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World Mental Health Day checkup: What is the state of psychological health and safety in your workplace?

October 14, 2022

October 10 marked World Mental Health Day. It offers an opportunity for organizations and leaders to reflect on the state of psychological health and safety in their workplaces. And for individuals to take a check on their personal mental well-being.

I spent years working in psychologically unsafe environments. I just didn’t recognize it at the time. I thought it was the norm and a rite of passage of a young lawyer. After all, hadn’t all those before me endured the same? Only in hindsight did I recognize the harm those environments caused me, and others.

Ignoring workplace psychological health and safety takes a toll

A psychologically unhealthy and unsafe workplace not only takes its toll on people’s mental and physical well-being, it infects teams and cultures like a toxic smoke that everyone is forced to breathe. And it hits the bottom line: morale and productivity plummet, absenteeism, turnover and recruiting costs skyrocket, and negativity and complaints abound, sometimes leading to legal liability adding to the financial implications.

Risk factors for poor psychological health and safety

The Government of Canada identified several risk factors for poor workplace psychological health[i]:

  1. High demand or low control over workload or methods.
  2. High effort but low reward for contributions so not recognizing employees or giving credit.
  3. Unfair treatment like favouritism.
  4. Excessive or unrealistic workload so the employee burns out and can’t succeed.
  5. Unfulfilling work that does not make use of the employee’s competencies.
  6. Absence of employee engagement initiatives so there is no opportunity for employees to have meaningful input.
  7. Little to no professional development opportunities.
  8. A poor physical work environment.
  9. Workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, discrimination or violence.
  10. Poor leadership such as a leader who is passive or autocratic, or abuse of authority.
  11. Lack of workplace accommodations or flexibility to attend to personal emergencies or family issues.
  12. Non-work related illnesses or conditions, which affect an employee’s mental or physical health.

Creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace

Creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace is not a one size fits all approach. But there are some fundamental steps that all organizations can implement. Here are just some of the ways you can make a difference to psychological health and safety in your workplace:

  • Encourage inclusion and acceptance of diversity – Inclusion gives employees a sense of belonging and provides the security for employees to live true to who they are and to feel confident making workplace contributions.
  • Practice open sharing of all ideas – Employees need to feel they can offer ideas without fear of having them dismissed, scoffed at or shot down. Organizations with cultures that discourage idea-sharing suffer when it comes to innovation, problem-solving and morale.
  • Have effective leaders – Sometimes leaders have the hard skills but lack the crucial soft skills to lead people. Ensuring your leaders are good people leaders is one of the keys to a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.
  • Promote risks and accept mistakes will be made – An environment that always plays it safe and penalizes mistakes creates a culture of fear and intimidation and stifles collaboration. Allowing for risk can lead to unanticipated successes and mistakes can be valuable opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Set clear expectations – It’s unfair to not communicate clear expectations and then hold employees accountable for failing to meet them. Setting clear expectations  allows employees to understand what is needed to succeed so they can meet performance objectives and help meet their own and the organization’s goals.
  • Make it safe to ask questions – If employees don’t feel safe asking for help or clarification, their stress levels rise and the employee and organization will fail in meeting objectives. Make it okay to ask all questions and make it clear that no question is silly.
  • Have processes to successfully address conflict – A psychologically healthy and safe workplace doesn’t mean no conflict exists. But it entails having a process in place in which conflict and differences of opinion can be addressed in a way that is respectful, meaningful and results in a resolution with a path forward.
  • Set employees up to succeed – Play on employees’ strengths and make use of their competencies. We all work differently and have different skills to offer so tap into the resources you have in a way that allows employees to succeed. And don’t tax employees with unrealistic workloads. Your star performer can’t continue to perform at peak levels if they never have a chance to come up for air.
  • Provide opportunity for growth and development – It’s hard to feel fulfilled or motivated when you don’t see your future in your organization. Most employees thrive on the opportunity to advance and grow in their careers. Learn what your employees’ career aspirations are and support them in achieving them.
  • Give credit when it’s due – Even a simple “thank you” can go a long way to making employees feel valued for the work that they do. When it comes to recognition and reward, a little goes a long way.
  • Allow employees meaningful input – Employees are happier and more fulfilled in their work when they are able to offer input and influence about the work they do. So give them a chance to have a say. They may have brilliant ideas that you will never know about if you don’t open the floor to suggestions.
  • Do not tolerate disrespect, harassment or discrimination – Employees who have been targeted by disrespect, harassment, discrimination or violence, or those who have had to watch others be mistreated in these ways, experience impacts to their mental and physical health. A psychologically healthy and safe workplace requires acting immediately to address and remedy these issues. 
  • Offer support when needed – Whether it’s a workplace accommodation, flexibility to address personal and family issues, time off or a reference to peer support or an employee assistance program, ensure that employees have the support they need when they are struggling. Beyond offering a helping hand for care and compassion, an organization’s strength is made up of the strength of each of its employees. Supporting employees creates a strong culture and ensures your employees are healthy, happy and productive.

In 2013, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) introduced the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety. Our firm was part of the pilot project in implementing the standard. The MHCC offers free resources to assist organizations in implementing this voluntary standard and is a great first step in making a difference to the psychological health and safety of your workplace: