Podcast Title: Health and Safety to Go!


Episode #127:  A Mentally Healthy Workplace



Introduction Welcome to Health and Safety to Go, broadcasting from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Host:  Thank you for joining us for this episode of Health and Safety to Go.   Creating a mentally healthy workplace can have positive impacts across an organization. Today we are speaking with Emma Nicolson, Occupational Health and Safety Specialist here at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, about what mental health in the workplace looks like and what organizations can do to build a culture that is mentally healthy.

Thank you for joining us today Emma.

Emma: Thank you very much for having me.

Host:  Let's start with the basics. What do people listening need to know about mental health?

Emma: When we talk about mental health, we're not talking just about the absence of a mental disorder. The term mental health is definitely out there and we're talking about it more on the agenda, at work, people are talking about it in the news, at home, at school, it's great, and we're starting to really break down that stigma.

Positive mental health is linked largely to our ability to cope and contribute to our normal activities, and normal may be different to you than it is to me, but it's our ability to cope.  Our resiliency, our ability to bounce back when we hit those inevitable bumps in the road.  And often our reaction to, and our response to situations is individualistic. What may stress you out or may cause you mental, and I wouldn’t’ say mental harm, but a mental health challenge, will be different because it is shaped by our past experiences and our perceptions of the situation. And when we talk about the workplace, there are some workplace factors that are known to impact a person's health.

Host:  What are the workplace factors?

Emma:  There are 13 of them actually.  There's 13 identified factors that have been shown to impact a worker’s mental health and that can be in a positive or a negative way. We often refer to them as psychological risk factor.

Some of them are proper workload management, having a clear role and expectation of what you're to do in the workplace. You know every day when you come to work what is expected of you, knowing that you're coming to a workplace that protects your psychological safety and also your physical safety. You're not worried about guarding issues or noise concerns or ergonomic issues. So these factors, they’re present and they should be assessed and treated equitably as to your physical hazards.


Host:  Okay, why should we be concerned about mental health in the workplace?

Emma:   We've all heard those statistics and we know that one in five workers in Canada will experience a mental health issue in a year. It's a leading cause of disability claims, half a million workers will miss work. So that alone is a reason to react.  The impact is huge to an individual but then also we have people that are looking after those people. So it's like a ripple if you think in a pond and those people need support as well.

So the impact of mental health issues is huge. When you have those people in the workplace, when they're facing either directly or indirectly the challenges, that can lead to impact in productivity, safety, costs, morale. We would like to address those and also creating the supportive environment so it can be a place of healing for individuals who may be facing challenges.

Host:  Are there other potential challenges workplaces are facing as they address mental health in their workplace?

Emma: Well, as you would with any initiative or project that you're putting in place, there's going to be challenges. That's why it's important to always do a thorough assessment before you dive in.  The usual ones are time and resources, financial concerns, are there any other competing priorities that are happening in the workplace. So it's important to not act in isolation. It's important to engage other stakeholders to make sure that it can be given the attention that it needs.  Because with mental health unlike introducing an ergonomic initiative or a new guard on a machine, there's a new layer with mental health and psychological risk factors because of the associated stigma with mental illness and disclosing and talking about mental illness in the workplace.

To overcome some of those challenges, that's why it's important to treat the psychological hazards as equitably and to put controls in place and prevention measures in place. So putting policies in place education training and the promotion of respectful work culture and teamwork is a good way to create a supportive work environment.

It's starting from the top and creating a culture that is mentally healthy and looking at work through a psychological lens. So we're not just looking at how things impact the production or the quality of our situation, but also what is the impact to the people.

Host:  Creating a culture that is mentally healthy. Is it really possible to have this type of supportive work environment? If it is, what does it look like?

Emma:   You sound a bit cynical Chris; I'm not going to lie. But yes, I do think that is possible.  All workplaces have that potential to be a place of support.  But it's a matter of changing the dialogue in the workplace, creating this area where it's safe to talk openly and supportive.  We want to have a place where people feel not just physically safe to go into work but also psychologically safe.

