Workplace Strategies for Mental Health (For Employees and Employers)Browse all therapists
Work makes up a major part of many Canadian adults’ lives—based on a standard 40-hour work week, nearly one-third of their waking hours are spent at work. Employment plays a huge role in our mental health, and conversely, our overall wellbeing can significantly impact our ability to perform at work.
According to the World Health Organization, twelve billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety, and those two mental health conditions alone cost the global economy $1 trillion (USD) each year due to reduced productivity.
It’s an employers’ role to create the conditions for psychologically safe environments—the culture, policies, pay and workload. Large or small, every workplace has an ability to implement workplace strategies for mental health
Employees also play a crucial role in their own wellbeing at work and the wellbeing of those around them. Workplaces, after all, are made of their employees—individual humans coming together to work on a common goal.
Given this dual role employees and employers can play when it comes to fostering a mentally healthy work environment, collaboration can be essential for building resilient and mentally healthy organizations.
The Role of Workplaces in Mental Health
Work is a place of communication and human relationships, where value is measured and rewarded. Employees are expected to drive the overall success of the companies they work for.
That kind of performance environment can inspire a sense of accomplishment, confidence, and a strong sense of self and purpose, all of which are important characteristics of healthy mental wellbeing. However, it can also result in unmet expectations, disappointments, challenges and failures.
In many ways, work can have either a positive or a negative impact depending on the circumstances.
For example, in recent years, workplace stress and burnout have become front and centre for mental health. Stress, in some cases, is not necessarily a bad thing; growth, learning and positive change can create some level of stress and strain. Some over-achievers may enjoy the pressure, and feeling of productivity.
Workplace burnout, on the other hand, is characterized by emotional, physical and mental exhaustion as a result of prolonged stress.
Other examples of the way workplaces can positively or negatively impact wellbeing include:
- Positive influence: Meaningful work, manageable workloads, and opportunities for growth with systems to help with that change (and strain) can promote supportive and functional work environments.
- Negative influence: Unrealistic expectations or lack of clarity on expectations, lack of recognition and reward, long hours and inability to rest, and limited or limiting opportunities for progression can create environments of high stress.
Workplace culture and relationships
- Positive influence: Inclusive and supportive environments create a sense of camaraderie, connection, social support and acceptance, as can commonly held values and vision, teamwork and shared accomplishments.
- Negative influence: Conflict, poor communication, toxic competitiveness, sexism and racism, and lack of trust or credibility can contribute to psychologically unhealthy work environments.
Leadership and management
- Positive influence: Focused and experienced leadership who demonstrate authenticity and competence through open communication, transparency and empathy will promote trust and confidence across an organization.
- Negative influence: Ineffective management styles that lack problem-solving or strategic guidance, poor communication, and limited emotional capacity can set the tone for a negative work environment that promotes burnout.
Policies and procedures
- Positive influence: Clear guidelines around flexible work, governance to promote reasonable working hours, overtime, pay increases, flexible parental leave and workload expectations can support a healthy work-life balance and job satisfaction.
- Negative influence: Lack of flexibility, rigid procedures, and strict and unreasonable workplace rules can stifle creativity, create a culture of fear and blame, and increase stress and dissatisfaction.
The Need for a Mental Health Strategy in Workplaces
Workplaces without a mental health strategy are at risk for increased absenteeism, increased rates of injury or medical leave, decreased productivity, increased employee turnover, and a general lack of engagement or motivation. This can increase costs and decrease profitability.
By law, workplaces are required to accommodate disabilities, and some mental illnesses can qualify for disability benefits. Workplaces are also required to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees.
Addressing mental health concerns—whether at an individual or an organization level—is effective when it’s done proactively. A mental health strategy that is proactive and preventative is a tool to help organizations, teams, and individuals thrive and perform at their best.
Workplaces with a focus on mental health also benefit from positive internal and external recognition, are more likely to be viewed as a good employer, and can attract top talent.
Creating a mental health strategy is not a one-size-fits-all project. Employers can look at a variety of benefits and perks to support wellbeing, like comprehensive healthcare plans, adequate paid time off, compensation and other programs.
There are also key differences in employees’ needs depending on the industry or the nature of the work itself. Workplace strategies for mental health can be tailored to a specific sector or organization. Some examples include:
- Challenges: High-pressure environments, innovative and unstructured cultures, long working hours, faced-paced and competitiveness can lead to stress and burnout.
