We’re in a new era for mental health at work. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and negatively impacted the mental health of people around the world, including an increasing number of Canadians. The prevalence of these challenges has led to more open conversations about mental health, including at work. 

A significant shift is underway, as workers seek greater focus on health and well-being and employers take a more active role in supporting employee mental health. Leaders are adopting a comprehensive approach, where mental health is viewed as a collective responsibility and an organizational priority. New workplace strategies for mental health are arising. 

Read on for a closer look at how workplaces play an essential role in mental health, then learn how your organization can create an effective corporate mental health program that truly makes a difference.   

Why employee mental health matters 

Given how much time we spend at work, workplaces play an essential role in maintaining positive mental health. “Work can be a protective factor for mental health, but it can also contribute to worsening mental health,” states the World Health Organization. Work can put people’s mental wellness at risk in many ways, from discrimination and exclusion to excessive workloads and burnout, long hours and job insecurity. 

Work is a regular source of mental health distress for one in three workers, or about 6.5 million working Canadians, a 2022 survey shows. The leading predictors of poorer mental health at work, according to the survey, are workplaces that are inflexible and not supportive, work that doesn’t provide much meaning or fulfillment and jobs that leave workers no further ahead financially and anxious. 

Poor mental health can cause significant problems and costs for both workers and workplaces. Every year, one in five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness. This costs the Canadian economy more than $51 billion each year, the Mental Health Commission of Canada says, with employers losing more than $6 billion in lost productivity from absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover.

Canada has national standards for psychological health and safety in the workplace, which aim to address the legal, social and economic costs of mental illness in Canadian workplaces. These voluntary guidelines, tools and resources, introduced in 2013, were the first of their kind in the world. 

Corporate mental health programs bring big benefits

When workplaces prioritize mental health, their efforts pay off. Deloitte Canada's research shows a clear business case for investing in mental health programs: companies with programs in place for one year had a median annual ROI of $1.62 for every dollar invested, and the ROI rose to $2.18 for programs in place for three or more years.  

Comprehensive workplace mental health strategies also reduce employee turnover and help businesses attract talent, research shows. In fact, a recent national survey found that employee mental well-being is now a top priority for job seekers. The share of employers offering mental health benefits is growing across all industries, according to Indeed & Glassdoor’s Hiring and Workplace Trends report.

Four strategies to strengthen your program

Go beyond basic benefits

Two-thirds of adult workers in Canada have access to extended health benefits (EHBs) through their employer that offers varying degrees of mental health care coverage. But research by the Mental Health Commission of Canada shows EHBs are underused, with employees facing barriers — such as stigma and affordability — to accessing benefits. Some people may simply not know what help is accessible to them through work.

Take a closer look at the health and well-being support available to employees, revamp your offerings if needed and communicate to employees what support exists. (The median coverage for psychological care by employers is $1,000 per year, for example, but on average, a successful course of treatment costs $3,500 to $4,000.) Be creative and explore a range of ways your company could support mental wellness, such as a pet-friendly policy in the workplace or paid-time-off programs designed specifically to help prevent burnout. 

Create new norms  

Leaders have an important role to play in reducing mental health stigma in the workplace. Through education, such as workplace mental health training, you can learn how to have more open conversations on mental health and create a more caring workplace culture. Try including mental health in everyday conversations, normalizing it throughout your workforce and supporting people to share their experiences, as that can help break stigma and prevent negative attitudes, recommends the Mental Health Commission of Canada

Embed diversity and inclusion

Consider diversity and inclusion in every facet of a mental health strategy. “The workplace can be a particularly potent source of stress and poor mental health for visible minorities, people in the LGBTQ+ community and others who face discrimination and marginalization in daily life,” states a policy framework from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada's largest mental health teaching hospital. 

From offering access to cultural sensitivity training to ensuring the mental health supports available are accessible and inclusive, there are many ways to embed diversity and inclusion and help all employees feel they can be their authentic selves at work.

Consider how people work  

When it comes to where they work, employees prefer a hybrid model that offers both in-person and remote work. Two new Canadian studies lend support to this arrangement, specifically for its ability to help prevent burnout and improve mental health. That’s because loneliness and lack of social support are leading contributors to burnout, and working only from home can be isolating. Similarly, some companies are adopting a four-day work week, specifically to try and support employees’ mental health. 

No one-size-fits-all solution

Effective workplace strategies for mental health are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Align your plan with your organization’s values, and be sure to track your plan’s progress. While every organization’s strategies will look different, the end goal is the same: to build towards the long-term, continual improvement of workplace mental health. Such mentally healthy workplaces benefit both employees and employers immensely.