How can employers improve mental health in the workplace?

In recognition of Mental Health Week, several experts highlight key strategies employers can take better their employees’ mental health offerings

How can employers improve mental health in the workplace?
Paula Allen, global leader and vice-president of research and insights at TELUS Health , Mary Ann Baynton, director of collaboration and strategy at Workplace Strategies for Mental Health

In the last decade, the stigma surrounding mental health has become far less severe. As employers and employees continue to have conversations in the workplace and as group benefits providers’ mental health offerings increase, the workforce is in better shape than it used to be. But experts say there’s still work that needs to be done.

When it comes to improving mental health in the workplace, Mary Ann Baynton, director of collaboration and strategy at Workplace Strategies for Mental Health and an independent consultant for Canada Life says it ultimately depends on what employees express as their needs or their challenges. As for employers, they shouldn’t focus on initiatives around a wellness program. Instead, they should prioritize a policy around it.

“They just have to be able to identify where the psychological health and safety of their employees may be at risk, and then to take action to mitigate or eliminate that risk,” she said. “Are you evaluating its effectiveness and engaging in continual improvement? The National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the workplace provides a framework that can assist employers doing things that are effective and that are a good investment of their time and effort. It's not just a momentary feel good but it has an actual positive impact.”

Baynton noted this could mean a change to policies, leadership training and practices, meetings and event planning, just to name a few. Another effective strategy employers should take is regular two-way communication with employees and asking them what they need to do their jobs successfully.

“We're not asking them what would make their life complete, or what would make them happy, we’re just asking ‘What can help you do your job successfully so that you can go home at the end of the day with some energy leftover for your friends, family or whatever else is in your life,” she highlighted. “That conversation can help identify challenges or obstacles that they're facing in the workplace, as well as opportunities for improvement.”

“If we ask the question, ‘How might it impact the psychological health and safety of employees?’, we can transform the workplace,” she added.

Recent data has shown employees know when they’re struggling and when they need help. According to Sun Life’s Designed for Health report, from 2019 to 2022, there was nearly a 70 percent increase in plan members claiming mental health practitioner services. In 2023, these claims grew by 20 percent.

Additionally, Canadians aged 30-39 made the most claims, showing the largest increase in both claim growth and volume, while women's claims have risen by more than 37 percent compared to men's. Senior vice-president of Group Benefits at Sun Life, Marie-Chantal Côté, noted these statistics highlight both good news and bad news. The bad news being is that there’s a lot of stressors in Canadians’ lives.

 “There are a lot that people are facing from a mental health perspective, when we think about the geopolitical environment that we live in, we think about the economic environment that is sometimes fluctuating and environmental worries. So, we know there's a lot of stressors.”

The good news, she says, is the encouragement that people are seeking the help that they need sooner.

“We know from all the data and all the research that the sooner you get the help that you need, the better the outcome is. When you leverage that [mental health] benefit, then then you're more theoretically at work, performing most of your day-to-day activities,” she added.

Côté is quick to point out some of the tools employees are using at Sun Life, like the organization’s mental health tool kit resource, taking advantage of their access to virtual care, a mental health coach, or an employee assistance program.

Paula Allen, global leader and vice-president of research and insights at TELUS Health, says employers should be leveraging technology that can help scale mental health support, as the world is going to experience “some pretty rapid change like we've never seen before.”

 “If you think about some of the things that have created change and the pace of change that we're going to be experiencing with generative artificial intelligence as it becomes more integrated and becomes more powerful, is going to be fairly significant,” she says. “Everybody says it's not about the technology that's going to make a difference, it's how you use it. We really do have to make sure that our workplaces are as resilient, safe and supportive as possible in order for us to do the best that we can in this in this emerging world.”

At the end of the day, while the stigma around mental health is better than it was 10 years ago, Allen says she wouldn’t get too complacent.

“We still haven't bridged the gap, there are still people who are suffering in silence, there's still people who frustrated that their needs are not met, and we better fill that gap now, because it's going to become more important,” she noted. “All that change that we're talking about is going to make life more mentally straining for employees. The bar is raising while we haven't fully closed our gap yet so there’s still a lot of work to do.”