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Asking the tough questions about mental health supports

June 17, 2020
By Bill Howatt

It's OK for leaders to ask lots of questions about mental health — to ensure they’re getting a maximum return on investment and that their investments are helping employees. (andranik123/Adobe Stock)

Since the middle of March, there’s been a massive amount of disruption, unemployment, financial challenges, increased concerns around isolation and loneliness and uncertainty for what the future holds.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a threat. With all the changes and challenges added to Canadian employees, their mental health has been getting lots of attention, discussion and investment.

Mental health has become a bigger challenge in the past few months, and as long as COVID-19 is active, more stress and strain can be expected.

Though more organizations are investing in mental health, many are still not clear on the difference between mental health and mental illness. Mental health is how a person experiences the world, from flourishing to languishing, which influences their outlook and sense of well-being — for example, happiness.


Mental illness impacts one’s ability to function and interact with the world.

Clarity needed on investments

As leaders open their pocketbooks to invest in mental health supports, it’s prudent for them to be clear on why they’re investing, what they’re investing in and how impactful their investments have been.

Investing in mental health supports can have a positive impact. My recommendation for leaders is to ask lots of questions — not just to ensure they’re getting a maximum return on investment but also to determine whether what they’re investing in is helping employees.

Access to programs and utilization is not enough.

Stigma has been a barrier to getting support for preventing mental health concerns as well as support for employees dealing with mental health issues. One challenge for all organizations that want to help their employees is that an estimated two out of three who are struggling won’t ask for mental health support.

This suggests that providing programs alone isn’t going to be enough and that waiting until someone has a mental health issue may not be the most productive approach.

Prevention and early detection can play a critical role in reducing the risk of mental health concerns in the workplace.

Many potential questions

It is quite acceptable for leaders to ask questions like the below:

What is our mental health strategy for promoting a psychologically safe and healthy workplace? What are the short-term goals? What data was used to design this strategy? What is the business case for making this investment? What are the goals of our mental health strategy?

It’s important when reviewing a mental health strategy to be clear on its primary goals and the metrics that will be used to measure success. Don’t assume.

Listed below are examples of goals a mental health strategy might focus on:  

  • reduce employees’ risk of mental harm
  • promote employees’ mental health
  • facilitate early detection to reduce the risk of mental health concerns
  • give employees access to psychological supports to deal with mental health concerns
  • decrease costs (for example, disability and drug)
  • maximize employee productivity
  • provide benefits that assist in attracting and retaining talent.

Other questions can be:

What programs (resiliency, coping and mental fitness training and support) do we have in place that are designed for prevention? What percentage of employees are engaged in these programs? How are we evaluating these programs?

What programs (paramedical psychological services, online iCBT, employee and family assistance, crisis lines, local community mental health supports) do we have in place that are designed for early intervention and treatment? What percentage of employees are engaged in these programs? How are we evaluating these programs?

What is our current return on investing in mental health? Deloitte research found organizations with a mental health program in place for one year had a median annual ROI of $1.62 for every dollar invested.

Define your strategy

Senior leaders asking tough questions can help ensure that not just flavour of the month or random acts of wellness are being done.

Impacting mental health requires a clearly-defined strategy, game plan and internal champions trained in facilitating a psychologically safe and healthy workplace. As well, opportunities for independent evaluations of the impact of all mental health programs are needed.

Leaders will know if their mental health strategy is working by auditing the strategy and getting key metrics such as program participation, program adherence and productivity.

Measuring the return on investment for all programs supporting mental health can help obtain the data needed to evaluate what’s working, what needs to be tweaked, what may need to be added, and what may not make sense to be investing in.

Most leaders will continue to invest when they see a return.

Leaders asking questions, wanting to see the data, and following through can increase the accountability and impact of a mental health strategy and programs.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR.

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