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What leaders need to know about mental health, human factors

Talent Canada, in partnership with Howatt HR, is conducting research on workplace psychological safety


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After 100 days and more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 in Canada, this pandemic is still alive — and its full impact on employees’ mental health is not yet fully understood.

What is evident is the degree of change and uncertainty on financial and job security, along with the challenge of physical distancing and resetting of social norms.

As a leader, how concerned are you about your workforce sustainability during COVID-19?

As you ponder this question, factor in the role mental health plays in predicting workforce sustainability.

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This is the first of a three-part series focused on exploring the link between employees’ perceived psychological health and safety and risk to mental health. The purpose is to explore the role of psychological safety as it relates to facilitating employees’ sustainability, which includes health, safety and productivity.


Exclusive: Take the survey on psychological vulnerability in the workplace

Please complete and share with colleagues the confidential survey Employees’ Perceived Psychological Health & Safety Risk Screen. Talent Canada and Howatt HR are conducting a study to explore how well the Psychological Vulnerability in the Workplace model (outlined below) is working. We’ll be putting our results in a report and sharing it live during Talent Canada’s Workplace Mental Health Virtual Summit on Sept. 15, 2020. Stay tuned to Talent Canada for more information about this must-attend event for leaders, HR professionals and front-line managers.


Some leaders don’t understand how to identify hazards that pose a risk to employees’ mental health. Where others leaders may not act because fears of privacy concerns or unsure how to manage the risks when supporting an employee who may have a mental health concern.

Most leaders know to identify , assess, and control a physical hazard that could lead to an employee getting seriously hurt or ill, causing costly workers’ compensation claims, lost time and productivity. But few have the same context for mental health hazards.

What’s missing for many leaders is knowing how to reduce the risk of mental harm and to actively promote positive mental health.

Unlike physical health and safety that typically has a clear “owner” of data, metrics, and systems, psychological health and safety is often fractured in terms of ownership and suffers organizationally with an absence of an integrated strategy.

Employee and Family Assistance Plans (EFAP), Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), Respect in the Workplace, and Short and Long Term Disability mental health data is usually owned by HR, enterprise risk management requirements for mental health by legal or chief compliance officer, and compliance requirements by OHS and operations.

Like physical health, early warning signs often can predict vulnerability and risk to mental health and injury. The greater employees’ perceived stress load, the greater their vulnerability for mental health concerns. Distraction may result in incidents, employees may be vulnerable to bullying or harassment, and they may be unable to self-advocate because of their mental state. Also, there’s increased risk to productivity and attendance.

Psychological vulnerability in the workplace

The Psychological Vulnerability in the Workplace Model can be used by leaders to better understand the cause and effect of risk factors that can predict employees’ vulnerability for mental health concerns. How each employee perceives the combination of psychological health and safety, culture and resiliency can predict their psychological health and safety in the workplace.

This model suggests that employees who have high concerns in each of the psychological human factors are at greater risk for mental health concerns. Through awareness, accountability and action, employees and employers can identify and reduce such risk.

Tips for leaders

Three actions employers can take to promote psychological health and safety:

  • Adopt the CSA Psychological Health and Safety Standard. Train internal resources to facilitate a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. Start the dialogue with your employees about how to take stock of the existing structures to provide a mentally healthy and safe workplace, and where improvements are needed. Train up and use your existing health and safety structure.
  • Shape the culture to be psychologically safe. Reduce stigma, promote psychological health and safety as a core value like physical health and safety, support employees to build healthy social connections, and train leaders to be psychologically safe.
  • Promote mental fitness. Support employees to develop their resiliency and coping skills by providing training opportunities to develop a personalized mental fitness plan. Support employee resiliency by paying attention to the employee experience through acknowledgement, trust and inclusion.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR. For more information, visit https://www.howatthr.com. Troy Winters is the senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Ottawa. For more information, visit https://cupe.ca/ Craig Hrynchuk is the executive director at the Alberta Municipal Health and Safety Association (AMHSA) in Alberta. For more information, visit https://www.amhsa.net/