Mental Health Promotion Game Plan

By Dr. Bill Howatt

Imagine you start a meeting in a great mood. You’re looking forward to catching up with your team. Before the meeting starts, one of your team members asks permission to share a few troubling statistics that reveal how COVID is negatively impacting the mental health of Canadians:

  • 25% of Canadians (aged 35-54) are drinking more while at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, citing lack of a regular schedule, stress, and boredom as main factors.
  • Over 80% of people reported being worn out or tired at the end of the working day, indicative of burnout, and roughly 70% felt tense or irritated while at work, suggestive of stress.
  • More than 40% of Canadians who reported difficulty meeting financial obligations or essential needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic screened positive for one of three mental disorders.
  • 84% of people reported that since the onset of COVID-19, their mental health concerns have worsened.

These numbers really hit home. Like most senior leaders, you understand that COVID is having a profound impact on mental health and will for many years to come. Your mood immediately shifts to concern about what this will mean for your employees, and you begin to wonder if you’re doing enough to prevent mental illness and promote mental health.

Many leaders are wondering the same thing. The majority of respondents who participated in the WSPS 2020 Health and Safety Leadership Survey said they are concerned about the level of stress and workplace mental health and wellness issues among employees. Most know they need to do more, but they’re unsure what they need or where to begin.

Start with your EFAP program

Many organizations have an Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP). However, EFAP programs are often under-utilized because of misperceptions about the breadth and depth of services available. Many employees and employers view them as a reactive measure rather than a preventative one. Only 15% of the population utilizes these services.

If you are in the fortunate position of having an EFAP program, this is a great foundation for mental health promotion. Make sure you educate employees about all that is available to them and encourage use of the program. See “Leaders: Are You Promoting Your Employee and Family Assistance Program?” for more tips.

[If you don’t have an EFAP program and don’t have the financial means to provide this type of program to your employees, you can access services through access the federal government’s Wellness Together portal.]

Build a mental health promotion game plan

  • Think strategy versus program - Random acts of wellness and sporadic programs that employees can opt-in or out of will only take you so far. On the other hand, a full-fledged mental health strategy demonstrates deeper commitment and will ensure greater employee participation and, ultimately, new mentally healthy habits. On top of contributing to safety culture, a mental health promotion game plan can improve retention and enhance employees’ experiences with their leaders.
  • Plan–Do–Check–Act - Adopt or adapt the CSA Psychological Health and Safety Standard which is designed to help you take a measurable, evidence-based approach in building a psychologically safe workplace. Too often, organizations fail to measure whether the programs they are investing time and money in are achieving the desired results.
  • Empower employees to take personal responsibility for their mental fitness - The Mental Fitness Lab, available through Howatt HR, is a self-serve platform designed to help employees develop a personalized mental fitness plan.
  • People need people - When developing your game plan, try to achieve the right balance of technology and human interaction. Leverage technology for scale, but provide access to experts (e.g., webinars wherepersonal questions can be accessed), and peer support. One size does not fit all.

In addition, you’ll want to keep these things in mind as you’re planning:

  • Mental health is a two-way responsibility - It’s important to understand what it means to be a psychologically safe leader. It’s also imperative that you create a safe and inclusive work environment and help employees to develop the knowledge and skills to make healthy choices. Conversely, employees need to take responsibility for their mental health by using the resources and supports made available through the workplace.
  • Reinforce the importance of mental health, just as you do physical health - Your employees probably have a pretty firm understanding of how to manage their physical health (i.e. exercise, diet, rest, proper nutrition, etc.) However, you shouldn’t assume they know about or understand the algorithm for promoting positive mental health (i.e., environmental support, physical health, mental fitness, and social connections).
  • Mental fitness requires intention - There are no shortcuts or magic solutions. Maintaining mental health requires action and being intentional about healthy choices, and practicing prosocial behaviours (e.g., meditation, journaling, deep breathing, mitigating at-risk behaviours such as drinking when stressed) and help-seeking behaviours, when needed.

Mental illness is not going away

Ignoring the statistics and the importance of this issue is a risk few businesses can afford. On top of causing the loss of key talent, increased insurance rates, and decreased productivity, it can also diminish your competitive advantage. Even prior to COVID, depression was predicted to be the number one cause of premature death by 2030. To truly address the issues that we know lie ahead and promote mental health, leaders must be proactive by developing a game plan and budgeting accordingly.

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