- Possible strategies: Adaptable work schedules, remote work options, and rapid leadership training are complemented by competitive pay and compensated time off. Many companies are investing in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), as well as offering parental leave and health accounts for wellness activities like gym memberships.
Frontline and education workers
- Challenges: Frontline workers like teachers, healthcare workers, or emergency services experience can experience emotional and compassion fatigue, trauma, grief, long working hours, and physically demanding work.
- Possible strategies: General strategies would include peer support programs, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), free and accessible counselling, mental health training, adequate funding, robust rotation schedules and additional staffing.
Professional services or corporate environments
- Challenges: High-pressure work environments with ambitious revenue targets, long hours, demanding clients, and a heavy focus on valuable colleague, client or customer relationships can contribute to high stress.
- Possible strategies: Robust health benefits packages, financial compensation, skills and development training, and investing in supportive and collaborative cultures can mitigate the impact of high-pressure situations.
Manufacturing and construction
- Challenges: Physical demands, safety concerns, long hours, isolating work, repetitive tasks, need for constant precision and attention to detail, and potentially unhealthy work environments (e.g. hazardous materials) can affect mental health as well as physical health.
- Possible strategies: Increased focus on safety programs and training, adequate management and supervisor staffing, mental health awareness programs, and resources for wellbeing that address both physical and mental health. Shift-work rotations can allow employees time to rest and recover.
Retail and hospitality
- Challenges: Customer service pressures, irregular working hours, physically demanding work, potentially dangerous work environments (e.g. kitchens) and high turnover rates can contribute to stress and burnout.
- Possible Strategies: Flexible and/or stable scheduling, cost-of-living pay, employee recognition programs, mental health training for managers and staff, coaching and teamwork sessions, and focus on zero tolerance harassment policies can create a positive working environment.
Charity and nonprofit organizations
- Challenges: Limited resources, low pay, high emotional demands, work that is deeply connected to personal values and sense of self, commitment to serving others and emotional fatigue can impact mental health.
- Possible strategies: Adequate compensation and time off, increased communication and recognition of impact, flexible work arrangements, and a strong focus on organizational values and culture. This can foster a sense of community, care and purpose can increase overall satisfaction.
Government and public sector
- Challenges: Bureaucratic or rigid processes, public responsibility, media and public scrutiny, sensitive and highly impactful public work, sensitive and highly-emotional issues and high expectations can increase stress.
- Possible strategies: Access to mental health services and Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs), adequate and ongoing public sector training, attention on work-life balance, compassionate, transparent and supportive leadership, and growth and leadership training and opportunities.
Any employee would also benefit from supports like adequate health coverage, training and policies that address distressing issues (like harassment or abuse). After base needs are addressed, options can be curated, tailored and prioritized depending on the unique needs and size of the company.
First Session creates custom workplace mental health workshops tailored to your employees’ needs and company goals. Get in touch for more information.
Strategies for Employers
The employer is ultimately responsible for how mental health programs are rolled out to employees at all levels of an organization. Those in owner, board and executive roles shape these programs by approving them and allocating budget to them, setting the tone, and leading by example.
There are a number of workplace strategies for mental health that employers can consider to foster a mentally healthy workplace.
- Building a culture of respect and empathy (starting with leadership)
Promoting a positive culture can be driven by workplace policies, clear performance expectations and recognition, leadership and employee training, and by the behaviour and habits of leaders. It’s a multifaceted topic that requires deep thinking, consistent and ongoing effort, and continuous attention.
Strategies could include:
- Leadership performance tied to building psychological safety in their corporate culture
- Health benefits programs, adequate equipment and workspaces, and other resources
- Adequate policies protecting staff against mistreatment, harassment or abuse (and execution of those policies) as well as safe and confidential modes of reporting issues
- Adequate policies that promote and set expectations for diversity, inclusion, equity and respect
- Skills training and development opportunities, including mental health education
- Facilitating work-life balance
Employers can help facilitate work-life balance by proactively monitoring workload, staffing projects adequately, setting clear expectations and success metrics, and promoting break and rest time.
