People First HR Services

Mental health key to work productivity

Colleen Coates

It’s that time of the year when many people make New Year’s resolutions that we know probably won’t stick beyond a couple of weeks; however, we go through the same motions each year. For some people, this can lead to unhappy thoughts and unhealthy behaviours as promises to improve are broken and we resort back to our “normal” activities. For some people, these thoughts can become overwhelming and cause severe anxiety and other problematic health issues. In the end, making New Year’s resolutions that we know are going to be broken can lead to disappointment leaving a person feeling unhappy and even depressed which can deteriorate a person’s state of mental health.

Mental health describes a level of psychological well-being and is sometimes referred to as an individual’s ability to enjoy life. Those with good mental health have found a way to create a balance between life activities and possess the ability to cope with stress and adversity. Having good mental health can mean different things to different people based on cultural differences, personal beliefs and professional theories.

As an employer, why should you be concerned about your employees’ mental health? Well, statistics show that one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. The remaining four will have a friend, family member or colleague who will. Poor mental health not only hurts the individual, it also impacts the organization. When we are mentally healthy, we enjoy our life and environment, and the people in it. We can be creative, learn, try new things and take risks. We are better able to cope with difficult times in our personal and professional lives. When organizations actively search for ways to create a healthy workplace, they reap the benefits.

There is also a legislative requirement for employers to protect the mental and physical health of their employees. Many provincial occupational health and safety acts, including the laws governing Manitoba, have been expanded to include harm to psychological well-being in the definition of harassment. A psychologically safe and healthy workplace is one that promotes workers’ mental well-being and does not harm employee mental health through negligent, reckless or intentional ways.

There is no one “right way” to create a mentally healthy workplace because every workplace is different. So what can employers do to support mental health? One way to achieve a psychologically safe workplace is to create and implement a Comprehensive Workplace Health and Safety (CWHS) Program. The program should include strategies, initiatives and policies to continually improve or maintain the quality of working life, health, and the well-being of the workforce. While the employer spearheads the development of these activities, it is best done as a collaborative effort with employees.

Implementing a CWHS program makes good business sense. Organizations that implement a CWHS program have shown improvement in areas such as employee cooperation, engagement, retention, and productivity. CWHS programs are also known to reduce key productivity killers such as absenteeism, presenteeism, grievances, and workplace injuries and accidents.

Here are sample strategies that employers can use to encourage positive mental health:

Encourage active employee participation and decision making — there are many ways to involve employees in day-to-day activities that will affect them. For example, utilizing focus groups is a good way to get employee input.

Clearly define employees’ duties and responsibilities — develop comprehensive job descriptions or update old ones. If your job descriptions are more than five years old, chances are they are out of date.

Promote work-life balance — ensure employees at all levels are taking their vacation and appropriate time off on a daily or weekly basis.

Encourage respectful and non-derogatory behaviours — develop a respectful workplace policy and provide employee training on the details.

Manage workloads — distribute work as evenly as possible; don’t give it all to your best performing employee.

Allow continuous learning — support employees’ efforts to learn and grow on the job and through external educational institutions.

Have conflict resolution practices in place — watch for, and manage, workplace conflict before it becomes a problem.

Recognize employees’ contributions effectively — develop a strategic recognition program and train managers on how to incorporate these strategies into their day-to-day activities.

The Canadian Mental Health Association also has some excellent suggestions to help you find and keep your balance so you can enjoy the benefits of good mental health:

Build healthy self-esteem. Self-esteem is more than just seeing your good qualities. It is being able to see all your abilities and weaknesses together, accepting them, and doing your best with what you have. You can build your confidence by taking stock of what you do best and making note of your skills and interests.

Receive as well as give. Many of us have trouble accepting kindness from others. How many times have you found yourself shrugging off a compliment? Next time accept the compliment and say “Thank you. I appreciate that.”

Create positive parenting and family relationships. Value these relationships and the skills and abilities each person “brings” to the family. Love them for who they are, and don’t waste energy wishing they were something else.

Make friends who count. Healthy friendships support good mental health. Together you and your friends share life’s challenges and joys. Work hard to keep in touch with friends and actively seek out new friendships.

Figure out your priorities. Financial problems cause stress, so it’s important to avoid over-spending. Create a meaningful, realistic budget – and differentiate between your needs and your wants.

Get involved. Being involved in things that really matter to us provides a great feeling of purpose and satisfaction. Try to find time to volunteer, get involved in any way that you can — you can make a difference, no matter how big or small your efforts.

Learn to manage stress effectively. Stress is a normal part of life. How you deal with it will depend on your attitude. Be accepting of things you cannot change, and where you can, make a change to reduce or eliminate the stress.

Cope with changes that affect you. It would be nice if life were like a story book where we all lived happily ever after. However, life is filled with challenges both at home and at work. It’s how we perceive these challenges and what we do about it that will determine how we feel. Having strategies to cope are essential to good mental health.

Deal with your emotions. Learn to identify and manage your moods. Have a backup plan in place to help you deal with the times you are troubled, such as a good friend you can turn to.

Have a spirituality to call your own. Get to know what really makes you happy. Find time each week to be by yourself and do something for yourself.

Still not convinced that as an employer you should proactively seek out ways to create a mentally healthy workplace? Consider this: on any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental illness, including approximately 355,000 disability cases due to mental and/or behavioural disorders plus approximately 175,000 full-time workers absent from work due to mental-health issues. The estimated cost of mental illness to the Canadian economy in terms of health care and lost productivity is $51 billion and according to the World Health Organization, depression will be the single biggest medical burden on health by 2020. It’s time corporate Canada paid attention to this growing health concern and played a role in reducing mental illness in the workplace.

Most of us go through life solving our day-to-day problems without needing help to cope with our feelings. But sometimes we can be overwhelmed, at least temporarily, and suddenly we need help — and that’s OK.

If you are in need of help, resources are available through the Canadian Mental Health Association, your general practitioner, or if you or someone you know are in crisis, go to the nearest hospital or call 911.


Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2013 H2