Workplace mental health programs have no finish line, but can more than pay for themselves

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.

When launching a workplace mental health strategy similar to Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), leaders must accept that there is no goal line. Many employers who leverage CSA Standard on Psychological Health and Safety confuse activity with impact.

Leveraging this standard requires a commitment to a Plan-Do-Check-Act continuous improvement approach with an acceptance that the goal is to create habits that protect and promote workers’ well-being. Changing behaviours and habits requires repetition and constant reminders. Failure to continue a program can result in cultures shifting backward.


If employers want the next generation of talent, they need the competitive edge of a mentally healthy workplace, complete with incentives. It is good business. According to a report by insurance broker Aon, employers that improve well-being performance by 3 per cent saw a 1-per-cent improvement in employee retention and customer satisfaction.

Regardless of why your organization is on a journey for mental health transformation, whether to decrease disability costs, believe it is the right thing to do or improve recruitment and retention, focus on what is happening inside and outside your organization.

Staying current with the changing legislation puts more expectations on employers to protect employees’ mental health. Among legislative changes are those protecting vulnerable workers and human rights and preventing workplace violence and harassment.

For many years, the federal minister of labour has had included in the prime minister’s mandate letter a direction to include mental health considerations in the Canada Labour Code. A minimum standard of psychological health and safety is required, along with trauma avoidance and mitigation efforts. Canada is not alone in this effort. Many other countries are already engaging in this initiative.


The field of psychological health and safety is just beginning to evolve. The field needs more evidence of impact, which will come as more focus and research is put into workplace mental health. For example, evidence suggests that providing employees ample funding and early access to psychological services through benefits programs can mitigate mental health risks.

Employers are advised to keep current with legislation and the growing body of research that provides insight into workforces.

Employers should follow the MHRC workplace mental health research briefs to discover observations of what is happening to workers’ mental health in Canada and keep abreast of CSA standards Z1003, Z1008, Z1011 and workplace mental health research relevant to workplace mental health. They should also explore trusted sources like Workplace Safety and Prevention Services’s The Trusted Leader Blog, mental harm prevention roadmap, Workplace Strategies for Mental Health and the Mental Health Commission of Canada.


Additional steps can keep a keen focus on delivering a meaningful impact to mature an organization’s mental health journey. The Milken Institute, an international nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank focused on financial, physical, mental and environmental health, suggests investing in workplace mental health is critical as employees’ well-being can directly affect an organization’s productivity.

  • Develop case studies: Leverage value of investment and return on investment analyses to create meaningful case studies. These provide leadership with information to evaluate the financial impact of initiatives or the overall mental health program. Before conducting these analyzes, adopt a procedure like the Phillips ROI methodology, a proven model that can be adapted to workplace mental health. As a mental health program matures, add expectations that programs leadership development or employee family assistant program will be developed at an assigned cadence to summarize how investments in mental health have achieved desired outcomes. This practice can help to secure future investments.
  • Celebrate success: There will never be a point when all mental health concerns will be absent from the workforce. Recognize accomplishments such as lower levels of stigma, higher levels of participation in programs and reductions in disability claims to share good news and progress. Ensure the champions and all those dedicated to facilitating workplace mental health transformation are acknowledged to help attract new volunteers to keep the journey going.

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 and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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