The Starting Place for a Psychologically Healthy Work Environment
"Where should we start?"
This is the question I’m most often asked when meeting with a new client. In my role as a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant I have the pleasure of collaborating with organizations working to develop or expand their policies and practices related to employee mental health. The journey is always an exciting one as we problem solve and move worthwhile strategies forward, often seeing the positive impact of each step as we go. Over the past several years mental health and its impact at work has become a hot area for research. 2013 saw the release of Canada’s best practice guidelines, the National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, followed the next year by Assembling the Pieces, meant to guide the implementation process. Various organizations including the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Great West Life Centre for Workplace Mental Health and Guarding Minds @ Work continue to provide evidence-based tools and resources for employers aiming to prioritize the mental health needs of their team members and a culture conducive to psychological safety. If you’re looking to get the ball rolling there’s lots of information out there… and I mean LOTS. So much, in fact, that it can feel overwhelming in the beginning. If your organization doesn’t have a big budget or the human resources to adopt the National Standard, and/or if this mental health stuff is all new territory for you, here are a few ideas to get you started.
Ask for input
Rather than making guesses, ask your team for feedback about what they feel are the most pressing issues to address. Provide a variety of means for folks to voice their concerns – don’t assume everyone will feel comfortable coming to you to communicate it verbally. Because mental health can be sensitive to discuss, anonymous methods like an employee suggestion box or virtual survey might give you honest insight into what’s on the minds of employees. The opportunity to provide feedback shouldn’t be time-limited either. Reiterate to the team that you’d value their thoughts at any time and give reminders of this along the way as your initiatives begin to unfold. When someone flags a problem or a barrier address it with more than just lip service. Your team members need to know that their ideas and any concerns will be taken seriously, and feel confident that their input will actually play a role in shaping the your organization’s employee mental health strategy.
Normalize conversations about mental health
Adopting cultural norms where talking about mental health isn’t big and scary
A lot of workplaces still think of mental health as being a topic that’s off-limits, that it’s too personal to talk about at work. The mental health of employees, like physical health, absolutely impacts an organization. If we aren’t proactive about it there’s a good chance that impact is a negative one, holding the organization from functioning to its fullest potential. I’ve worked with companies who have had employees come forward and ask if they can share their recovery story with their co-workers. These individuals have found it empowering to speak about their struggles with their mental health and the steps they took to get well. Those who learned about the person’s journey have described how much more “real” mental health seemed knowing that their colleague, who they respect, trust and relate to, went through something tough and came out the other side. Hearing a peer speak highly of the resources available within the workplace is also very impactful; for example, someone sharing that the first positive step they took was disclosing to their manager that they were going through a hard time and that the manager was instrumental in aligning supports for them, or that they had a really positive experience using the Employee Assistance Program. When leaders get real about their own experiences – and it doesn’t have to be in depth, it could even just be an acknowledgment that sometimes life is stressful and we’re all human – other team members often feel a sense of permission to reach out for help if they need it.
Train champions at all levels
Opportunities for professional development are often far more available to members of the leadership team. For some skills this might make sense, but not when it comes to mental health. Sure, leadership needs to buy in to the concept that psychological health and safety at work is important but a totally top-down approach is not the best laid plan. Research tells us that before talking to a manager or HR representative a struggling employee will almost always open up to a peer. Co-workers are uniquely positioned to recognize early signs of mental distress in one another and should have some basic understanding of what those signs look like, how to navigate conversations about mental health and the appropriate supports/resources to recommend. The Mental Health Commission of Canada's Mental Health First Aid training program, which is more accessible than ever now that it’s available virtually, helps participants to feel confident in their ability to be effective helpers in these situations. For mental health initiatives to stick, employees all across the board have to see its importance. Provide the opportunity to become MHFA-certified and watch as Mental Health Champions emerge organically, feeling empowered to put their skills to use.
Has your organization begun working toward improving psychological health and safety? Where and how did you begin? I’d love to hear stories from your journey and hope you’ll take the time to share words of wisdom in the Comments section below. Thanks for reading and have a great week, my friends!
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.