By creating this environment where people feel supported and that means, let's say you've had a bad day, bad night, you're struggling with some things at homed.  You know that you can come into work and you can say to your manager or your co-worker even “I'm facing a challenge right now. I need help with my workload. I need help prioritizing”.  And then knowing that you're not going to be marginalized or penalized for having that courageous conversation. 

And the other way that it can be supportive is by managers knowing their staff and knowing their workers and noticing any changes in behavior and feeling comfortable and supported to go and talk to their worker and say “Are you okay?” I've noticed a change in your behavior. Is there anything I can do to help?”  And realizing that the worker may not talk openly with you the very first time but as you build this dialogue, as you build this trust and supportive workspace, people will come forward and share with you.

A couple of quick points I just want to say because we talk about stress and we often talk about stress in a negative light.  But stress can actually be a good thing. So when you have a high paced work environment where it's team oriented and goal-driven and you're all working together, that can actually be really good and you're stepping outside of your growth zone and you can actually learn a lot about yourself and you can grow and develop.  But it's one we’re forced into the sustaining a stressful situation or we're stuck in a continuously stressful situation that it becomes negative and it can cause negative health effects.

By addressing those psychological factors, those 13 factors I've mentioned, we can create this dynamic workplace that's a place of caring and support and then it's not even about mental health anymore. It's about positive leadership and organizational culture.

Host: What do you recommend for incorporating mental health into a workplace or an already existing health and safety program?

Emma:  Likely you have a traditional health and safety program, one that’s addressing biological concerns or noise or ergonomics.  To integrate mental health into your workplace is to look at what you're currently doing. Engage your health and safety committee and looking at your hazard assessment process.   And then you're adapting it and you're creating more of a comprehensive health and safety program.  This type of program is going to address the psychological safety, the physical safety. It’s also going to do a little bit of well-being and personal health resources, and also look at community involvement.

This type of health and safety program is very integrated and you have multiple avenues of influence to address mental health. Because we're going to take the same approach as of traditional health and safety, we're looking along the same lines of using the same methodology, so you are going to recognize the risk and recognize the need to take action and to do something.  You're going to assess, so taking inventory of what you already have in place.  Doing a gaps analysis and engaging the stakeholders at all levels to be involved in that - the union, workers, the health and safety committee, your health and safety professionals, management. If you need to, you probably are checking in with your external contact, your data from your employee assistance program, and that's a good assessment spot.

Throughout all of this you need to be communicating, letting people know why you're doing it and what you're planning on doing with the findings after you ask people.  You can survey and ask people what their feedback is on the psychological hazards in the workplace. And then of course once you've gathered all of this data, you've got to do something with it. And this is when we need to start developing our action plan and starting to put controls in place.  Again similar to a traditional program where you would put an engineering control in place of a guard or enclosing the machine, you're going to put an engineering control in place by addressing the whole organization to create a healthy work environment.

And then of course just like any other program and initiative, you're going to monitor and evaluate your results over time.

Host:  Any other thoughts are messages that you can share?

Emma:  It's important to take stock of what you already have. You probably have a lot of these factors addressed in different ways and celebrate that, that's important.

As I said, I encourage you to go to our website ccohs.ca and look up The 13 Factors. You'll get an idea and flavor of what they're all about. Looking at your current hazard assessment program and the opportunities to look at the psychological hazards.  The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety is a really good framework, a good tool to address the factors in the workplace., it gives a bit of structure.  But you don't need to adopt the standard in order to address mental health in the workplace.

And then also, finally it's important to engage and remember that we're all in this together - the health and safety committee, the workers and the managers, we all have a role to play and it's important to engage everybody, so we all feel that we're moving towards the safe, supportive, culture of caring and a workplace where we can all feel safe and happy to go to every day.

Host:  Thank you again for joining us today Emma. You've shared a lot of ideas, suggestions and insights on supporting workplace mental and psychological Health. As Emma has mentioned there's more information and resources on this topic online, visit www.ccohs.ca. Thank you for listening everyone.