Friday 24 May 2013

"Making a Molehill out of a Mountain"

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 
~ Margaret Mead

When you think about a work environment that is healthy and safe, what first comes to mind? Do you think about the first aid kit in the office lunch room? Maybe it's the annual fire drill. What about those steel-toed boots that are required for construction workers? You would be correct - these are examples of things that are covered under occupational health and safety legislation.

Did you know that Canada has recently introduced a similar voluntary standard for psychologically healthy workplaces?

I know what you are probably thinking: Wow. Um, that sounds like kind of a big thing. A lot of responsibility on Canadian employers. Hmm. What does this mean and how the heck are we going to even approach this? And what is a psychologically healthy work environment anyway?!

I am certain that workplaces across this country are asking the same thing. You (and they) may be thinking that this is just another touchy-feely human resources initiative. Well, it's not that at all. In fact, many human resources professionals aren't even quite sure about this yet either.

The concept of a psychologically healthy work environment is a relatively new one. Work environments have evolved and changed over the years. Remember when it was just the "Dad" who worked? He worked at the same company for his entire career and knew not to question his boss. Show up, do your job, keep your personal life private, and go home at the end of the day. Work environments today are more diverse and have added responsibilities and stressors - do more with less is a familiar mantra for many of us.

We now understand what motivates and engages employees to do their best work. We know what rewards employees value, what can attract a person to a job and what can keep them in that job. But   how often do we as employers actually follow what we know to be true? How often do managers forget these things when deadlines need to be met or there are sales targets to be achieved? They feel the pressure, too. We are just starting to understand the impact of stress and mismanagement on employees and how that translates to the Canadian economy and our communities.

Traditionally, workplaces have invested lots of time and money in so-called wellness initiatives. Maybe a few lunch time yoga classes or a place to store your bike so you can ride to and from work. If  an employer has an EFAP (employee and family assistance program) then they are all good, right? When an employee needs help with "personal issues", Mr or Ms Manager can refer them to the EFAP for help and then wash their hands of the whole matter. Done! All looked after. Now back to work.

That's not good enough. And the $51billion impact to the Canadian economy tells us this. Actually, it's screaming this message. Are we listening?

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
~ Wayne Dwyer

Maybe it's time to change how we view mental health issues in the workplace. Maybe we should try a new approach. No, not maybe. It's time.

Many employers look at the topic of mental illness as intimidating, treacherous, and complicated. They build it up into this big thing that becomes so overwhelming that they choose to avoid it. I don't think it's insurmountable. In fact, I know it's not. Instead of focusing on the possible cost of workplace accommodation and disability leaves for people with mental illness, let's start looking at prevention. And that's what the voluntary standard on psychologically healthy workplaces is all about.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 
~ Nelson Mandela 

If we focus on creating respectful, trusting, mentally healthy workplaces then we will reduce and eliminate many stress induced mental illnesses. How do we do this? Through education and strong leadership.

Leadership: Our leaders (the CEOs, directors, business owners) need to be clear about the importance of this and say that this is a non-negotiable part of the workplace, just like occupational health and safety standards. Then they need to hold their management team accountable.

Skills Building: Our managers need to be given the skills to lead people. Too many managers are promoted into their leadership roles because they were really good at their last job. Just because you were fabulous at making widgets doesn't mean that you have the skills and abilities to now lead a team of people making widgets. It's a whole new skill set. So let's set these people up for success and give them the training that they require.

Education & Discussion: Without a trusting environment there will be no discussion. If an employee knows that he or she will be ridiculed or discriminated against, there is no way that they will divulge that they have a mental illness. Zero chance. It's the employer's accountability to educate managers and employees about mental health issues: how to recognize them in yourself and in your colleagues and how to support someone with mental illness.

Programs: I would wager that almost every organization with an HR department has a policy or process in place to handle disability leaves, return to work plans, and accommodation requests. How many have robust preventative programs in place so that those other policies aren't as necessary? Significantly fewer, I am certain. Invest in prevention to mitigate the risk of bigger problems down the road.

Yes, this topic is a big deal. It's a big deal and a big problem because we let it get this way, slowly but surely. As I said earlier, the mountain is not insurmountable. In fact, I think we can reduce that mountain to a molehill.

KB xo

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