Canadian leaders need to take action to improve mental health in the workplace

Mary Deacon / January 2021

Mary Deacon is a long-time mental health advocate, the recipient of the Order of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth ll Diamond Jubilee Medal, and Chair of the Bell Let’s Talk initiative that has helped break stigma around mental illness and improve access to mental health care since 2010. In this installment of Big Thinkers, Deacon discusses the role leadership has in prioritizing and supporting their employee’s mental health needs.

The pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives in profound ways, including by taking a significant toll on our mental health. The impacts will be felt long after the crisis ends. In a mental health system already overburdened, it’s imperative that as leaders, individuals and companies, we take action now to ensure help is available without fear of stigma or discrimination. By doing so, we will help ensure a strong recovery when the crisis is over.

Historically, 1 in 5 people struggle with mental illness1 and the economic burden of it in Canada has been estimated at $51 billion per year.2 This includes health-care costs, lost productivity, and reductions in health-related quality of life. In 2020, 40% of Canadians said their mental health had declined since the onset of COVID-19.3 Life satisfaction reached record lows, and women, visible minorities and youth have been disproportionately impacted.4 The challenges over the past year have accelerated what many call Canada’s national mental health crisis.

40% of Canadians said their mental health had declined since the onset of COVID-19.

However, through these challenging times I see some positive signs when it comes to mental health, and an opportunity to turn our collective challenges into action. Individuals are now more aware than ever that mental health challenges can affect any one of us. It is not a “them” and “us,” it is “we.” We can all play a part in moving mental health forward and that includes employers.

It is imperative that employers make workplace mental health a priority because physically and mentally healthy employees are our greatest asset for achieving business objectives. People spend a significant portion of their time working, and how we work has changed. With it has come increased stress, isolation, fear and uncertainty.

Leaders play a key role in creating the climate and programs that promote good mental health, mitigate psychological harm due to workplace risks factors, and have the ability to make workplace mental health a priority. They can create a climate of openness and support, and provide appropriate workplace mental health services, which will increase productivity and organizational success. Research shows that having regular communication, training and supports builds team engagement, recruitment and retention, and helps people bring their best selves to work.

Leaders must be present, practice active listening, be familiar with the specific resources available within your organization, and take action if there aren’t enough.

Over the past decade, Bell has seen a 20% decrease in the number of mental health related short term disability claims, as well as a 50% reduction in mental health related short-term disability relapse and recurrence rates. A 2019 independent report by Deloitte, showed that Bell’s investments in workplace mental health programs had a positive ROI of $4.10 for every dollar invested.5 This underscores that mental health and well-being programs at work are both good for people and good for business.

Leaders must be present, practice active listening, be familiar with the specific resources available within your organization, and take action if there aren’t enough. Make sure people know that supports are available. Discuss them in your team meetings and one-on-ones, and reiterate them through internal communications. Check in with employees regularly and stay alert to the warning signs of a mental health concern, like sudden but persistent change in behaviour and performance. If it appears a team member might be struggling, be proactive and initiate a conversation while offering the appropriate support.

Support mental health in the same way you would physical health. Lead by example, by supporting and modelling things like regular exercise, healthy eating, sleep hygiene, social connection, goal-setting, and work-life harmony,

As part of Bell’s commitment to workplace mental health, we worked with Queen’s University and Morneau Shepell to co-create a university certificate course on mental health leadership training and I encourage all employers to consider making this training mandatory for all their people leaders.

Business leaders are in a unique position to create mentally healthy and safe workplaces, and those companies that do will have a competitive advantage.

Business leaders are in a unique position to create mentally healthy and safe workplaces, and those companies that do will have a competitive advantage. I challenge all corporate leaders to consider whether they are truly maximizing shareholder value if they are not proactively creating workplace conditions that enable employees to produce their best work and maximize their productivity.

As we look to the future post COVID-19, the actions we take now to build a robust mental health system and workplaces that support wellbeing will have a direct impact on how well and quickly Canada recovers from the pandemic.

Canadians and people around the world set all-new records for engagement in the mental health conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day 2021, sharing 159,173,435 messages of support and driving $7,958,671.75 in new mental health funding by Bell.

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