Healthcare & Safety

The Win-Win of Mentally Healthful Workplaces

When employers create mentally healthful workplaces, it is not just goodwill … it is good business.
By Malibu Kothari

For many decades, mental health was left out of workplace wellness discussions. Of late in Canada, it has been a hot topic, and it is about time. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, each week 500,000 Canadians are missing work due to mental health issues, and one-in-five adults will experience a diagnosable mental illness this year.

If those numbers seem shockingly high, sadly, it is just the beginning of the startling statistics. All together, employees who are feeling “not myself today,” to borrow the national mental health campaign phrase, are more likely to miss work than other staff and 7.5 times more likely to exhibit “presenteeism” of showing up unable to perform well. Those who come to work unwell cost Canadian businesses between $15 and $25 billion annually from low job performance.

Taking steps to improve employees’ mental health is thus not merely a “feel good” initiative – it links directly to some quite substantial bottom-line numbers. Read on to find out more about how mental health investments can pay off for businesses of all sizes, best practices for fostering healthful workspaces, and how to track and report key mental health metrics.

Mental Health Investments Pay Off Big Time for Employers
Investments in employees’ physical wellness have repeatedly been shown to be net wins for Canadian organisations from a cost and productivity perspective. It is, perhaps, much easier to see and understand how preventing sick days or health claims boosts the bottom line. But investing in mental health also has a very quantifiable payoff.

According to the newest research out of Australia, for each dollar invested in mental health programs at work, companies can expect to receive a minimum of 2.3 dollars in returns. The returns come in the form of reduced levels of absenteeism, higher productivity on the job, and lower rates of worker attrition, and apply to both small and large organisations.

Additionally, Jeff Moat, president of Canada’s Partners for Mental Health organisation, notes that employers can also expect to see improved morale, fewer workplace accidents, and better team dynamics as workers spend more days showing up as the best and most productive versions of themselves.

The amount invested also need not be high to start. Many development projects or interventions to boost mental health, such as a training session on work-life balance, can cost less than $500 per person per year, according to Office of Disability Employment Policy. In contrast, short-term disability leave for an employee to seek wellness on their own can cost $18,000 per employee or more, a significant cost worthy of being avoided.

Best Practices for Fostering Mental Health
Knowing that improving mental health in the workplace can have measurable, hard-dollar returns, how can employers begin to foster a mentally healthful workplace? In many cases, the work that needs to be done is simple enough. However, a commitment to following best practices and monitoring mental health needs to be made.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) created a special “Healthy Minds @Work” online resource portal for employees. The resources build on the eight best practices for fostering mental health identified by the Canadian government for employers. These best practices focus on pulling employees into decision-making processes, monitoring workloads for work-life balance, and ensuring all employees feel like they are listened to at work.

Many of the best practices are not far from leading-edge HR practices.For example, “clearly define employees’ duties and responsibilities,” “manage workloads,” and “provide training and learning opportunities” are areas where well-developed HR teams are already giving employees what they need to be mentally healthy at work. The practices of “encouraging employee participation and decision-making,” “model respectful behaviours,” and “recognize employees’ contributions effectively” are things that good managers of people are already doing. The last two best practices – promoting work-life balance and having conflict resolution systems in place – are again hallmarks of good organisational practice, rather than some exceptional accommodation that needs to be made just for a mental health initiative.

It turns out employees of all kinds benefit from well-designed workplaces with good communication practices. But for employees who are struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses, or who are dealing with an addiction, it is dramatically easier for them to show up to work; perform at high levels; and act professionally in a well-structured, supportive environment.

Plus, this same structural development lowers workplace stress levels all around, eliminating a factor that 60 per cent of working age Canadians say impacts their mental health and ability to function well at work.

Tracking Results to Monitor Mental Health
Of course, as with any initiative, tracking and reporting is something that needs to be done. With mental health, though it seems “soft,” the tools for tracking and reporting results can measure tangible, hard-dollar impacts. Plus, in most cases, they can be built into existing dashboards monitoring workplace performance metrics.

The key metrics to consider before and after a mental health investment would be absenteeism, productivity, grievances filed/complaints (depending on the workforce), retention and morale. According to CCOHS, these are areas businesses can expect to see meaningful, measurable changes as a result of their mental health practices. Reports can be done on a month-to-month or year-over-year perspective, depending on what is most appropriate for the business structure.

By building this reporting line into regular business practices, tying it back to the bottom line, and communicating clearly about how it all connects, it is possible to illustrate exactly why mental health matters to every member of the organisation. Front-of-house employees all the way up to C-suite inhabitants can gain clarity about what mental health means to the success (or struggles) of the company as a whole, and see how choosing to care about this health factor truly does add up to a win-win scenario for both employees and organisations.