With Canadians becoming more aware of the importance of mental health (thanks in part to all the awareness campaigns that have been picked up by the media), workplaces will be forced to change their practices when it comes to providing a psychologically safe workplace. The Mental Health Commission of Canada reports that 500,000 Canadians in any given week miss work because of mental illness. As well, 70 per cent of disability costs for employers are caused by mental illness. Altogether, mental health issues cost the Canadian economy $51 billion per year.
What Is Mental Injury?
|Mental injury is defined as psychological harm done to an individual by other individuals or a group. Dr. Martin Shain, an expert in this area, has seen a legal need for workplaces to start creating psychologically safe workplaces. This is because of a shift in the way mental health is interpreted in the courts. These findings are highlighted in his report Tracking the Perfect Legal Storm. A few key cases from the report are provided below:|
- Courts ruled in favour of an employee in Ontario who, upon disclosing to his employer that he had a bipolar disorder, was terminated. This set off a manic episode that led the employee to be hospitalized for 12 days.
- Courts ruled in favour of the family of a diabetic truck driver who died of a heart attack as a result of a highly stressful workplace situation. The truck driver was sent on a long-distance haul over a weekend and was not able to make his delivery until the following Monday. He was instructed not to leave his truck to prevent theft. This left him confined to a hot humid place for the weekend and unable to manage his diabetes. As a result, ruled the court, the truck driver died of a heart attack. In 2009, the courts found that the employer was responsible for contributing to his death by putting him in a situation that elevated his stress levels and helped trigger the heart attack that ultimately led to his death.
- The Workers Compensation Appeals Tribunal in B.C. was ordered by the courts to review its policies in regards to what qualifies as workers’ compensation. Traditionally, WorkSafeBC only compensated mental injury if it was acute (similar to the cases above), making chronic mental injury ineligible. The court found this was discriminatory since chronic occupational physical injuries are compensated.
What Does a Psychologically Safe Workplace Look Like?
Awareness of the importance of mental health is growing and, in light of the current court findings, workplaces must provide a psychologically safe environment. Workplaces can cause mental injury if they:
- impose unreasonable demands;
- withhold important information;
- refuse to let employees take charge of their own work;
- neglect to acknowledge or credit employees’ good work;
- fail to listen to employees’ legitimate claims, interests, or rights.
A recent Conference Board study, which surveyed 1,010 part- and full-time employees and 479 front-line managers in Canada, discovered that employers could make strides toward a mentally safe workplace if they:
- focus on education and communication to reduce fear, stigma, and discrimination;
- create a culture conductive to good mental health;
- demonstrate leadership at the top;
- provide the tools and training to support managers in their role.
Many of us spend the majority of our day in the workplace. Often, we see our colleagues more frequently than we do our families. It’s no surprise then, that our work environment has the potential to affect our mental health.
In psychologically healthy workplaces, that impact may be positive. If we are treated in a respectful manner, are well-suited to our jobs, have reasonable workloads, and clearly understand our responsibilities, for example, we tend to feel psychologically healthy in our workplaces. However, there are many working environments where the mental well-being of employees is not prioritized. In these instances, the impact on employee mental health can be harmful.
Thankfully, there are a variety of tools available to help companies make changes for the better. Among them is the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace—a voluntary set of guidelines, tools, and resources focused on promoting employees’ mental health and preventing psychological harm due to workplace factors.
Championed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and rooted in key recommendations from Changing Directions, Changing Lives, Canada’s first-ever mental health strategy, the Standard was developed in partnership with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Group and the Bureau de Normalisation du Quebec (BNQ). The Standard is not only a first for Canada, but also the first of its kind in the world.
The response to the Standard has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, more than 20,000 copies have been downloaded to date. However, the MHCC has listened to the feedback from some organizations that are seeking a step-by-step implementation resource. To that end, we have partnered with the CSA Group to develop an Implementation Guide for businesses.
Called Assembling the Pieces: An Implementation Guide to the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, the document is geared to senior leaders, human resource managers, and occupational health and safety professionals. It offers a roadmap to implementation of the Standard through a series of four key steps:
- Building the Foundation: Ensuring that an organization’s leadership team is truly committed to taking action, and willing to dedicate the time and financial resources to make a change. Employees and other key players, like unions, need to be brought onside.
- Identifying Opportunities: Assessing areas of strength and opportunities for improvement. Employees and unions can provide important insight into what’s working and what’s not.
- Setting Objectives: Establishing a plan to address the opportunities or challenges identified. This includes setting objectives, targets, and timelines for making changes.
