The workplace can play an essential role in helping individuals maintain positive mental health. However, it can also be a stressful environment that may contribute to mental health issues and illness. Three out of ten Canadian employees report that their work environments are not psychologically safe or healthy (PDF). Mental health is an important occupational health and safety issue. However, many organizations have no system or process in place to address workplace psychological risks and stressors.

Employers' Legal Obligations

Workplace mental health was not a significant issue on most employers' radar a decade ago. Today, however, workplace legislation continues to evolve in ways that enhance employers' obligations in respect of their employees' physical and mental health. Under provincial human rights and accessibility legislation, employers have a duty to accommodate employees with disabilities, including mental disabilities. Most occupational health and safety legislation across Canada includes provisions requiring employers to take steps to prevent and manage risks of workplace harassment and violence. In some cases, the legislation has been expanded to include "harm to psychological well-being" within the definition of harassment. A bill recently received Royal Asset in the Ontario Legislature, Bill 132, Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act (Supporting Survivors and Challenging Sexual Violence and Harassment), 2015, which, among other matters, amends Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act to include significant obligations on employers to protect individuals from sexual harassment.

CSA Standard - Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

Into this new era of enhanced recognition of workplace mental health issues, the Canadian Standards Association introduced Canada's first National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace in 2013. The Standard contains a voluntary set of guidelines, tools and resources focused on promoting employees' psychological health and preventing psychological harm due to workplace factors.

The framework of the Standard makes the case that a work environment that takes steps to prevent and manage workplace mental health stressors is less likely to contribute to mental harm and injury. 

Creating a Psychological Health and Safety Management System

In response to the increasing legal attention that is being focused on workplace mental health, some employers are working to set up a psychological health and safety management system ("PH&S System"). The goal of a PH&S System is to proactively identify potential hazards that may contribute to psychological harm to workers and implement measures to control those hazards in order to promote mental health. Examples of potential hazards include the following:

  • Lack of psychological support; a workplace where co-workers and supervisors are not supportive of employees' psychological and mental health concerns.
  • A negative organizational culture; a workplace that lacks trust, honesty and fairness with minimal regard for employee loyalty, well-being and job satisfaction.
  • Ineffective leadership and expectations; a workplace where employees do not know what they need to do, how their work contributes to the organization and whether there are impending changes.
  • Lack of civility and respect; a work environment that is uncivil and disrespectful - for example, exposure to workplace bullying and/or inappropriate language and behaviours.
  • Job misfit; a workplace where there is a poor job fit between employees' interpersonal and emotional competencies, their job skills and the position they hold.
  • Growth and development; a workplace that does not support or encourage employee's in the development of their interpersonal, emotional and job skills.
  • Lack of recognition and reward; a workplace where there is no appropriate acknowledgement and appreciation of employees' efforts in a fair and timely manner. This includes appropriate and regular financial compensation as well as employee or team celebrations, recognition of years served, and/or milestones reached.

In order to eliminate or control these potential hazards, some employers are implementing workplace mental health programs, activities and strategies along the lines of the following:

  • Psychological support; provide education and training to all employees to heighten mental health awareness and to enhance manager's interpersonal and people management skills.
  • Clear leadership and expectations; conduct regular performance reviews for all staff that include bi-directional feedback.
  • Organizational culture; create standard orientation sessions for new employees, including information about the organization's mission and values and standards for employee behaviour.
  • Workload management; foster a work culture that values the quality of work done not only the quantity of work and set realistic productivity expectations.
  • Civility and Respect; develop and implement a written policy to promote diversity and respect; adopt non-discriminatory language in all communications.
  • Engagement; conduct an annual satisfaction survey where employees can evaluate and provide feedback on their manager's performance and ensure leadership accountability for retention and engagement using metrics.
  • Balance; allow for alternative work schedules such as flexible work hours, job share and telecommuting options.
  • Psychological job fit; have job counselling available for employees who may be struggling in their positions.

These are just some ideas for employers to consider. Of course, in order for any PH&S System to be successful, there must be a serious commitment from senior management to the project and participation by employees in the planning and implementation process.