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Communication, Respect, and… Yoga?: How to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health has been a topic of much discussion the past few months: what are the impacts of a global pandemic on mental health? How do we support our friends, family members, colleagues and employees from six feet away?

Many people with diverse perspectives have offered ideas on the topic, so much so that the amount of information available can feel overwhelming.

When you are combing through the literature (yes, I include tweets and Facebook posts in “literature”), remember:

  1. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to mental health.
  2. Telling someone to be happy, cheer up, calm down, or feel or not feel how you think they should is never the right thing to do.
  3. Do your own research, or at the very least, vet your sources. Make sure the information is from a reliable and legitimate source before you pass it on.

For employers, there is an added responsibility to understand mental health and provide support to anyone who needs it. The Mental Health Commission of Canada says addressing mental health issues in the workplace is “vitally important for all people in Canada,” considering the impact stressful work environments can have on mental health, and the amount of time people spend working.

People (us millennials again, sorry) often joke that companies like to offer free yoga classes when employees are stressed and overworked, instead of addressing the root of the issue. Now, let’s be clear, no one is saying, “Please stop offering us yoga.”  Nor is anyone arguing yoga is not a good de-stressor. Yoga classes are a lovely treat for your employees, and may, indeed, help improve their physical and mental health, but on their own, they are not enough.

What Should You, as An Employer, Do to Create a Workplace that Is Mentally Healthy and Safe?

  • Monitor workloads. Do not give your employees more than they can handle. Check-in with your staff regularly about the amount of work they have, and develop strategies with them to help manage their workloads.
  • Ensure everyone knows what is expected of them. Clearly articulate each employee’s responsibilities so they understand what they have to take ownership of, and what is someone else’s responsibility.
  • Know what a good day looks like. Here to Help BC suggests understanding what a usual (good) day looks like for your employees, so that you are able to notice when something is off.
  • Provide employees with adequate training. Learning a new task or job can be a major stressor in a person’s life. To mitigate this as much as possible, develop a thorough training system, explain what resources are available, and remember that people learn and grow at different paces – be flexible with training styles and timelines. But training is not just for new team members: provide additional training opportunities for established employees to help them continue their learning and development.
  • Invite participation. Get your employees’ feedback on ideas and initiatives, and have them join in the decision-making process as much as possible. Consulting employees helps them feel like they have some control over decisions that impact them, proves you value their input, and demonstrates respect and appreciation.
  • Set the expectation that everyone is treated respectfully. Demonstrate you respect your peers and your employees, and make it clear that everyone must behave respectfully. Do not tolerate disrespect or bullying, and work to resolve all conflicts quickly, fairly, and empathetically.
  • Recognize your employees when they have a good idea, do an exceptional job, complete a challenging project, provide support to their colleagues, or achieve something they had been working on for a long time. Show them they are appreciated!
  • Encourage work-life balance. The Canadian Mental Health Association suggests employers offer flexible options to their employees, like job-sharing, adaptable hours, and telecommuting. Ask your employees to tell you what they need to help find balance in their lives.
  • Accommodate employees dealing with mental illness without expressing judgement or implying they are inconveniencing the company. The Canadian Human Rights Act states that employers must do everything in their power to accommodate disabled employees (without sacrificing the health and safety of other employees). It is often very difficult for people to disclose their mental health issues and request accommodation. Compassionately working with your employees with disabilities to find a solution that works for everyone builds trust and respect, and is also your obligation under the law. (For an easy-to-read outline of employers’ responsibility to accommodate disability, click here.)
  • Promote resources. Employee Benefit programs are a good place to start. You can also do some research on the various support options available in your community.
  • Educate management. The leaders in your organization should be taught how to identify mental health issues, as well as how to address them. They may not be trained counselors, but they need to know how and how not to speak to those dealing with mental illness, what resources to provide, and how to be empathetic and flexible when addressing mental health issues. (The Mental Health Commission of Canada offers Mental Health First Aid courses for those in positions where they may be expected to provide help to a person experiencing declining mental health or a mental health crisis.)
  • Have a dedicated Human Resources person or department if resources allow it. HR professionals will be trained in identifying mental health challenges and making workplaces safer and more accessible, and will be familiar with the employment laws.
  • Stay informed. Things are always changing, and as new information is discovered, new approaches are recommended. Make sure you access current information!

And What Should You Not Do?

  • Do not discriminate. Employees are not required to disclose diagnoses in order to receive the accommodation required for their disability, but if they do, you must respect their privacy and ensure that this knowledge does not influence the way the employee is treated or limit their growth within the company. Not only is discrimination unethical, it is illegal.
  • Do not force a solution. See point number one at the top of this post – there is no one thing that will help everyone. Let the employee tell you what they need, and trust that they know what is right for them. Explain what resources are available to them, and show all your employees that you are there for them and will offer your judgement-free support.
  • Do not ignore problems. If you are made aware of an issue, address it. Whether it is a one-time disrespectful remark, chronic harassment, tardiness, or a sudden social withdrawal, talk to those involved and work together to come up with a solution. You cannot solve everyone’s problems, but you can and should address problematic or worrisome behaviour in the workplace.

In addition to demonstrating you care about your employees’ wellbeing, creating a workplace where mental health is taken seriously and issues are effectively addressed is also good for business.

The Government of Canada says that a “psychologically healthy workplace” has lower rates of absenteeism, workplace injuries, and medical leave (according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, approximately 30% of disability claims in Canada are due to mental illnesses and mental health issues), as well as higher productivity and better employee satisfaction. The psychological health of a workplace also impacts employee retention.

For more information on how to promote a mentally healthy workplace, consult a mental health professional/expert in your community.

Further Reading

The Government of Canada’s Hazard Prevention Program Guide

The BC Human Rights Tribunal Mental Health Resources

Workplace Strategies for Mental Health

The CBC article Why Mental Health in the Workplace is Often Misunderstood and Stigmatized

The Globe and Mail article Making Mental Health a Workplace Priority

WorkSafe BC

Morgan Thomas, BA (Dtn.)
Project Management & Customer Experience Coordinator

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