Strategies could include:
- Flexible hours or remote work arrangements
- Offering an adjusted work week, such as the four-day work week
- Establishing policies that clearly define work vs. personal time
- Discouraging work during vacation or weekend time
- Cross-training to allow for team coverage during time off
- Providing adequate sick days and discouraging work through illness
- Training around effective time management, people management, and stress reduction
- Offering dedicated time off after particularly busy periods of work
- Avoiding ‘Zoom fatigue’ by giving people freedom to turn off their camera
- Accessible mental health resources
Generally, therapy in Canada is not covered by provincial healthcare plans. Providing comprehensive mental health coverage in employee insurance plans—and investing time and effort into ensuring people know about it—makes mental health wellbeing more accessible to employees. Mental health packages are also more flexible than ever—companies can offer plans that best suit their peoples’ needs.
Strategies could include:
- Ensuring there is comprehensive mental health coverage in workplace benefits plans
- Choosing flexible plans that allow employees to choose their plan based on customizable spending categories
- Extending mental healthcare packages to employees’ families, including options like flexible sick days or child care options
- Investing in digital health apps
- Clearly and consistently communicating available resource to staff and making it easy for them to access relevant information and instructions
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- Employee training and workshops
Employers who ensure psychological safety in the workplace by making mental health training, stress management and self-care a regular and consistent part of their messaging will reinforce that it’s acceptable and encouraged that individuals take advantage of resources.
Strategies could include:
- Promoting a stigma-free culture by making information about mental health prominent and positive
- Training and encouraging leaders to communicate their own mental health needs or challenges
- Making mental health education a part of workplace onboarding and training
- Training leaders on recognizing signs of mental health distress and equipping people leaders with the tools to address wellbeing concerns with their teams
- Recognizing and celebrating mental health initiatives
Employers can emphasize the importance of mental health by incorporating it into overall employee performance expectations. Deprioritizing overwork, addressing long hours, and making mental health initiatives a part of the regular work expectations sends the message that an employer prioritizes mental health.
Strategies could include:
- Establishing recognition programs or celebrating mental health-focused initiatives
- Highlighting individuals who demonstrate positive and supportive work environments or behaviours
- Engaging employees in mental health awareness days
- Conducting regular assessments and measuring changing needs based on employee input
- The role of peer and professional supports
Collaborative and supportive environments where colleagues have trust and confidence in one another can have a positive impact on overall mental wellbeing at work.
Strategies could include:
- Implementing buddy systems for new hires or transitions
- Ensuring teams are appropriately sized so managers have adequate time with their teams
- Celebrate wins regularly, and celebrate innovative or new ideas (even if they fail)
- Establish mechanisms for employees to share knowledge and information
- Give staff time to rest and reflect together on their accomplishments and milestones
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It’s best if these approaches are holistic in nature (embedded across behaviour, habits, practices and policies), which requires ongoing assessment and adaptation pending the evolving needs of the workplace.
While employers might carry an increased responsibility to establish and provide adequate mental health programs, employees carry their own responsibilities to their mental health - meaning, the employee has the duty to inform, and advocate for themselves and request for help.
Strategies for Employees
- Coping with change
Change is not easy, and is sometimes outside of our control at work. Team members leave or get promoted, economies fluctuate and put new pressure on organizations, sales ebb and flow, leaders change strategic direction, etc.
Techniques for navigating transitions or unexpected shifts at work include:
- Accepting change is a normal part of work
- Focusing on what you can control and looking for opportunities within change
- Setting realistic expectations
- Leaning on support systems and managers for direction
- Dealing with stress and burnout
Workplaces can create and manage the conditions for stress and burnout, but recognizing the signs of burnout and taking the time to rest and rejuvenate is a responsibility of the individual, too.
For example, employers set policies around vacation time and breaks, and it’s the employees’ part to truly disconnect during break times.
- Learn to recognize the signs of burnout, including feeling depleted, consistently negative or cynical, or having difficulty completing tasks
- Take breaks and vacations regularly
- Avoid work in off hours and weekends, and communicate openly with your employer if work is not manageable in a workday
- Identify, establish, and communicate boundaries with your colleagues (e.g. telling them your work hours and outside-of-work commitments)
- Celebrate achievements regularly—even small ones—to maintain momentum and motivation
- Communicating effectively
Difficult conversations are a part of every workplace. Learning how to communicate openly, and advocate for oneself is a technique to help manage and prevent stress, burnout, and emotional distress. Open communication can also lead to more solutions and problem-solving.
