Mental health: costly gap between what workplaces think and what they're doing?

Jul 04, 2013

Red arrowA new survey shows a wide gap between Canadian organizations’ belief in the importance of workplace health and wellness and the availability of related services for workers. This gap could compromise employee productivity and impose significant costs on workplaces.

Conducted by Ceridian Canada, the survey shows more than 90% of Canadian organizations regard mental health as an important part of an overall health and wellness strategy.1 However, only 22% of respondents say they believe the employee mental wellness services their organization has in place are adequate.

This could have significant implications for both employees and the organizations they work for. The Mental Health Commission of Canada notes that mental health problems and illnesses are responsible for about 30% of short- and long-term disability claims, and cost the Canadian economy $20 billion in workplace losses.

One next step for many employers, suggest the survey results, would be to identify and implement appropriate preventive solutions to support mental health, such as training and education, with a strong focus on reducing stigma and encouraging proactive behaviour and lifestyle change. Many organizations may have already started on this path.

Survey finds positive change

"The survey results indicate there has been a significant shift in employer thinking," says Estelle Morrison, Ceridian Canada's vice president of clinical and wellness services.

“The previously held view that employers need to support only those employees who are struggling with a mental health problem has evolved to one of supporting all employees in maintaining good mental health through prevention. The majority of employers now recognize that mental health is not only managed by a clinical treatment approach and recovery strategies, but also through preventive measures. Disease prevention, and not just the treatment of illness, is a foundational element of any effective wellness strategy, including a mental wellness strategy.

“We need to encourage individuals to manage their mental health in the same way they would their physical health,” continues Morrison. “Employers can play an important role in shaping how we view our mental health, and in supporting employees in reducing risks that are associated with an increased risk for developing a mental health problem.”

Here are some key prevention-related findings from the survey report, Workplace Wellness: A Proactive Stance on Mental Health2:

  • 85% of respondents state that employee mental health is either an important component or under consideration to becoming an important component of their organization’s formal wellness strategy
  • 88% of respondents cited “addressing stress” is their organization’s most significant mental health concern
  • respondents’ top three priorities for mental health program development are
    • employee effectiveness training (50%) on topics such as stress management, resilience-building and conflict resolution
    • a wellness program (42.8%) to promote self-care, including activities such as yoga, meditation and walking clubs
    • specialized consultations (43%) to support people managers in understanding mental health issues and effectively addressing potential mental health problems.

The survey also found that more than 40% of Canadian organizations have reviewed CSA Z1003/BNQ 9700-803 - Psychological Health & Safety in the Workplace, a national standard released in January 2013. Among those who reported having reviewed the standard, more than 60% were actively assessing their policies and procedures for compliance.

These findings suggest that Canadian organizations are or will soon be expanding the accessibility and scope of mental health and wellness programming. More than 90% of respondents recognize the importance of including preventive programming as part of their overall health and wellness strategy. Primary motivators cited for launching preventive programs included their impact on absenteeism/presenteeism, workplace morale and employee retention.

What survey participants are already doing

To varying degrees, participants indicated that they offer these services aimed at supporting mental wellness and helping employees deal with the impact of mental health issues:

  • wellness program to promote self-care
  • diversity and workplace anti-harassment training
  • employee effectiveness training
  • specialized manager consultations
  • critical incident stress management
  • access to supportive online resources and tools
  • telephone counselling from qualified professionals
  • in-person counselling
  • disability management

Stress as symptom of greater concerns

Participating organizations consistently ranked stress as their top mental health concern. This may be due to a number of issues, including:

  • employees may feel comfortable voicing stress concerns, but not necessarily other mental health symptoms that may be associated with greater stigma
  • “feeling stressed” is often how people first express that they’re struggling, and leaders and managers may not recognize accompanying signs as indicators of a possible mental health problem
  • an in-depth understanding of mental health is generally not the norm.

Two related surveys conducted by Ceridian in the U.K. show how underestimating or ignoring stress could be costly. A survey conducted earlier this year indicates that while colleagues' annoying habits can cause stress, 58% of U.K. office workers would not complain to their manager about colleagues' annoying habits, and two-thirds would not bring it to the attention of their HR department.

The top three most stressful office worker habits identified by survey participants were

  • colleagues' excuses to avoid work (21%)
  • tantrums and arguments in open spaces (11%)
  • gossiping and private conversations (9%).

This means many employees may be suffering in silence while their managers and HR departments remain unaware of the stress triggers, says Doug Sawers, managing director of Ceridian in the U.K. Managers need to be properly trained to identify and correct negative behaviours to avoid undue employee stress and potential confrontation in the workplace, says Sawers. Otherwise, the bottom line could suffer.

An earlier survey conducted last year by Ceridian in the U.K. zeroes in on one way in which unmanaged stress can affect productivity. Results indicate that 25% of sick days taken off from work were due to work-related stress. The survey's 1,050 respondents reported taking off a total of 8,918 unscheduled days in the previous 12 months, an average of 8.5 days per employee.

Causes of work-related stress cited by respondents include workload, work responsibilities, work difficulty, and manager style. Sawers recommends that employers explore what is contributing to work-related stress in their organizations and create strategies to address identified problems.

Ceridian Canada's Estelle Morrison encourages Canadian organizations to take all these findings into consideration when reviewing their own investment in mental well-being. “Workplace cultures in the U.K. and Canada are very similar. What’s taking place in the U.K. could very well be taking place here.”

Morrison offers these suggestions to all organizations:

  • design and implement a full‑scale organizational health and wellness strategy that makes mental health a top priority
  • support stigma reduction
  • foster a psychologically safe environment through high‑quality people management practices and manager training.

How workplaces will benefit from protecting worker health and wellness

WSPS Network News spoke with Andrew Harkness, WSPS's healthy workplace specialist, on how investing in workers' mental health can translate into an investment in your business.

WNN: Describe the return on investment that businesses can generate by creating a mentally healthy workplace.

Andrew Harkness: Protecting workers from psychological harm and promoting psychological wellbeing creates an environment in which they can focus on achieving their full potential.

For employers, this means a greater competitive advantage and greater organizational effectiveness resulting from

  • less absenteeism and lower short‐ and long‐term disability costs
  • reduced turnover and enhanced recruitment
  • higher levels of employee engagement, creativity and innovation
  • lower rates of error and physical injuries.

Another advantage gaining increasing attention is a reduced risk of legal issues related to psychological harm to employees. In a 2010 report commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada entitled Tracking the Perfect Legal Storm, author Martin Shain advises of an emerging legal duty for employers to provide and maintain a psychologically safe workplace. This report provided impetus for the national standard released earlier this year.

WNN: Does creating a mentally healthy workplace require a significant investment?

AH: Unlike some hazard management topics and mitigation strategies, psychological hazard prevention does not require workplaces to make significant purchases in such items as equipment, tooling, materials, physical structures, etc. Therefore, most costs reside primarily in time, people resources, and policy and program development and implementation. What we want to get better at is decision-making related to how we organize work, people and their relationships and interactions with others.

With this in mind, one of the most useful tools available to workplaces - the new standard - is available at no cost: CSA Z1003/BNQ 9700-803 Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

There is a wealth of other resources also available at no cost. Workplaces interested in implementing the standard should also visit

  • the Mental Health Commission of Canada website and download Psychological Health and Safety: Action Guide for Employers. This is an extensive inventory of current resources offered at no or nominal cost to workplaces.
  • Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, which has resources to support all aspects of implementing the standard as well as resources for individuals looking for help, management training programs, and targeting materials for different workplace stakeholders.
  • Guarding Minds @ Work, which can provide needs assessment, analysis and psychological hazard prevention program templates to guide workplaces through organizational risk factors that lead to organizational health. Focusing on the organizational risk factors even for those workplaces not ready for the standard implementation remains an important means to improve an organization’s culture.

WNN: What next steps would you recommend to workplaces wishing to protect workers from psychological harm and promote psychological wellbeing?

  1. Download the standard and review it with leadership in the organization.
  2. Gauge workplace readiness to take on this type of program. If needed, develop an awareness program to build capacity and readiness in the organization (Workplace Strategies for Mental Health’s 20 Questions for Senior Leadership).
  3. Conduct a needs assessment. Consider Guarding Minds @ Work assessment tools and website for analysis.
  4. Collect data related to organizational experience and performance in such areas as
    • absenteeism
    • turnover
    • benefits usage
    • drug plan utilization
    • EFAP (Employee and Family Assistance Plan) usage
    • incident reports related to workplace accidents, violence and harassment complaints, etc.
  5. Look to the organizational risk factors to develop a prevention program (Guarding Minds @ Work Action Plans, Workplace Strategies for Mental Health - On the Agenda training program).

These steps will help an organization get well underway in understanding their specific psychological health and safety needs and putting in place measures to prevent, reduce mental injury or harm.

How WSPS can help

Workplace Safety & Prevention Services' consultants understand the relationship between workplace culture and productivity, and are ready to help workplaces develop a comprehensive healthy workplace strategy.

To learn more about the healthy workplace concept, check out WSPS's healthy workplace resources.

Related articles

1 Ceridian conducted the survey between April 30 and May 11, 2013. More than 400 Canadian HR professionals representing small, mid-sized and large organizations across a wide variety of industries responded to it.

2 Visit Ceridian to read the full report