Why you need a mental health leader – The Globe and Mail

This is part of a series examining the mental health experience in Canada’s workplaces.Take part in ourshort survey (tgam.ca/mentalhealthsurvey) and add your voice to this important conversation.This article provides employers insights to help them better support employees with mental health issues.This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell’s Employee Recommended Workplace Award, which honours companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first.Winners for 2017 will be announced at a HR summit on June 21 in Toronto. Register for the 2018 Award atwww.employeerecommended.com.

While everyone has a role to play in building a psychologically healthy workplace culture, the role of senior leadership within an organization cannot be overstated.

Ultimately, the sustainability, efficiency, risk management and productivity of an organization rest with senior leaders. Investing in the promotion of mental wellness and the prevention of mental illness has been shown to contribute to effective cost management of absenteeism, grievances, disability, re-training and turnover. Not to mention improved productivity, retention, recruitment and engagement.

This article examines how senior leaders can best leverage their influence to create a thriving, psychologically healthy workplace culture, using best practices gleaned from organizations implementing the National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.


The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) recently released findings of its three-year case study project, which followed 40 Canadian organizations as they implemented the Standard.

Given that management and leadership support is among the 13 psychosocial factors that can positively influence employee mental health, it isn’t surprising that the MHCC case study found engaged and effective leadership to be among the most important best practices among organizations implementing the Standard.

Awareness for senior leaders starts with becoming educated on the difference between mental health and mental illness, and understanding why focusing on the promotion of mental health and the prevention of mental illness is good business practice. By doing so, they will be more committed and engaged in leading the mental health conversation.


The first element of adopting the Standard requires the creation of a Psychological Health and Safety Management System (PHSMS) with five key elements: commitment; leadership and participation; planning; implementation, evaluation and corrective action; and management review. Given that resources must be allocated to the PHSMS, leadership buy-in is crucial from the outset. Similarly, leaders must commit to following progress and results. For example, a CEO regularly asking questions can help ensure senior leaders and middle managers are giving mental health the attention required.

The case study found that just as leadership support is essential to success, its absence is a hindrance. Further, it is equally difficult to secure the allocation of resources when senior leaders are distracted or ambivalent.

Effective leadership requires more than incidental and overt endorsement. Engagement, monitoring and accountability are hallmarks of the leaders of those organizations making the greatest strides.


As a dearth of leadership support was identified as a barrier to implementation of the Standard, there are key actions senior leaders can take to make workplace mental health a priority.

1. Be a champion, or delegate one. Whether it’s a member of the senior executive, or an individual empowered to act on their behalf, organizations making the most progress have a champion who participates in meetings, events and training programs. This person is then able to inform and influence senior leaders.

2. Communicate. Employees must understand that mental health and wellness is tied to the overarching purpose, goals, visions and values of the organization. This message is most effective when communicated by a senior leader.

3.Allocate resources. To be effectively implemented, the Standard requires an investment of time and resources. Senior leaders are in the best position to create a dedicated position, specify a budget and establish a standing committee responsible for mental health and wellness. Time and funds must be set aside, and senior leaders have a key role to play in monitoring implementation workload, progress and concerns.

4. Be a transformational leader. Transformational leadership provides a new vision and has a positive impact in specific ways:

a. A transformational leader is seen as a role model who doesn’t just “talk the talk,” but lives by it as well. An example given by one organization is a CEO who blogged about his personal experiences with mental illness, opening the door for conversations across the organization.

b. Transformational leadership challenges others to generate ideas. This was born out in one case study organization, where every employee was invited to a daily or weekly huddle, often attended by senior leadership. The result is an enriched understanding by senior leaders about employees’ daily demands, and helps to shape the allocation of resources and set priority areas.

c. A transformational leader has the ability to inspire others. In some cases it’s as simple as employees feeling empowered because they know mental health is a priority of the CEO, and they therefore feel “protected” or “validated.”

d. Genuine concern for the needs of employees is a hallmark of transformational leadership. One case study organization had a CEO with an open door policy, so people felt empowered to raise issues and were comfortable in the knowledge that their concerns wouldn’t just be heard, but also acted upon.

e. The degree to which employees trust their senior leaders will ultimately determine what they will believe. Some employees are naturally skeptical, and will require senior leaders to consistently and frequently communicate their commitment to mental health in both words, and deeds.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto and creator of an online Pathway to Coping course offered through the University of New Brunswick.

Louise Bradley is CEO and President of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Add your voice and take part in ourshort mental health survey: (tgam.ca/mentalhealthsurvey)

Learn who thefinalists are for the 2017 Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

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