- Being consistent in messaging and expectations with colleagues, supervisors, team members
- Using “I” statements to express feelings and avoiding expressing concern by blaming others
- Being an active listener for others, and seeking clarification if something is unclear
- Providing and asking for constructive feedback
- Bringing concerns up early before they become issues
- Becoming an advocate for mental health care in the workplace
- Personal growth and self-care
Personal growth and self-care can go hand-in-hand. Prioritizing physical and mental resilience can improve mental health with work.
- Engage in regular non-work relaxing or energizing activities like reading, exercising, walking outdoors, making time to socialize with friends
- Prioritizing a healthy diet and exercise regimen
- Taking regular breaks, including mindfulness practices can keep you grounded in the present moment, and meditation practices can help alleviate stress and calm the body
- Look for training, development or skill-building opportunities, ask for feedback and coaching from managers and colleagues
- Seeking help (from a therapist)
Therapy can be a crucial resource for an overall healthy relationship with work. It can be proactive for growth and self development, or to build resilience to handle challenges before they become a problem.
It can also help if you notice signs that you may be struggling with your mental health, including persistent sadness, changes in sleep patterns, mood changes, difficulty concentrating, or physical body tension.
When these challenges start affecting your daily life or your relationships with others (colleagues or at home), and don’t go away for weeks or months at a time, consider reviewing your workplace mental health benefits for mental health support options, or looking for a therapist on your own.
Some people may find certain workplace strategies for mental health more effective than others. Some people might also find certain environments or types of work highly energizing and motivating, while for others the same kind of work can be demotivating and stressful. Be careful not to compare yourself to others at work.
Consider your personal needs, don’t be afraid to reach out for help navigating mental health challenges. Working with a mental health professional can help you build mental health skills for the workplace that will help you thrive to reach new potential and your goals.
The Business Case for Mental Well-being
The broader impact of poor workplace mental health is clear. Government of Canada data show approximately 30% of workplace disability claims are related to mental health problems and mental illness.
According to Sunlife, one of Canada’s largest health insurers, those represent nearly half of all of their disability claims. The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that over the next 30 years, the economic impact of mental health issues will be over $2 trillion.
Implementing a comprehensive mental health strategy in the workplace can result in a number of benefits for both employees and employers.
The specific ROI can vary based on a lot of factors, including the nature of workplace programs, working conditions, the industry and the workforce. Generally, key benefits employers experience after investing in mental health programs include:
- Reduced absenteeism: Mental health issues contribute significantly to absenteeism and presenteeism (i.e. when employees are at work but not fully present). Recent data show the Canadian economy loses $50 billion annually due to absenteeism and disability.
- Improved productivity: Employees with better mental health overall are more likely to be engaged at work, make fewer errors, and contribute positively in many ways across an organization.
- Better recruitment outcomes and employee retention: A positive mental health environment can be attractive to job seekers, attract top talent, and retain them. This reduces overall recruitment, onboarding and training costs and contributes to a healthier work environment with less turnover turmoil.
- Better employee morale: Employee satisfaction and morale is highly valuable, and can be costly. Due to burnout, studies have shown that many workplaces have a growing number of employees ‘quiet-quitting’- doing the bare minimum at work. Global management consulting firm Gallup estimates that disengaged employees cost the world $8.8 trillion in lost productivity.
Proactive mental health programs help to mitigate risk to an organization by reducing stress, burnout, and turnover. It can also help avoid costly mental health-related legal issues, should an employer be found responsible for failing to provide a safe work environment.
Overall, the wellbeing and productivity of employees is integral to the success of an organization, and the general satisfaction and happiness of the people who work there.
Implementing mental health programs at work or taking care of your own mental health while working can seem like a daunting task. It’s important to remember that new skills and programs can be implemented in incremental ways.
It’s a dual responsibility of employers to provide nuanced support programs that meet the needs of their industry and employee base, and for employees to manage their individual mental health in ways that are within their control, to the best of their ability.
When both employee and employer are thriving, productivity, personal and professional growth, a sense of purpose and accomplishment can be mutually beneficial.
Whether you're an individual seeking support or a business aiming to uplift your team, find your perfect therapist match at First Session.