Mental health and well-being at work: top management support critical

By Hubert Roy | August 19 2013 06:14PM

To lower group insurance costs related to disability caused by employees’ mental health problems, support from top management is vital. Top management involvement is also critical to successful implementation of a health and wellness program. Without this support, it is very difficult to convince employees to get on board, said specialists at the Rassemblement pour la santé et le mieux-être, a gathering on health and wellness held in Montreal in May.

Solareh CEO Marie-Thérèse Dugré claims that 20% to 25% of all mental health problems originate at work. “If we can actively change things, all the better. However, it must be sustainable over time. It’s not because a company has held various activities for one year that things will improve.”

This is why it is important to convince business executives and even boards of directors to make reducing mental health problems a priority. This challenge should even be linked to the company’s performance objectives.

“It doesn’t just happen like that,” Dugré continues. “The human resources department has an important role to play in influencing management. We see that some executives don’t have healthy behavior. It’s a process of self-examination. People need to step back, beginning with top management.”

This problem is not limited to large companies; SMEs are also vulnerable. “Senior executives of small and midsize businesses should definitely get involved in putting this policy in place. Executives must be stakeholders, constantly. It also gives them a competitive advantage and positioning at the forefront,” she adds.

At her conference at the Rassemblement, Dugré gave the example of an unpredictable executive who would either listen closely to employees or suddenly explode in anger. “This created a climate of withdrawal at the company. Employees would no longer tell him what was going on. It instilled an atmosphere of terror. It was actually only one behaviour, but it affected the whole company. So this executive has to change if he wants his employees to change,” she says.

Indicators to cut costs

How can you change things to reduce group insurance costs related to mental health problems at work? The first step is to identify some indicators. Gathering data is a must, Dugré says.

“Companies are doing some work in this area, but they don’t see the broader picture. So what are they calculating? What is the problem? This is why collecting data is important. Medication employees take may be an indicator. Psychotropic drugs often top the list because people with problems battle them by taking medication. It reflects how fragile the troops are,” she explains.

Absenteeism is another indicator. “Its cost has been rising steadily since the 1990s. It is also increasingly related to psychological problems. This incurs additional costs for the company. If a company has an employee assistance program (EAP), you can consult the data for it. You also have to look for rates and costs of disability, rates of accidents, incidents and injuries, and data on health risk assessment,” Dugré says.

She recommends surveying employees to find out where the dangers lie. “It’s not a complete method, but you can see their behaviors. You have to find out what employees are experiencing, which standardized tools cannot always help with.”

She gives the example of racism, still very present at some workplaces. “Some populations are still stigmatized. It has an impact on mental health because they feel rejected,” Dugré says.

Once these indicators are obtained, the company can set its objectives for action. “Mental health is something that we can control, like physical health. Before people contract an illness, they can try to prevent it. It is the individual’s responsibility but also the employer’s, which must put in place conditions to protect worker’s health,” she adds.

Forming an action committee that includes company champions is another way to reduce costs related to mental health problems. “It is important to equip our employees. We must give them tools to counter stress that their job creates. Not everyone is a natural problem solver. Many people become inhibited and lose their way. By working on the company’s efficiency at solving them, we can increase the employees’ satisfaction rate. Every day there are problems at companies. People often take it for granted that they will resolve themselves. They forget that they need to identify stress factors,” Dugré explains.

Employees must be given tools to let them identify their problems. “How can they manage aggressive customers who call customer service? If their stress level is an 8 or 9 out of 10, this means they are reaching their limit and they may experience psychological problems. We have to reinforce people’s resilience. People who see the glass as half empty tend to make mountains out of molehills,” she adds.

Creating a respectful workplace

For Dugré, one of the biggest pitfalls found in the workplace today is the lack of courtesy. She singles it out as the main front that businesses must attack to reduce mental health problems among their personnel. She laments the demise of courses in good manners.

“There has been a major downslide here. We’ve reached the point where we have advertising campaigns giving advice on how to be a courteous driver. We have to go back to basics when it comes to civility,” she says.

She gives the example of a manager she supervised recently. “This manager would arrive in the morning without greeting anyone, and lock himself in his office. This affected employee morale, and people asked him why he acted that way. The answer was quite simple: until he drank coffee, he wasn’t in a good mood. So we suggested that he drink a coffee outside the office and then come in. His behaviour changed completely. Meanwhile, his employees’ self-esteem had taken a hit. All that stress for nothing! You should not put up with this type of thing,” Dugré points out.

Another key aspect of prevention: make sure you put the right people in the right places. “It’s important to review job descriptions to prevent health problems. You also have to think about this during recruitment. People are hired for their professional skills but quite often they are fired because of their poor people skills. You have to consider this before hiring. Avoid toxic people. If there are some at the company, you have to work on it,” she adds.

Work-family balance can also come into play. “Today, employers must be very flexible. One-size-fits-all general standards no longer apply. Standards must be personalized. There are lots of creative solutions, from telecommuting to more flexible hours. Don’t forget that these are temporary problems, whether they involve young children or aging parents. You have to look at it from a time line perspective,” Dugré says.

Regarding secondary prevention, actions range from taking medical exams to completing online personality questionnaires.
Managers should also be trained in this area, she continues.

“We often take for granted that they have sufficient skills [to assess employees] just because the company has policies in this area. This type of reasoning is false. When management makes a decision, they have to see if it will impact employee health. If yes, they should try to see whether they can find an alternative solution. If they can’t, the employer must make sure to put in place measures to reduce the stress caused by this decision. Persistent action can rally everyone around establishing a healthy culture,” Dugré says.