- Implementation: Taking action by beginning to put the plan into place. Tracking progress to determine what new strategies need to be incorporated going forward. Since this is a journey of continuous improvement, it’s important to celebrate all successes, big and small.
The Implementation Guide is akin to a roadmap. However, as with any navigation system, different routes can lead to the same destination: a socially responsible, cost-effective working environment that helps attract and keep valued employees.
Assembling the Pieces will be formally released at the Better Workplace Conference on November 24-26 in Calgary.
I hear about all these fantastic workplaces where employers offer on-site fitness centres with group fitness classes, strength equipment, cardio machines, lunch and learns, and on-site instructors, among other things. If you’re one of the lucky employees who have such fantastic physical activity options, make sure to take advantage of them. Unfortunately, not all employers offer these amazing opportunities due to limited resources or lack of senior management commitment.
However, all is not lost and luckily I have some strategies for you. With decreased resources and opportunities, first and foremost, you will need a champion. I am not talking about Superman or Superwoman. Actually, I would almost discourage it. I’m talking about that fire starter, the mountain mover, the path creator. Someone who loves to bring everyone together for a bit of fun, a bit of exercise, and an all-around good time.
Now that you have found your champion, you need things to do. As an example, let’s look at a map of where I work and take a look at what you could do:
Or maybe these activities don’t interest you? How about a little step counter (more formally known as a pedometer) challenge? Research has shown that introducing step counters into a sedentary working population led to these workers seeing increased steps and decreases in their body mass index and waist circumference at the end of the challenge. Simply strap on a pedometer and start collecting those steps!!!
Not interested in the pedometer challenge? Nobody is stepping up to the plate to be a champion? You absolutely have no space for any outdoor activities? Or you have absolutely no desire to do any of these things? Don’t worry, all is not lost.
Research has shown that while vigorous activity (similar to the activities in the diagram I have presented above) can predict lower mortality, so can the distance walked and the number of stairs climbed! Try actively commuting to work once a month, or park at the back of the parking lot. Take the stairs when you can. Turn your breaks into active breaks and make a point of not sitting. Try booking a walking meeting with someone, or run over to talk with a colleague instead of e-mailing. Try to stand for every third call. Every active moment counts….
Not convinced? All right, I’ll come back with something else in my next blog.
 Catherine B. Chan, Daniel A. J. Ryan, and Catrine Tudor-Locke, “Health Benefits of a Pedometer-Based Physical Activity Intervention in Sedentary Workers,” Preventive Medicine 39 (2004), 1215.
 I-Min Lee and Ralph S. Paffenbarger Jr., “Associations of Light, Moderate, and Vigorous Intensity Physical Activity With Longevity: The Harvard Alumni Health Study,” American Journal of Epidemiology 151, no. 3 (2000), 293.
It is estimated that 11 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women in Canada will experience a major depression during their lives. This is a major concern for employers. Depression can have a profound impact on individual employees and their families, but also on the workplace.
In Canada, at any given time, almost 4 per cent of employees are experiencing a depression., Individuals with depression often experience confusion, listlessness, and difficulties with concentration and memory. Evidence suggests that this can lead to an 11 per cent decrease in their productivity at work. And these cognitive difficulties can linger even after a physician has deemed an employee fit to return to work.
In a Conference Board of Canada survey in 2013, two-thirds of employees who had taken a leave of absence from work due to a depressive episode still encountered challenges with concentration, memory, decision-making, and performing everyday tasks once they returned to the workplace. Ninety-five per cent of these employees also said that these challenges negatively affected their work.
There are a number of ways employers can support employees who have experienced a depressive episode and help them return to productive work. Supervisors and managers need training to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues, including depression. This will allow them to direct employees who may be in need toward the appropriate resources. Otherwise, decreases in productivity may be treated as a performance issue, when what is needed is to ensure that employees receive the appropriate treatment, accommodation, and support to keep them healthy and productive at work.
Employees who experience depression or return to work after a leave of absence related to a depressive episode may require additional assistance and workplace accommodation in order to be fully productive at work. Think outside the box when deciding on an appropriate accommodation measure. A private office in a noise-free environment or noise-reducing headphones might be helpful for individuals who experience difficulties with concentration. In order to ensure that the correct accommodation measure is in place, consult with the employee. The employee may already have resolved the issue in his or her private life, and this solution can potentially be adapted for the workplace.
