Improve the psychological health of your workplace: It's the right thing to do

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Want to learn more about how to promote good mental health at your workplace? We partnered with the author, Julia Kaisla from the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division, for a free webinar  - watch the full recording here.

Since moving into the nonprofit sector three years ago, I have often seen a common approach to hiring new staff. First, find the right hire - someone who cares, lives the values, strives for justice and has a well defined sense of empathy. Then, provide them with enough training and direction to do no harm, encourage them to work hard and put their heart into it. And finally, step back and watch the magic happen.

In many cases, there is indeed magic – for the first bit. The new hire works hard. They care a lot. They care about the people they are helping and they care about the people they work with. Often they care so much and are so committed to the people or the cause they are supporting, it takes priority, while their health and safety needs come second.

Let me be clear - this happens in many of today’s workplaces. People work all day long and they work hard. They stay late, volunteer for weekend meetings or events, answer emails after hours and when they get home they are faced with other responsibilities. Burnout, at least once in your career, becomes the norm, and if you get a mental health diagnosis as a result, then you’re just one of the 20% of the population who is destined for long-term maintenance of your illness.

This is not just a life-changing problem for the employee - it is also catastrophic to the organization. The problem with a work environment that doesn’t prioritize employee health is that it can’t sustain itself. Eventually the cost to continuously recruit and train new staff, or the risk of having an employee who is not well, creates a problem for the organization.

The time has come to turn the tide. Organizations that want to survive into the future, both for-profit and nonprofit, are starting to pay attention.

Protecting physical health and safety has been part of the ongoing workplace discussion for many years, and in most work environments, we do a good job of ensuring the air is clean, the bathrooms are near and there is an evacuation plan in place in case of an emergency. Where possible, we provide health benefits that provide drug coverage, massage therapy and vision care.

Where we haven’t paid as much attention is in the realm of psychological health and safety. But things are starting to change. In 2013, Canada released the world’s first National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety. The National Standard outlines 13 psycho-social factors that create psychological health and safety in the workplace. They are:

  1. Psychological support
  2. Organizational Culture
  3. Clear Leadership and Expectations
  4. Civility and Respect
  5. Psychological Job Fit
  6. Growth and Development
  7. Recognition and Reward
  8. Involvement and Influence
  9. Workload Management
  10. Engagement
  11. Balance
  12. Psychological Protection
  13. Protection of Physical Safety

One area where this conversation on psychological safety has been a little slower to take off is in the nonprofit sector. There are many potential explanations but capacity and resources certainly are factors. And perhaps there’s even a little bit of denial, stemming from the fact that the nonprofit sector is perceived to offer work full of purpose and meaning. While an advantage recruiting talent, maybe this perception creates a bit of overconfidence about employee wellbeing within organizations.

But when you place enthusiastic, committed, empathetic people in a field that can be chaotic, underfunded, undersupported and sometimes lacking in human resource capacity, you also expose them and your organization to significant risk.

The time has come for organizations to prioritize psychological health and safety. This will take good governance and education. It will take boards asking for reports on employee health and leaders asking their employees difficult questions and listening to the answers. It will take some courage and backbone. It will take some dedicated resources and some self reflection.

The good news is that there are many tools available to help organizations that are free or low cost.

On November 26, the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division will host a free webinar with CharityVillage about how organizations can assess risks and make improvements in a cost-efficient way. Register here for this free webinar - even if you can't attend the live event, we'll email everyone who registers with the full recording.

If you aren't already having a conversation about mental health within your organization, it's time to get one started. Being proactive now by promoting psychological health and safety in your workplace will result in many benefits to your organization and your staff, volunteers and, ultimately, your clients and stakeholders.

Julia Kaisla is the Director of Community Engagement for the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division. While her more formal role with CMHA BC involves overseeing workplace initiatives, public relations and branch relations, she spends her days writing and working with people. She is passionate about making a difference and is committed to promotion of mental health in Canada. She is a trained Mental Health Works facilitator, and has a graduate degree in Conflict Analysis.

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