Working Through It: a Leader's Guide to Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces
Before COVID-19, 1
in 5 Canadians experienced a mental health problem or mental illness each year. As the pandemic stretches into 2021, the mental health crisis is following suit.
As a leader, it is important that you recognize where your responsibility to support an employee with a mental health issue begins and ends. You have a responsibility to check-in on your
employees, support a psychologically safe culture, and invest in the tools and resources they need to take care of themselves during these uncertain times. You do not have the responsibility to
provide the services/support of a medical professional or a trained psychologist, psychiatrist, counsellor, therapist or even friend. Instead, you should be capable of, and willing to, have an
honest conversation and refer the employee to appropriate resources.
In support of your role and responsibilities, we've put together seven tips for building a mentally healthy workplace, some guidelines for recognizing when your employee requires more help than
you/the organization can provide, and some scripts for having that conversation.
As a leader, here’s what you can and should do:
1. Break Down Stigma
Employees often keep silent about mental health struggles, fearing they'll be viewed differently in the workplace, or worse, face discrimination.
Speak openly about mental
illness. Host a company-wide meeting to address pressing challenges, like the pandemic, and the possible impacts on mental health.
Increase your own comfort level
and make a habit of talking about stress, depression, anxiety, or other mental illness during check-ins, meetings and e-mail communications. Remind employees that everyone struggles
Raise awareness, improve
accessibility and encourage use of workplace programs and policies that support mental wellness.
Train managers to identify the
signs of mental distress, appropriate ways to assist employees, and indications that medical or mental health professional support is needed.
"When employees trust you won't call them "crazy" for having a panic attack or fire them when they're struggling with depression, they'll be more willing to seek treatment," says Amy
Morin, licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and internationally recognized expert on mental strength.
2. Increase your understanding of mental health signs and symptoms
Managers should be trained to recognize signs and symptoms of emotional distress and mental health issues among peers and direct reports and to address them in an appropriate manner.
Additionally, “Managers should also listen for frequent and consistent complaints of employee stress. While consistent work stressors may be partly to blame, constant stress is often the ‘face’
of more serious anxiety problems. Verbal admissions of stress are more acceptable for the workplace.
Change in appearance (e.g.,
weight gain/loss, hygiene, clothes)
Looks tired and fatigued
Depressed speech (i.e., slow,
flat, low volume)
Physically agitated (e.g.,
Health complaints (e.g.,
headache, abdominal and joint pain)
Loses concentration easily
Low interest and morale
Irritable or angry (e.g.,
outbursts, blaming others)
Frustration over little things
Admissions of guilt and
Doesn’t contribute or cooperate
Isolates self from others
Accidents and mistakes
Tasks take longer to perform
Alcohol and drug abuse
Of course, in order for managers to detect emotional problems in their employees, they must know what is ‘typical’ behaviour for them. This is why it is crucial for managers to get to know their
direct reports as people with characteristic traits, skills, needs and values.”
3. Acknowledge That Mental Health is a Spectrum
The Mental Health Continuum Model from the Mental
Health Commission of Canada takes away labels and categorizes symptoms of good to poor mental health under a four colour continuum: green (healthy), yellow (reacting), orange (injured),
and red (ill).
The colours work well as a stigma reduction tool, allowing employees to talk about mental health neutrally, without labels or diagnoses.
4. Consider Workplace Flexibility and Job Design
Employees need to know that they won't be penalized for taking care of their mental health. Fortunately, there's never been a better time to consider flexible work arrangements. Offering mental
health days or flexible job design to accommodate therapy appointments or treatment can significantly impact and improve employee mental health, not to mention job satisfaction and productivity.
5. Offer Free Screening Tools
Mental illness often goes untreated because employees don't recognize the signs and symptoms.
If you don’t already have a toolbox of resources where employees can find the mental health support they need, consider building one. It doesn't have to be fancy. Create an intranet page or
Google doc of your own resources, use an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or some combination of the two. And remember, resources only help if employees know about them. Remind your team
regularly about the supports available and where to find them.
7. Have a Zero-Tolerance Policy for Harassment and Discrimination
Take a stand against harassment and discrimination. Having the appropriate policies in place makes it clear that these behaviours have no place in your workplace. Ensure that all employees are
clear about codes of conduct and the consequences.
As a Leader, there
is a limit to your responsibility that is met when the issue exceeds your training and your area of expertise. While your own experience and willingness to be an advocate is helpful,
you are not expected to, nor should you attempt to do the work of a mental health professional who has undertaken years of education, specialized training and experience to provide appropriate
expertise and support.
When the limit of your ability and responsibility has been reached, here are some ideas for addressing mental health with your employees.[i]
An employee indicates concern for
their mental health, indicating anxiety, depression, or other issues.
If available, provide them with
the contact information for your EAP provider and encourage them to reach out today.
Suggest they connect with their
family physician as a starting point. Acknowledge that given current pandemic circumstances, this can take longer than usual!
Provide the distress centre
number and encourage them to call to explore alternatives
Encourage them to reach out to a
family member or friend and to share their concerns today.
Provide them with the list of
resources included at the end of this blog.
What do you say?
“I can see that you’re having a
“You don’t seem like yourself –
do you want to talk about it?”
“Are you doing ok?”
“Do you have a friend, family
member, or therapist that you could call for some support with this?”
“Have you tried connecting with
our EAP provider? They have some great resources; I’ll send along their contact information.”
You believe an employee is in
crisis, significant distress, or in danger of causing harm to self or others. In no particular order (assess based on situation):
Call the emergency contact listed
in their employee file
Refer to an urgent care centre
where the can receive an appropriate assessment
Call the police non-emergency
line for assistance
What do you say?
“We’re going to find someone who
can help you”
“I’m going to stay with you
(online, on the phone or in person) until we find someone who can help”
Confirm address of current
Confirm phone number where they
can be reached
Confirm the name and contact info
for an emergency contact person
Trust your gut. Do
not be afraid to overreact. An appropriate exception to confidentiality is a situation where a person is at risk of harm to self or others.
and Urgent Services
Community Services Line 211
Health Link 811
Distress Centre 403-266-4357.
Speak to a highly trained volunteer, who will actively listen and provide additional resources if needed.