Leadership’s role in normalizing mental health in the workplace
Engagement 5 minute read

Leadership’s role in normalizing mental health in the workplace

Julie Bevacqua | October 12, 2021

The pandemic has forever changed many things—from the way we view health and responsibility to how people do their jobs and connect with one another. It’s also increased the need for organizations to better support their employees’ mental health in the workplace.

Employee wellbeing has continually proven to be an integral part of success and resilience in the workplace. However, people may not be getting the care they need. Currently, over 4.5 million people in Canada do not have access to regular health care. 

Even Canadians with reliable access to health care are at risk. A recent survey found that 87% of family doctors are "highly concerned" about their patients' mental health, with 67% also concerned about drug and alcohol use. 

Furthermore, Statistics Canada indicates that as a result of the pandemic, “one in five (21%) Canadian adults aged 18 and older screened positive for at least one of three mental disorders that were assessed: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”.

As leaders, it’s our job to find ways to fill any gaps in care by providing continuous support and destigmatizing mental health discussions in the workplace. Mental health is not a taboo topic anymore, with a survey showing that “72% of employees want employers to champion mental health and well-being” in the workplace.

Knowing the signs that an employee is struggling is the first step in normalizing mental health in the workplace. 

Not only does mental illness impact employees' overall wellness, but it costs Canadian employers approximately $50 billion a year. The first step in normalizing mental health in the workplace is knowing the signs that an employee may be struggling, such as:

  • Withdrawing from their work or social circles
  • Performance issues, e.g. missing deadlines or a decline in work quality
  • Absenteeism, or missing work without cause
  • Presenteeism, or showing up to work when an employee cannot perform to their best ability
  • Acting erratically or being irritable

All of the above can indicate burnout, and according to Statistics Canada, employees who felt that their days were “quite a bit” or “extremely stressful” were 3 times more likely to suffer a major depressive episode—compared to employees who reported low stress levels. 

Although reducing stress at work won’t entirely mitigate the risk of mental illness, a low-stress work environment will make recovery and managing symptoms easier. 

Leaders should work proactively to support their employees’ health holistically. It’s important to not only recognize the signs of poor mental health, but to also be aware of any additional stressors such as taking care of children or other family members, or being part of a vulnerable group. 

Work to destigmatize by having frank conversations about mental health.

Being a leader means leading, not just making business decisions. Employees look to their leaders for direction, and that includes their health. It’s your privilege and responsibility as a leader to set an example of authenticity, compassion, and empathy regarding well-being.  

As a leader, offer as much information as you’re comfortable sharing. Tell your team when you’re taking a personal day to practice self care, or if you’re taking the afternoon to have a visit with your counselor. Be frank about stressors within your organization and how you’re actively addressing work-life integration. 

Your transparency as a leader will set the tone for other employees to share their own experiences, leading to an open and trusting work environment. 

Supporting employee mental health in the workplace is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Offering support should be ongoing and integrated into day-to-day activities at your organization. Complete regular check-ins with employees to talk about their work, any current projects, and how they’re doing in general. Communicate with employees more than you think you need to. Research has shown that “employees who felt their managers were not good at communicating have been 23% more likely than others to experience mental health declines since the outbreak”.

Tech can also play an integral role in connecting employees with each other and services that may help them manage their stress levels. Create a channel on your company’s Slack or an email thread where everyone can recommend different practices (yoga, meditation, etc.), support groups, therapists, and at-home self-care advice. 

Consider how your organization can encourage employees to take advantage of their health subsidies by downloading apps such as Headspace or Calm, which offer guided meditations. 

Employers must also be prepared to offer reasonable accommodation to any employees who are struggling with their health (physical or mental). This may mean offering flexible or modified work schedules and duties. 

Other practical ways that you can support employee mental health at work:

  • Pay attention to any stigmatizing language that you or others may be using. This can include phrases such as “They’re acting crazy.” or “I’m OCD about X”. 
  • Consider investing more into your benefits plan to allow for a greater allotment for mental health services. Many benefit plans only allow for $500-1000 annually towards counselling or other mental health services, which ultimately may not be enough for regular care. 
  • Learn to listen. Listen to what your employees are saying, but also look for the subtext by noting tone and body language. Your job isn’t to solve your employees’ problems, it’s to listen and offer support to help them solve their problems. 

It can be challenging to take the first step and bridge the gap between employer and employee when it comes to normalizing mental health in the workplace. However, it’s an essential role that leaders should be eager to embrace as we all continue to recover and grow from the pandemic. 

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