Psychological safety at work: Critical, important, or nice to have? Where do you stand?

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Michel Rodrigue

This is the first of a new series of posts that will be featured on the CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network Psychological Safety blog. Michel Rodrigue, President and CEO of MHCC, and Dr. Bill Howatt, CEO and founder of Howatt HR are teaming up to write posts on a bi-monthly basis that provide senior leaders with insights, tips, information and education to support employees’ mental health.

The impacts of COVID-19 on the mental health of people living in Canada will be complex and long lasting. Before COVID, one in five workers experienced a mental health concern, with 500,000 missing work each week due to mental health issues. Since COVID, mental health continues to be strained in the workplace, and CEOs have a greater responsibility than ever before to protect the psychological safety of their staff.

Where do you stand?

Before we can raise the bar, we have to understand where it sits. Most CEOs tend to think of workplace mental health in one of three ways:

  • It’s critical — These CEOs understand the importance of mental health in relation to the organization’s capacity to meet its strategic goals and objectives, and they are committed to reducing the risk of mental harm to their employees and promoting mental health in their workplace, and often, in their community. They are consistently focused, authentic, and passionate about improving the employee experience through their communications and their actions. These CEOs are more likely to demand a strategic approach to workplace mental health that demonstrates the return on investment, and that aligns with the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.
  • It’s important — CEOs are aware of the importance of mental health, but their attention and energy are primarily focused on productivity. These CEOs are more likely to endorse spending dollars on programs that provide employees with mental health support along with some leadership development to combat mental health stigma and improve interpersonal skills.
  • It’s nice to have — These CEOs accept that some may struggle with mental illness but are less likely to engage or spend time talking about mental health or questioning what the organization is doing to support employees. They may approve some spending on employee supports such as access to counselling or therapy through employee benefits or an employee and family assistance program (EFAP) or one-off workplace mental health initiatives (e.g., webinars).

There are also some CEOs who do not see the mental health of staff as a work-related issue at all, often due to lack of awareness. But leaders who fail to acknowledge or prioritize mental health in the workplace place employees at increased risk of psychological harm (decreasing productivity and retention in the process).

Our goal is to help more leaders recognize that psychological safety is mission critical

Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS), the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), and Howatt HR have committed to continue supporting CEOs to gain knowledge and insights into workplace mental health. Our goal is to influence and assist leaders in improving their understanding of how to improve the success and sustainability of the organizations you lead by protecting employees’ from mental harm and supporting their mental health.

A recent report from Deloitte revealed that 1 in 3 Canadians are experiencing depression and anxiety related to COVID-19 and 44% indicated their mental health needs have not been fully met. Further, recent Leger polls from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) showed symptoms of anxiety and depression have increased, particularly among certain populations, and that there is a strong link between substance use and mental health. Access to mental health services simply isn’t keeping up.

You should assume that the mental health of your workforce is under strain and that a lot of people with symptoms aren’t connecting to mental health services.  It will be critical for CEOs to view workplace mental health as a priority and adopt a strategic approach to creating and sustaining a psychologically healthy and safe workplace going forward. The steps you take will be essential to attract and retain employees, support their ability to succeed, and contribute to rebuilding the economy.

Our world of work is changing

There is much to consider as you rethink the future of work for your employees. For example, many have been working remotely since the start of the pandemic. As we move forward, we must consider the positive and negative effects of returning employees to the physical workplace versus those of remote or hybrid work.

A survey by Microsoft revealed that 73% of workers surveyed wanted flexible remote work options, and while many point to the benefits of no commute and increased time with family, you should also be aware of real risks to employees’ mental health.

The risk of employees working remotely without proper social supports is a new workplace psychosocial factor gaining attention. Remote work dramatically disrupts both casual and planned in-person interactions, increasing the risk of perceived isolation, resulting in feelings of loneliness. Whether temporarily or permanently, working remotely requires a new set of core competencies for employees, managers, and senior leaders to protect the mental health of employees at all levels.

The risk related to return anxiety is also very real, stemming from fears of a heightened risk of infection, new social expectations, and the adjustment of routines to new work realities. Understanding how to manage return anxiety as the lockdown lifts  can help to reduce employee anxiety and improve the chances of a successful experience for those who must make the transition from working from home (or from pandemic-related unemployment) to working outside of their home again.

Mental Health Research Canada has reported that workplace anxiety and depression appears to have increased across all sectors, especially within the frontline healthcare sector, restaurant, retail sectors, and health-care other, where there is a significant rise in self-rated levels of anxiety since the onset of the pandemic. It is important to note, however, that the survey showed that other sectors were also affected, and that factors such as management, location, and pre-existing mental health challenges may contribute to heightened levels of self-rated anxiety and depression, or lack thereof.

The evidence is clear: ignoring employee workplace mental health is a risky strategy for an organization’s success and sustainability. Whether you’re a long-time advocate for psychological safety or just getting started, the time to make mental health a priority is now.

By moving the conversation within your organizations so that workplace mental health is not just a nice-to-have, but viewed as critical, more CEOs will be empowered to leave a legacy of care and compassionate leadership that makes a real difference in the lives of employees.

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