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Setting a goal of improving mental health is admirable, but it needs to be a lot more concrete than that to get traction.

Mental health has slowly but surely become a talking point in the public sector. A lot of the conversation is focused on how to improve mental health, and for good reason — the personal and financial impact of poor mental health and mental illness is enormous.

 If you google “mental health strategies for the workplace” you will get an overabundance of examples of different techniques that have worked for distinct teams. Flex-time, wellness hours, paid-volunteer days — and there are many more examples to choose from.  But with such a diverse range of tools and methods at our fingertips, it is imperative that leaders, decision-makers and managers remember one key message: when it comes to workplace mental health strategies, one size doesn’t fit all.

In other words, it’s risky to think that you can simply plug and play a mental health strategy into your workplace and be successful. Likewise, having a goal of “Improving mental health among employees” is a good guiding principle, but as a S.M.A.R.T (Strategic. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Time-Bound) objective, it leaves a bit to be desired.

By reducing the amount of stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace, employers and departments can create a culture that fosters greater awareness and support of mental health, while expecting a higher quality of work

However, workplaces who view their mental health strategies as more of a flexible-approach, with the ability to adapt and change, often find themselves at the forefront of leading the charge towards increased mental health and a psychologically healthier environment.

These industry leaders shape their dynamic mental health strategies around more specific objectives, such as working towards decreasing stigma in the workplace over a fixed period of time, for example the next 12 months. With this in mind, in order to truly accept this S.M.A.R.T. objective, you must have a clear understanding of exactly what stigma is.

Our team at Opening Minds Canada, an initiative of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, defines stigma as “a major barrier preventing people from seeking help for mental health problems or a mental illness. The fear of stigma often delays diagnosis and treatment.” In the workplace, we know that a lack of support, help and potential diagnoses can lead to an assortment of problems that can ultimately affect productivity and morale.

Consider the scenario where you have a team member or colleague going through a difficult time. You have noticed that this employee or colleague has fallen behind on their work that you’re waiting on and they become very irritable every time you ask them for an update. Due to the stigma around mental health in your department, this employee doesn’t feel safe discussing what they’re dealing with, doesn’t request assistance with their work and misses a deadline.

If an organisation truly wants to focus on decreasing the stigma of mental health in the workplace, they must undergo a cultural change in the way they operate

By reducing the amount of stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace, employers and departments can create a culture that fosters greater awareness and support of mental health, while expecting a higher quality of work, as the threat of presenteeism, absenteeism and burnout decreases.

Proven ways to reduce stigma in the workplace

Through extensive research including pre and post training surveys and randomised-control trials, we have developed a program specifically designed to help reduce the stigma of mental health in the workplace. Having trained around 200,000 participants, The Working Mind program consists of three separate training courses for employees (4 hours), managers (8 hours) and train-the-trainer sessions (5 days) and is also proven to increase participant resilience and mental wellness in the workplace.

With the purpose of creating a workplace culture that fosters greater awareness and support for mental health among employees, managers and employers, we have identified eight key points that may help organisations who are working towards decreasing stigma in the workplace.

  • Challenge yourself to learn a bit more about mental health and mental illness
  • Consider ways to recognise signs and indicators of mental health, in yourself and in others
  • Work towards reducing the stigma and negative attitudes toward people living with mental health problems
  • Maintain your own mental health and improve resilience to dealing with adverse situations
  • Find ways to support your employee’s mental health and well-being
  • Create techniques to enable all employees to be more fully productive
  • Ensure the workplace climate respects and involves all employees, including those with mental health problems
  • Encourage employees to seek help for mental health problems

Any action you take towards having a better understanding of mental health and finding ways to support yourself and others is a great stride towards reducing workplace stigma. This isn’t something that will be a “quick fix”, but is a great first step towards becoming more comfortable talking about mental health, and creating a culture that benefits the mental health of all employees.

The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is another tool we have available to organisations and departments looking to take the next step with their mental health strategy that works well in tandem with these eight points. This free, highly credible framework focuses on the 14 workplace psychosocial factors known to positively impact an employee’s mental health.

The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here

If you set out to reduce stigma in the workplace, know that it won’t happen overnight, even if you follow these eight tips flawlessly.

Ultimately, if an organisation truly wants to focus on decreasing the stigma of mental health in the workplace, they must undergo a cultural change in the way they operate. They need to foster a supportive environment where employees are comfortable seeking help, whether through a manager, supervisor, colleague or professional. They need to ensure that employees feel comfortable starting a conversation around their mental health and that whoever is on the other side of that conversation knows how to direct to internal or external resources and provide accommodations.

Facing stigma and improving mental health takes time, effort and support, on top of a buy-in from senior leaders and managers. Although it may seem like a challenging task today, your employees will thank you tomorrow.

This article is written by Chad Scanlan, Business Development Officer, Opening Minds, Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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