7 considerations when developing a proactive workplace mental health strategy

A recent article directly from The Conference Board of Canada stated that: “Mental health is often cited as a top reason for disability leaves of absence in Canadian workplaces. However, according to a new survey by the Conference Board of Canadian employers, less than half of Canada’s employers have a mental health strategy in place. “Employers are increasingly turning their attention towards supporting mental health,” said Louise Chénier, Manager, Workplace Health and Wellness Research. “While many employers have mental health initiatives in place, a majority of them often lack a proactive mental health strategy that addresses the workplace risks that could negatively impact their employees’ health and wellness”.”

Responding to this, and putting it into an Australian/New Zealand context, David Burroughs, Managing Director, CommuniCorp Group wrote the following: Having worked in this domain for over a decade, I can say with some confidence that a practical strategy addressing psychological health in the workplace can have incredible benefit for individuals, teams and overall corporate culture and performance.

A well-articulated strategy, particularly one that focuses on mental health, rather than mental illness, can act like a game plan or road map for who is doing what, when, how and why, when it comes to mental health. Far too often efforts in this domain are ad-hoc and piecemeal and activities are geared towards the latest fad or mental health key word (such as first aid, mindfulness, positive psychology or resilience) without any real consideration as to how these can have a strategic impact or to what extent they address the psychosocial factors that influence people’s mental wellbeing.

Having a formal strategy can have an impact not just in terms of helping address and manage mental ill-health issues that arise, but in terms of clearly articulating your corporate psychological health infrastructure or psychological safety systems i.e., the actions and initiatives, systems and procedures designed to help prevent mental ill-health and support positive mental health in your workplace. A strategy needs to be specific to an organisation rather and represents visible organisational commitment to mental health over and above participation in the usual landmark days which might feel good but typically deliver limited outcomes long term.

In my opinion, it is critical that any strategy in this area covers:

  1. Contemporary definitions of mental health (rather than confusing mental health with mental illness). Note: ideally this should also avoid the unnecessary medicalisation of issues.
  2. The business case for mental health – what is the organisation aiming to achieve? Does this include productivity, compliance, attendance, engagement, cost containment, overall wellbeing, prevention of psychological injuries, improved safety etc? Be sure that this is clearly articulated as it helps guide your priority actions and initiatives and helps determine your ROI/impact metrics! Remember, no two organisations are the same – priorities will differ.
  3. HR/WHS/L&D/IM, People Leader, and staff roles and responsibilities for workplace psychological health. Note: this should not be ‘one size fits all’ – the knowledge and capabilities required across these areas are quite different.
  4. What you are doing from an ill-health prevention, early intervention as well as a management perspective. Remember, just having an EAP alone, or focusing on symptom reduction or RTW activities is largely insufficient! 
  5. Internal mechanisms for supporting/managing psychological health – and not just ‘refer to EAP’ as a default option.
  6. Key psychosocial factors relevant to the specific workplace (not just stress and bullying!) and job roles.
  7. Action points, milestones and metrics used to regularly measure program outcomes and overall psychosocial climate.

Mental health awareness is one thing, talking about different diagnosis is interesting for people, but adopting an integrated, strategic and prevention-focused approach to psychological health should be the real goal.

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About David Burroughs:

Dave Burroughs is Managing Director and Principal Psychologist of Australia’s leading national corporate psychology firm, CommuniCorp. CommuniCorp works exclusively with major organisations across the Asia Pacific in developing Psychologically Safe and Healthy Workplaces and the systemic prevention, early intervention and best practice management of workplace mental- ill health matters.

Dave’s years of strategic and hands-on experience in organisational, clinical and military psychology has given him uniquely practical insight into workplace mental health issues from an individual, team and organisational perspective. He has a reputation for being a ‘common sense’ psychologist with a passion for evidence-based and pragmatic solutions to complex workplace challenges.

David recently chaired day two of the Workplace Mental Health AU conference in Sydney.