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The Importance of Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

By George Waggott, founder, and Roberto Fonseca-Velazquez, summer law student,

George Waggott Law

Some workplaces only manage an employee’s performance when the employee is not performing at their best or as expected. Focusing on the negative tends to reduce motivation. This approach may demotivate employees, and may also worsen mental health issues and symptoms, which could continue to contribute to weaker performance.

Many workers can continue performing at a high level while dealing with mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. It is not often apparent when an individual is coping with a mental health issue and therefore an employer may not be able to pick up on mental health issues that their employees are dealing with. To complicate matters, people are quite often still reluctant to discuss mental illness especially at work with colleagues and superiors. When organizations do not support mental health in the workplace, not only are the workers impacted but there is also a tangible economic effect. In one study which reviewed 2018 data, the economic burden of mental illness in Canada was estimated to be more than $51 billion per year. This cost was based on measuring health care costs as well as lost productivity due to absenteeism and sick leave.

This is why it is incredibly important for an employer to create and support a working environment that is genuinely accommodating of employee mental health. Below are some practical steps an employer can take to support the mental health of their employees in the workplace.

1.      Providing employees with clearly defined roles and responsibilities

This step may be surprising to some because it is not immediately clear what relation it has to mental health. But in fact, clearly defined roles and responsibilities provide employees with stability and predictability in their work lives, two factors which are essential to mental health.

A related cause of stress for employees is when they are assigned additional responsibilities that used to belong to employees who were terminated. Sometimes difficult economic circumstances make layoffs inevitable, but it is important that employers ensure that they provide their employees with sufficient resources for them to deal with the demands of their job.

2.      Emphasizing work-life balance

This step is more obvious but is still crucial - the importance of work-life balance for managing stress doesn’t need much explanation. However, it is worth articulating some policies employers can adopt to support their employees in this respect. Firstly, offering employees flexible working conditions such as hybrid or remote working arrangements can help reduce work-related stresses. Feeling as though one does not have control over one’s own work life is often one of the major causes of stress. In many cases, allowing employees to select where they work from, and tailor their work schedule to best suit their needs would mitigate feelings of a lack of control. Everyone’s mental health needs are different, so by giving employees more autonomy over their work lives, employers manage employee mental health more effectively than they would by trying to impose a one-size-fits-all solution.

One major way that the work life balance of employees is undermined is when employers do not establish clear boundaries separating work like from home life. Many jobs require employees to put in long work hours into the night or on weekends, or require employees to travel for work. Of course these may be necessary parts of the position, but it is important for employers to be cognizant of the deleterious effect these obligations can have on employees’ work-life balance and work to mitigate it through other policies.

3.      Supporting employee learning and career development

Often those employees who are highly engaged with their work experience higher work stress precisely because they are emotionally invested in their work. A helpful policy that employers can adopt in this respect is ensuring that employees feel valued by recognizing their good performance. Additionally, a common source of stress for employees is that they experience reduced job satisfaction. In an effort to prevent this from becoming an issue, employers would benefit from ensuring that all employees are offered the opportunities to apply for promotions and work on new projects or tasks which are aligned with their development goals.

Mental health can seem like such a broad issue that addressing it can seem daunting. But in fact there are some simple steps that employers can follow that often will be of significant benefit to the mental health of their employees.  

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