A toxic work environment can hinder an employee’s mental health. If an employee is chronically stressed at work or feels unsupported by his or her colleagues or supervisor, this can lead to the development or exacerbation of a mental health issue. If an individual is returning to work after a leave of absence due to depression, a hostile work environment can also lead to a relapse. On the other hand, a supportive work environment can act as a buffer against stress, even in one’s personal life. To fully promote mental health in the workplace and support individuals who experience depression, employers must ensure that their work environment is supportive and that they proactively deal with conflicts, either between colleagues or with supervisors.
 Health Canada, It’s Your Health: Depression (Ottawa: Health Canada, 2009).
 Dan Bilsker, Merv Gilbert, and Joti Samra, Antidepressant Skills at Work: Dealing With Mood Problems in the Workplace (Vancouver: BC Mental Health & Addiction Services, 2007).
 Thomas Stephens and Natacha Joubert, “The Economic Burden of Mental Health Problems in Canada.” Chronic Diseases in Canada 22, no. 1 (2001): 18–23.
 Debra Lerner, and others, “The Clinical and Occupational Correlates of Work Productivity Loss Among Employed Patients With Depression,” Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine 46, no. 6 (June 2004): S46–S55.
The health risks of sitting have been big news in recent months. Publications from Maclean’s to Runners World and even The Economist have featured stories about the potential health impacts from prolonged sitting—even for active people who manage to squeeze in some amount of physical fitness activity during their day. Researchers who have spent years investigating these risks must feel gratified that their findings have reached the popular press and the message is getting out. Sitting is being called the “new smoking.” But now comes the inevitable question: What to do about it?
We spend a tremendous amount of time sitting each day, and a large part of that is spent at work. So the solutions must include employers, employees, and their workplaces. In November 2012, members of The Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Management executive network met to hear the evidence around sedentary behaviour and explore practical solutions for reducing this risk. The meeting included presentations by global experts Dr. James Levine and Dr. Peter Katzmarzyk, and a case example of Via Rail Canada’s efforts to help its employees become more active and healthy.
That meeting had a strong impact on the participants—and on one person in particular. Dr. Peter Sargious is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Calgary and has been the Chair of the Conference Board’s Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Management since its inception. Peter is also the Chronic Disease Management Lead for W21C in Calgary—a research and innovation test site and research centre led by a partnership between Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary. As a researcher and clinician with a specialty in chronic disease, Peter is well aware of the risks of sedentary behaviour and incorporates this knowledge in his clinical practice. At a personal level, he was concerned that the time he spent sitting behind a desk was hurting his own health, even though he is an active runner. He had been considering changes to his workspace to reduce his time spent sitting. The meeting in 2012 provided the spark for him to act.
A few weeks ago, Peter and W21C hosted the fall meeting of the chronic disease network in Calgary, and members were fortunate to have a tour of the W21C Healthcare Human Factors Simulation Lab and Peter’s office. Over the course of this past year, and with support from his organization, Peter transformed his office from a traditional desk and chair, to one that includes a walking treadmill and standing desk. During the tour, he demonstrated the equipment and shared his experience on how he has adapted to this new style of desk work. Others in his organization are following Peter’s example and making changes to reduce their sitting time.
In some workplaces, moving about is not an option. A few years ago I visited a medical device manufacturing facility in New York State. Through large plate glass windows I could see rows of people in full protective suits seated and assembling equipment in a highly controlled, sterile environment. But outside the windows in the corridor where I stood was a row of treadmills—a spot where employees could spend all or a portion of their breaks walking. Some were doing just that while also listening to music and reading.
Other organizations are adopting simple, easy to implement solutions, such as walking meetings. The Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario has incorporated walking meetings and facilitated the practice through the creation of mapped routes and an online booking system. Reconfiguring meeting spaces, such as providing stand-up meeting tables, is another option organizations can explore.
Enough is known about this significant health risk for employers and employees to act. The trend toward sedentary work is unlikely to change and workable solutions to minimize the risks must be found and implemented. Workplaces that have a predominantly sedentary environment should take the lead and share their experiences and solutions with others. The rewards, both for employees and for employers, can be tremendous.
 Kate Lunau, “Why Sitting Might Kill You,” Maclean’s (March 12, 2012).
 Selene Yaeger, “Sitting Is the New Smoking,” Runner’s World (July 20, 2013).
 The Economist, “Standing Orders” (August 10, 2013).
 W21C, Innovation, Education, Research, and Health Care—Together at W21C.
 Travis Saunders, Walk and Talk: Promoting Walking Meetings (November 6, 2013).
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