Lessons from a decade of progress on workplace mental health in Canada

Canadians have accomplished a lot in the past decade promoting workplace mental health. Reflecting back over ten years of workplace mental health initiatives is cause for celebration. It also provides valuable lessons about how to design initiatives so that more Canadians are able to psychologically flourish in their jobs and workplaces.

Canadian employers, workers and health promotion experts now have access to a well-equipped workplace mental health toolkit, thanks to significant public and private sector initiatives.

Great West Life took early leadership in 2007 by launching the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the WorkplaceThat same year, the federal government established the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), providing a stream of influential research, resources and advocacy for a greater focus on mental health issues.

These early efforts promoted greater awareness and more action.

Guarding Minds @ Work was launched in 2009, offering tools for assessing and improving psychological health and safety in the workplace.

In 2010, Bell Canada launched the Bell Let’s Talk campaign to remove the stigma associated with mental health. Now millions of Canadians are openly discussing mental health issues and many employers use Bell Let’s Talk day as an opportunity for workplace mental health awareness and education.

The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) was launched in 2013, a joint initiative of the MHCC, Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and the Bureau de normalization du Québec (BNQ). This consensus-based voluntary standard for psychological health and safety is widely recognized as a breakthrough in mental health promotion. The Standard’s resources enable the integration of psychological health and safety within existing occupational health and safety systems, human rights policies and employment standards.

Two recent reports provide in-depth assessments of how far we have come – and the challenges we must consider to make future advances.

The Evolution of Workplace Mental Health in Canada researches this changing landscape using a literature review, a survey and key informant interviews. It documents greater awareness now of how work-related stress, depression and other mental health problems affect workers. The workplace has become a major venue for mental health promotion, supported by many new policies, resources and practices. (Also see: Mary Ann Baynton and Leanne Fournier, The Evolution of Workplace Mental Health in Canada.)

MHCC-sponsored research documents the implementation of the Standard in 40 organizations. These case studies document improvements in the psychological work environment, showing the benefits to workers and employers of meeting the Standard’s requirements.

These two recent studies provide valuable lessons for future workplace mental health initiatives. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Define your organization’s unique business case for improving mental health, including the investments it is prepared to make and the expected benefits, which can go beyond the financial to include alignment with mission and values, staff engagement and well-being, and social responsibility.
  • Adapt resources, such as those provided by the Standard, to your organization’s unique needs, existing programs, policies and practices. In other words, a customized approach to workplace mental health promotion works best.
  • Greater success in implementing the Standard and other psychological health and safety initiatives results when you embed psychological health and safety within your organization’s culture. The absence of a culture of health is a major barrier to progress.
  • Leadership commitment to improvement goals is an essential prerequisite for success, but so too are high levels of commitment at all levels of the organization. A lack of commitment, especially by senior leaders, is a significant barrier to progress.
  • Dedicated resources also are essential if mental health initiatives are to have a measureable impact on staff well-being. The lack of adequate resources is another significant barrier to progress.
  • After identifying the priority actions for your organization, set clear improvement goals and systematically measure improvements, reporting progress widely and engaging management and employees in on-going psychologically healthy and safe improvements.