the 2015 Vermont Business Leadership Award for worksite wellness given out at the conference. He and his team have developed a wide range of resources that employers can use to take a more preventative and holistic approach to employee health. As Don pointed out, future progress requires ‘building tighter cultures’ in every organization in the state so that employee wellness and business performance are seen as twined goals.

And third, when political and business leaders show genuine and sustained commitment to achieving worksite health promotion goals, more and more employees get involved. The level of employee-led fitness activities is impressive. So too are other innovative initiatives, helped by modest government support, for workplace gardens and on-site breastfeeding facilities. Above all, the combined impact of these activities spills into the community and everyone benefits.

Mindful Wellness

October 27th, 2014

The Healthy Outcomes Conference, hosted annually by Benefits Canada, is an excellent opportunity to learn what leading Canadian employers are doing to achieve their wellness goals. As conferences go, it is an intimate gathering — only 60 invited participants — so there are many opportunities for discussion and shared learning. I had the pleasure of giving a plenary talk, ‘Maximizing Wellbeing and Performance’, which was based on my recent Wellness Dividend report (which you can download free from I also facilitated an interactive workshop on how to link wellbeing and wellness.

Brenda Bouw has done a great job of summarizing the highlights of the conference, including my plenary talk. You can download this special feature from the September 2014 Benefits Canada issue from the homepage.

My point of comparison was the Healthy Outcomes conference 10 years ago in Whistler, where I was invited to give a talk on the business benefits of healthy workplaces. Remarkable progress has been made in Canada on the wellness agenda over the ensuing decade. Most large employers now realize that investments in the health and wellness of their employees is a direct contribution to their organization’s success (small and medium sized employers lag behind in this regard, for a variety of reasons). The 2014 Healthy Outcomes conference documented the innovative steps some leading employers, and benefits providers, have taken to more fully understand and address employee health and wellness needs. Included here would be mining health claims data, the use of incentives, mindfulness training, focusing on getting a good night’s sleep…and more.

And there also are signs that employers are addressing the organizational dimensions of wellbeing. That means more are actually putting into practice the language of ‘healthy organizations’ — which is easier said than done. For example, there is wide recognition that both wellness and engagement goals are important for corporate success. Yet in response to the question “How can managers and HR specialist better engage employees through wellness initiatives?”, there was general agreement during workshop discussions that more needs to be done. Specifically, the interactive workshops I facilitated on this topic identified 3 actions in this regard: break down the silos separating corporate engagement strategies and wellness initiatives; use data from engagement surveys, HR and benefits utilization to paint an integrated picture of organizational health; and empower employee-management committees to make connections across engagement, wellness and OHS areas.

The take-away for conference participants: be ever-mindful of opportunities to enhance wellness goals by challenging the status quo. In short, lead healthy change!

Wellness Dividends: Interview in the Globe & Mail

May 30th, 2014

My Wellness Dividend report has received lots of attention. Good feedback from clients, colleagues and readers in Canada, the US, and beyond. What resonates is the up-dated business case for investing in truly comprehensive wellness interventions, which get at the underlying workplace drivers of wellbeing and performance. Today’s Globe & Mail published an interview with me about the report. The article offers a concise summary of the business case for happy, healthy employees:

Bulling and Mobbing at Work: Looking at the Facts

November 4th, 2013

On November 1st, 2013, WorkSafeBC implemented new policies aimed at preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace. Under BC’s Workers Compensation Act, employers must take reasonable steps to address the hazards posed by bulling and harassment.

I recently participated in a panel discussion on this topic at the 2013 Calgary Labour Arbitration & Policy Conference. I prepared a FACT SHEET on bully and mobbing in the workplace that may be helpful to HR, health and safety, learning and development, and wellness professionals in BC and other provinces as they develop policies and programs to address this destructive behaviours.

Bullying is generalized psychological harassment, which means that it is broader in scope and impact than gender or ethnic/racially-based harassment. It is an extreme form of disrespectful behaviour. Bullying presents a serious workplace health and safety risk and therefore is a liability for employers. Consequently, there is now recognition that employers have a duty to maintain not only a physically safe workplace, but also a psychologically safe work environment. The term “mobbing” refers to psychological aggression or harassment by a group rather than a single person.

Experts agree that organizations must not protect bullies who otherwise perform their job. Some would argue that the only effective solution to systematic bullying is to rid the workplace of the bully.

