In October, I had the opportunity to be a part of an employer panel at the Best Workplace Conference in Toronto to discuss the topic of “Expanding Access to Workplace Mental Health Support.” I was saddened to hear the personal stories of the participating employers whose colleagues were facing mental health challenges and was impressed by their increased impetus to expand their support of improving coverage and support for their employees through mental health programs in the workplace. 

The David Suzuki Foundation made the decision to prioritize supporting mental health in the workplace as a response to the impact we were witnessing with our staff. In our work in the environmental sector, we face an almost constant external negative news stream related to our work while actively trying to save the planet and continuing to maintain a positive outlook. Add in the numerous personal obligations that we all struggle to juggle and it can be difficult to look after your own mental health as self-care is pushed so far down the priority list.

The truth is that you don’t leave your personal life at home when you step into the office or leave your work life at the office when you are spending time with your family, so we recognized that when it comes to our people, we needed to support the whole person.

How the David Suzuki Foundation Supports Mental Health in the Workplace

Our organization has integrated a number of workplace mental health initiatives into our organization to demonstrate our care and support for our employees:

  • We started with making the link between physical health and mental well-being. Our 30×30 program encourages everyone to get outside for 30 minutes a day and we immediately saw how this small change had a positive impact on how they felt for the rest of the work day.
  • We worked with our benefits providers to host presentations on our benefits program to encourage the use of our Employee Assistance Program — not only for crisis events, but for research and ongoing support — and to highlight the proactive elements such as massage, acupuncture, and more. A workplace that values mentally healthy employees should strive for high utilization rates in these areas.
  • We leveraged meditation as a method to build personal resilience by offering beginner programs and now hosting weekly drop-in sessions. We also ran a Compassion Cultivation Course which promoted the use of meditation to increase personal endurance.

Building on these good starts, we decided to integrate our mental health program into every aspect of our work, including the employee performance and retention experience. In one instance, we hired someone extremely competent but who struggled to fulfill the requirements of their role despite full training and consistent feedback. Although their manager did everything right to support this person and asked them repeatedly if there was anything else we should know or anything else we could do to help them, we regretfully had to let them go as they did not pass their probation. Later, they were courageous enough to tell us that they had mental health issues in the past and had not recognized the signs until they lost their job, and only then were they able to seek out the help they needed.

Although we had technically done everything we could have and even the person in question didn’t know what the problem was, we felt we could have done more, which led to the introduction of a number of additional initiatives within our organization.

Over the years, we have partnered with various organizations to participate in a number of mental health campaigns.

  • In 2012, we signed on to the Not Myself Today campaign, which advocates for helping employers promote and protect the mental health of their employees. We use their extensive toolkits and resources to fulfill our commitment to supporting our staff’s mental health
  • We rolled out the Mindful Employer program and have quarterly training sessions linked to mental health issues such as accommodation, conflict resolution, and performance. Due to the interactive nature of the sessions, we consistently see high attendance rates despite competing work priorities. We understand that mental health support is needed by everyone, whether it affects them personally or affects a family member or colleague.
  • This year, we began a Good Grief Support Group for our people to talk about and support each other through the negative emotional aspects of our work in relation to the issue of climate change.
  • In response to the demands on staff to be caregivers for their parents, spouses, and children, we piloted a program with Curatio to provide a community of support for people experiencing similar challenges. As much as we want to provide help as an employer, only someone else going through the same situation as you can really understand what you’re going through.

The Outcomes of Supporting Mental Health Initiatives in the Workplace

As a result of these initiatives, we have seen raised awareness around mental health, and as a result, our employees feel more comfortable coming to us at an earlier stage than before to ask for support. This means we are often able to offer flexible options to keep them at work or provide the time away they need without judgment.

All of these initiatives have also helped to create a more caring company culture, which is illustrated by the following story:

A colleague approached me as they had received a terse email communication from a coworker. Rather than engaging in defensiveness or complaining, they responded by asking me to check in with the coworker because it just didn’t seem like their usual behaviour and they were worried about them. At this point, I was already aware that the sender of the email was dealing with a serious personal issue. The fact that my colleague’s first response was of concern rather than escalating the situation into what could have been a potential conflict made me understand that the benefits of supporting mental health in the workplace can have far-reaching effects.

An organization’s commitment to their employees’ mental health can foster better communication, culture, engagement scores, morale, professional relationships, recruitment, retention, and overall pride in working for an organization that truly cares about the people within it.

About Catherine Gordon
Catherine leads initiatives to ensure that our client, the David Suzuki Foundation, has the people and roles it needs to achieve its goals. Their employees are highly motivated, talented and professional individuals who deserve the organization’s support to thrive. Catherine works to articulate that support through a talent-management strategy that is aligned with the organization’s long-term direction.
Originally from Northern Ireland, Catherine moved to London, U.K., after graduation and then to Vancouver in 2005. She has worked in an HR capacity in numerous sectors and organizations throughout her career, which has included law firms, charity, technology and a regulatory body before joining the David Suzuki Foundation. She is a lifelong learner and currently holds the CHRP designation, a Strategic HR Practices certificate from Cornell University, a Certificate from Queens University on Leading a Mentally Healthy Workplace, is a Certified Prepare Training Instructor and has completed a Leadership and Inclusion Certificate through Centennial College.

Read more from Catherine:

Balancing Work and Caregiving: How HR Can Help

Some of the Biggest Mistakes I’ve Made & Lessons Learned in My HR Career

The Myth of the 4 Day Work Week

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