How HR Can Advance a Mental Health & Psychological Safety Agenda

How HR Can Advance a Mental Health & Psychological Safety Agenda

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Is Your Organization Prepared for a Potential Mental Health Pandemic?

Here’s How HR Can Advance a Psychological Health and Safety Agenda

This single statistic gleaned from Mental Health America’s Mind the Workplace 2019 report ought to make HR professionals shudder:

54% of people indicate they’re not comfortable reporting dishonest or unfair practices to human resources or management.

Say what?  Give that line a reread. Let the number sink in.


All the hard work we’ve been putting into stepping up transparency and opening up communication in the name of employee engagement and a better employee experience is failing more than half of our workforce. Half.

Fear of reprisal is undoing all those efforts. Seriously.

Of the 9,800 plus people who participated in MHA’s survey, 60% reported it was safer to remain silent about things that need improvement, and 69% reported it was safer to remain silent about their workplace stress. And we all know (or should) that remaining silent about workplace issues can perpetuate an unhealthy climate and culture that leads to an unsafe workplace.

Is it any wonder why psychological health and safety in the workplace needs to gain traction? Surely COVID has opened our eyes wider and made the subject clearer in a way that wasn’t quite as obvious pre-pandemic. And yes, surely, we have more than enough on our “To Do” lists these days without adding yet more. But the psychological well-being of the people we work with, report to, and support, deserves- or more precisely “must”– become a top priority if it isn’t already. And as most things employee-related, that priority falls to everyone in the workplace. It’s time for HR, leaders, managers and all employees to join forces in creating and supporting a psychologically healthy and safe environment.

The threat of a mental health pandemic

“Historically, increases in rates of severe mental illnesses have often followed in the aftermath of national crises,” writes leading U.S. psychiatrist Dr. James Lake. During the decade of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939, for example, “the suicide rate rose from 13.9 to 17.4 per 100,000. Traumatic memories of surviving years of hardship during the Great Depression resulted in high rates of anxiety and depressed mood for generations.”

Dr. Lake, calls for a national strategy to address escalating feelings of helplessness, anxiety and despair triggered by the unprecedented magnitude of change brought on by COVID – over which most people have no control. We’d do well to prepare an organization-wide strategy too.

We’re already seeing cases mounting fiercer than ever across the U.S. If this amplifies or morphs into a second wave Dr. Lake predicts feelings of instability and mental anguish will intensify. “In a world that is no longer predictable and safe due to high rates of unemployment…coupled with traumatic memories of surviving one’s own brush with Covid-19 or the death of a partner, parent, or loved one…. if left untreated, the psychiatric sequelae associated with the pandemic will have serious long-term social and financial consequences for all areas of human life, including personal relationships, family dynamics, academic performance, and work productivity.”

Work productivity indeed. A WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity.

The same WHO report underscores how unemployment is a well-recognized risk factor for mental health problems while returning to, or getting work is protective. However, while work is good for mental health, a negative working environment can lead to physical and mental health problems.

Research tells us that employees who experience high stress and low job satisfaction often perceive the workplace as unfair or unsupportive, and have increased rates of negative health and job performance consequences. Other factors that threaten mental health encompass:

  • poor communication and management practices
  • limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work
  • inflexible working hours
  • unclear tasks or organizational objectives
  • unsuitable tasks for a person’s competencies
  • high and unrelenting workloads
  • lack of team cohesion or social support

Recognizing these issues, and the fact that 1 out of every 5 workers, or more, will suffer some type of mental illness such as depression or anxiety, Canada became the first country in the world to have a national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace. The National Standards of Canada define a psychologically healthy and safe environment as “a workplace that promotes workers’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to worker psychological health, including in negligent, reckless or intentional ways.

What can HR practitioners do about mental health in the workplace?

Quite simply, organizations that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.

It starts with strategic processes, policies and interactions. It involves tackling the stigma associated with mental illness and distress via education and training to help leaders, managers and employees understand issues and what can be done to support those struggling. And in view of the mental health ramifications of COVID, it demands the same urgent priority that is now being assigned to matters of physical distancing and our organizations’ financial survival.

The World Economic Forum offers steps we can take.  One of the most salient is not reinventing the wheel, but rather, being aware of what others have done.

Steps to create psychological safety in your organization

The National Standards of Canada provides excellent tools and free resources. Its comprehensive examination of psychological health and safety in the workplace covers myriad topics, among them:

  • Securing executive buy-in
  • Beginning workplace dialogue (raise awareness, focus on workplace practices and processes that are part of the everyday experience, facilitate team discussions)
  • Reviewing policies and processes (ask how each might impact psychological health and safety)
  • Developing guiding principles (that can be applied to all future decisions and discussions)
  • Assessing psychosocial factors in your workplace (such as organization culture, clear leadership & expectations, growth & development, recognition & reward, involvement & influence, work/life balance)
  • Setting goals (for example how to address concerns like bullying or harassment or violence or discrimination, which psychosocial factors to address first – areas of strength or concern or where management and employee perceptions differ, obtaining and acting on employee input)
  • Establishing baseline measures (things like turnover rates, numbers of complaints or grievances, disability/benefit and Employee and Family Assistance Program data; rates of absenteeism, rates of problematic substance use)
  • Determining a plan of action (aligned with organizational goals and objectives, specific to tasks and actions in support of targets)
  • Reviewing and strengthening existing initiatives (such as employee engagement, good management practices, staff social events, performance support)
  • Expanding your feedback loop (so that more workplace stakeholders are engaged in commenting on, participating in, and contributing to psychological health and safety)
  • Developing a process for tracking, communicating, and soliciting feedback around activities and results
  • Management review (a deep dive every two years)
  • Continual improvement (where education and training come to the fore, especially considering 4 in 5 managers believe it is part of their job to intervene with an employee who is showing signs of depression. Yet while 55% of managers report intervening, only 1 in 3 reports having had appropriate training to do so.)

World Mental Health Day is observed on 10 October every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health. Why not make it an embedded daily observance? If your organization prioritizes trust and openness and the wellbeing of everyone, you’re well on your way towards creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace for your people, come what may.