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).
Mental health issues are a significant contributor to absenteeism in the workplace, which is costly to the Canadian economy. For many employers, mental health is the leading cause of both short-term and long-term disability leaves of absence. And the average length of absence is higher for mental health-related leaves of absence (or when mental health issues exist alongside physical health issues) than for physical health issues alone.
A 2013 report by The Conference Board of Canada, Disability Management: Opportunities for Employer Action, suggests that significant gaps still exist in how Canadian organizations approach mental health issues. Employers surveyed for the study appear to place a greater emphasis on physical health and well-being programs and treatment than on providing support for employees’ psychological health and safety. While the reasons for this disparity stem perhaps from long-standing occupational health and safety legislative requirements, Canadian organizations need to adapt to new realities.
A year ago, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) launched a voluntary standard that employers can adopt to promote the psychological health and safety of employees. While interest in the standard has been high, employers continue to struggle with how to implement more supportive practices and programs to assist employees with mental health issues. It appears there is still a long way for many employers to go before workplace health programs address the full array of physical and mental health issues that are so prevalent among the Canadian population.
Employers have been exploring ways to expand wellness programs to include mental health and well-being. Conference Board of Canada research shows that more than half of all Canadian employers surveyed offer programs, services, or benefits that support employees’ mental health and wellness (53 per cent), although they remain less common than programs to support employees’ physical well-being 61 per cent).
As highlighted in the table, gaps in employees’ perceptions of how employers manage mental health issues are more pronounced.
While advances have been made in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health, employees remain less comfortable discussing mental health issues at work. Many employees expressed concern about their privacy being breached or repercussions in terms of their employment security, financial rewards, or career path.
There is certainly still a perception that employees who have been off work as a result of a mental health issue are treated differently than those who have taken a leave of absence due to a physical health problem. The survey also found that individuals perceive that employees with mental health issues do not receive the same degree of support upon return to the workplace after a leave of absence.
This lack of support is likely contributing to an increased duration of absence and higher rate of relapse or recurrence. For employees with physical health problems, the return-to-work success rate is 83 per cent. For employees with mental health issues, return to work success is only 63 per cent (and drops to 56 per cent among those with both physical and mental health issues).
The failure to address mental health issues directly contributes to employee absences from the workplace. Another recent study by The Conference Board of Canada, Missing in Action: Absenteeism Trends in Canadian Organizations, found that absenteeism is costing our economy over $16 billion a year in lost productivity. An impact of this magnitude should motivate employers to understand the root causes or drivers of absenteeism within their organizations and address the underlying issues. The potential payoff is significant—by increasing their focus on programs and treatment for mental health issues, employers could reduce absenteeism and boost productivity, which hits the bottom line.
A new series of workshops designed by The Conference Board of Canada to assist employers in Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces will be held across the country in 2014–15.
“Wonderful organization, great speakers, outstanding content. As one who has organized my fair share of conferences, this was very well done.”—