Workplace bullying can be costly for employers, including costs associated with increased prescription drugs and medical services, lost productivity due to absenteeism and presenteeism, long-term disability, and replacing workers who quit. Victims and observers of bullying also can experience reduced job satisfaction, work energy and engagement, which undermines their job performance.

Increased public awareness about the harmful effects bullying means we are seeing more of it. While Canada lacks reliable national data on the incidence of workplace bullying or mobbing, several large surveys suggest that in any given year, upwards of 1 in 4 employees may be victims of bullying.

Civility and respect are essential for employee mental wellbeing in the workplace. The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) defines a psychologically safe workplace as “One that allows no significant injury to employee mental health in negligent, reckless or intentional ways…and in which every reasonable effort is made to protect the mental health of employees.” Useful practical tools for creating a psychologically healthy and safe work environment are provided by the new voluntary  National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

To download my Bullying and Mobbing at Work – FACT SHEET click on the title or go to:



Finding Wellness Dividends at the Better Workplace Conference

October 25th, 2013

I had the pleasure of speaking last week at the Better Workplace Conference, held this year in Halifax. I entitled my talk “The Wellness Dividend: How employers Can Improve Employee Health and Productivity.” The talk was sponsored by Merck, who also has commissioned me to write a report on this topic (watch for a free copy of the report on my website, coming soon).

One of my key points is that employers can gain much greater payoffs from wellness initiatives if these are more directly linked to the organization’s employee engagement strategy. Engagement is a strategic goal for most larger organizations. Wellness may be, but usually is not. Yet the same workplace factors and management practices promote wellness, engagement and job performance. Furthermore, research shows that work motivation influences employees’ participation in wellness programs — no doubt one reason most wellness programs have low participation rates in the range of 1/3rd of those eligible.

The message for employers, then, is to step back from your health, wellness and engagement initiatives and look for potential synergies. Maybe its time to integrate all these goals under a single human capital umbrella.

Do leaders matter?

August 27th, 2012

The Better Workplace Conference (Oct 16-18 in Vancouver) posted a blog on its Facebook page by Guatam Mukunda, who suggests that leaders matter less than we may think.

Mukunda offers and important counterpoint to the “great man” (invariably) model of corporate leadership that has prevailed in business literature. But he overstates the case that leaders don’t matter. More accurately, leaders are constrained in their actions. But they still have positional power that, depending on how they use it, can have positive or negative effects on performance, including investor confidence and staff morale. Think of RIM, HP and Yahoo — all companies that should have changed CEOs sooner or selected different people than they did.

His orchestra example also raises interesting implications. Are there leaderless orchestras? Of course, a musical ensemble without a conductor standing at the front has leaders. Each musician leads by knowing, watching, and listening to all the others, and there is an informal leader (or formal in some cases — the concert master of lead violin) who gets them started on a piece. So in the corporate world, how can those with positional leadership foster this sort of orchestral teamwork?

Does Marissa Mayer’s appointment as Yahoo! CEO mark progress for work-life balance?

July 23rd, 2012

Marissa Mayer’s appointment last week as the new CEO of Yahoo! is a sign of progress for women in high-tech. A trail-blazer as the first female engineer hired by Google, Mayer now becomes one of Silicon Valley’s corporate leaders. At a time when just 10% to 20% of upper management and corporate board positions in Western nations are filled by women, this is certainly good news. But the terms of her appointment are stirring up controversy. Mayer was hired several months into her pregnancy. And she plans to work during her pregnancy — a commitment no doubt intended to ally concerns of (male) shareholders and business analysts who have roundly criticized Yahoo’s recent decisions (its previous CEO was fired when it was discovered he lied about his credentials). So the issue Mayer’s approach to work-life balance raises is the trade-offs women have to make as they reach the pinnacle of corporate power. Delay your family (she is 37), take minimum time off for child care, and have enough money to hire good help (Mayer’s wealth comes from being one of the early Google employees). But reality is very different for the average working woman with career aspirations. In Canada, there is a rise in human rights complaints related to discrimination against pregnant women. Women still are being illegally fired in this country for being pregnant. And there is clear evidence that work-life balance has become more difficult. This is based on new survey data from Ekos Research Associates, which compares work-life balance in samples of the Canadian working population between 2004 and 2012. By all means, let’s celebrate Mayer’s success but let’s also recognize that it comes with sacrifices that many other women don’t want to make, or can’t make.