To positively affect mental health, employers must track and measure progress

Bill Howatt is the founder of Howatt HR Consulting & MFIQ Inc. Michael Cooper is the vice-president of development and strategic partnerships for Mental Health Research Canada.

You’ve implemented a Plan-Do-Check-Act approach to preventing mental harm as discussed in the first piece of this series and are promoting mental health in your workplace. And your research has determined what programs and policies you need to drive the desired key performance behaviours (KPBs) to influence targeted key performance indicators (KPIs) as discussed in the second piece.

The desired outcome can range from increased productivity and retention to decreased short-term disability because of mental illness and presenteeism. You have completed the research (planning) and begun the doing by implementing programs like leadership development.

Awareness

Now what? A missed opportunity in many organizations that launch a workplace mental health strategy is failing to evaluate if what was put in place is doing what is intended.

As mentioned in our last article, a lead practice is making data-informed decisions. Checking can be done through pulse checks, listening tours and creating mental health scorecards.

Accountability

A measurement system is necessary to determine opportunities and gaps in programs and policies. Without monitoring, it is impossible to evaluate whether current policies and programs are working.

The key outcome for effective workplace mental health prevention and support programs and policies is to create desired KPBs that through practice become habits. For example, if stigma is found as a barrier to help-seeking behaviours, before running an anti-stigma campaign, define targeted KPBs that are promoted and encouraged to lower stigma and increase help-seeking behaviour.

While many employers hope to reduce absenteeism owing to workplace mental illness, some do not know their absenteeism costs. The World Health Organization suggests that organizations’ presenteeism costs could be 10 times greater than they realize. Leaders must be clear on what KPIs are targeted regarding the why, what and how.

Action

Creating programs and policies is the start. The way to drive habits and achieve desired outcomes is to create the discipline of accountability and follow-through. This allows for continuous improvement and ensures that dollars, resources and energy spent achieve desired outcomes.

  • Integrate psychological safety and inclusion: When monitoring programs, be mindful that adversity loads can vary with the workforce. Age, sexual orientation, marginalized populations, neurodivergent workers and employees experiencing trauma are examples of adversities workers can experience. The success of programs that are completely dependent on individual efforts (for example, resiliency apps) are not in tune with the barriers and challenges some populations bring to the workplace. Programs and policies should be evaluated through an intersectional lens.
  • Business output indicators are useful but lag: Increased productivity and lowered absenteeism and mental illness disability claims are KPIs to thrive for, but are lagging indicators that take time to develop. One behaviour that is a positive sign is seeing an increase in the number of people using a program after an anti-stigma campaign, leadership training and senior leadership talking about the importance of mental health. Research suggests that one in four workers experiences a mental health concern. Early intervention is proven to reduce mental harm, injury and illness risk. An increase of access to mental health services can be a lead indicator of a decline in disability claims because of mental health.
  • Check if a mental health strategy is working: In article two of this series, we suggested assessments that provide insights into the risks of psychosocial hazards and gather additional data for planning. Using an evidence-based approach to evaluate progress every 12-18 months is prudent. Additional methods for measuring employee experience include daily, weekly and monthly mental health pulse checks that can be facilitated by tools such as a mental fitness IQ. Listening tours, where groups of employees are asked about their experience and one-on-one interviews to check if what is being done is valued by the workforce, provide data to evaluate if current programs are having an impact.
  • Report using a mental health scorecard: Measurement is about accountability that requires reporting to senior leadership the impact of a mental health strategy. Developing a simple mental health scorecard that tracks KPBs (for example, desired behaviours and habits expected from a program or policy) to drive targeted KPIs and outcomes provides a dashboard that can be reported to senior leadership to evaluate progress. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors are becoming more popular with investors as they want evidence that what employers are doing to protect the environment is working. Because more organizations report workers’ health through an OHS lens (injuries), PHS will soon be added to ESG scorecards.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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