Making the business case for mental health in the workplace

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Andrew Harkness

Many leaders underestimate reports of increased sick time and disability due to mental illness. They behave much like an NFL coach when a star player goes down in a close game. The coach may acknowledge the hurt player, but their focus quickly shifts to the game and soon they are absorbed in winning with the resources they have.

Reports of sick time and disability claims are simply “noise” and the financial impact is considered the cost of doing business. It may not be that these leaders don’t care about their people or the toll these claims are taking. However, unless they understand the context and the risk to their organizations, they will likely continue to focus on winning with the resources they have instead of investing in mental health programs.

If you are trying to convince your leader that more needs to be done to keep employees psychologically safe, it is important to provide the information they need to understand the full picture, and that your case is supported by evidence. When this information is presented simply and logically, leaders are more likely to give this critical issue the attention it deserves.

It’s worth the effort! In the soon-to-be-released 2020 WSPS Health & Safety Leadership Survey, 51% of respondents indicated that leadership commitment is a key driver for health and safety improvement.

Be sure to tell the whole story of risk and impact on the organization

The data you present must be logical and make sense to them but doesn’t have to be perfect; leaders are used to preparing budgets and forecasts based on assumptions.

A common default is to share average sick time increases. However, this can backfire if those numbers don’t paint a true picture of the risk. If the percentage of revenue that sick time represents is relatively low, and overall revenue has increased, you likely won’t get the support you’re looking for. The total number of sick days won’t be seen to be important as a percentage of operating costs.

When framing the business case, provide a bigger picture view. Focus on the four key elements that reinforce the importance of investing in mental health, including prevention, early intervention, and support in times of need.

  1. The cost of doing nothing (CODN) – To help employers estimate the CODN, WSPS and Howatt HR have created the Employee Experience Scorecard Calculator. This calculator, available at no cost, will provide a number that is often significant and likely to get your leader's attention. Especially when you consider that it doesn’t even include disability or associated drug costs, turnover, or time lost by employees who are distracted or occupied by a person with a mental health challenge.
  2. Estimated budget required for years 1, 2, and 3 – When putting forth a budget to curb mental health risk and costs, it’s helpful to suggest a three-year budget to factor in follow-up and maintenance and to ensure mental health initiatives are not viewed as a one-and-done.
  3. Expected ROI and timeline. Set realistic expectations and be clear that investing in mental health is no different than physical health. It requires intention, discipline, and continuous improvement.
  4. Year-over-year ROI. Show leadership that each year they will see a positive ROI for their investment in mental health.

Need help?

WSPS has recently published Moving to Action: Implementing the Workplace Safety and Prevention Services' Mental Harm Prevention Roadmap, a framework for guiding organizations interested in reducing mental harm and promoting mental health. This Roadmap is aligned to the CSA and Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Psychological Health and Safety Standard. Building Block 1: Foundation, focuses on designing a mental health strategy aligned to organizational needs. A key action is obtaining leadership buy-in by providing data to make the business case for investing dollars and resources in mental health.


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