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Insights for leaders on mental fitness

June 3, 2020
By Bill Howatt

Photo: Getty Images

Over the past two months, COVID-19 has had a negative impact on mental health in Canada.

The numbers back it up — a Nanos Research poll, conducted on behalf of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), found many people have seen their stress levels double since the onset of the pandemic.

Several articles on mental health have mentioned the term “mental fitness” in a way that may lead to some confusion. So let’s get a frame of reference for what mental fitness is, what predicts it and what employees and employers can do to impact it.

What is mental fitness? Mental fitness is the activity of getting and keeping the brain and emotional health in shape. This is done through intentional daily habits, practices and experiences a person is exposed to that can have both positive and negative impact on their mental health. Much like physical fitness, there’s a cause-and-effect relationship of positive habits, practices and experiences on mental health.


What can predict a person’s mental fitness? Mental fitness is impacted by not just what a person does daily. More interdependencies must be considered, above and beyond genetics and lifestyle choices. Mental health is impacted by social and economic influences such as income and social status, employment, education and literacy, childhood experiences, physical environment, social support coping skills, healthy behaviours, access to health services, gender and culture.

Factors that influence mental fitness

Three factors that influence mental fitness:

  • Education: Begin with understanding the relationships between bad stress, mental health and mental illness. Then learning and practicing resiliency and coping skills that can positively support mental fitness.
  • Experiences: Resiliency is can be taught as a skill as well it can be developed through life experiences (such as dealing with adversity).
  • Environment: Family, work, financial health, community safety, physical environment and social connections can have a positive or negative impact on mental fitness. The key point for employers is mental fitness is a two-way accountability. Both employees and employer have a role.

Mental fitness is not something a person maintains in isolation. It’s shaped by daily actions, social supports and experience with environmental factors.

What does a mental fitness plan include?

  • Physical health: Exercise, diet, rest, sleep and healthy lifestyle choices.
  • Mental fitness activities: Daily practices that promote resiliency and coping skills focused on supporting positive mental health.
  • Social connections: Maintaining and growing meaningful relationships in the workplace, at home and in the community.
  • Environment: Being mindful of the impact financial health, employment status, career satisfaction, psychological safety in workplace and home, living conditions and access to support (for example, psychological services)

Since the above four factors collectively influence mental fitness, employees should pay attention to how well they’re doing in each. In my new book — Stop Hiding and Start Living — I highlight how critical it is for mental fitness to focus on: money, career, relationships, physical health and mental health. Mental fitness isn’t just about doing meditation and journaling. Though helpful, they alone aren’t enough.

What can employers do to support employees’ mental fitness?

Employers can provide access to programs and supports, make mental health a priority, and consider adapting or adopting the CSA Psychological Health and Safety Standard.

Leaders who understand that the employee- manager relationship is critical are more likely to ensure their managers are psychologically safe leaders. Employers can create conversations to break down stigma and influence a caring culture that will help employees thrive.

Mental fitness mitigates risk for mental health issues and supports a person with mental health issues to get healthy.

Organizations’ sustainability is dependent on retaining a healthy and engaged workforce. How employees cope and deal with stress determines their ability to show up for work in a mental state that’s beneficial for their experience and the employer’s expectations for results.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR. For more information, visit https://www.howatthr.com.

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