Five Good Ideas ®

Five Good Ideas on creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace

Published on 01/06/2022

As we’re entering year 3 of the pandemic, our workplaces, and how we work, have profoundly changed. These have been challenging times, in particular for our mental health. How we respond, as organizations and on a personal level, will have a big impact on how we come out of the pandemic. In this session, Katharine Coons, National Senior Manager, Workplace Mental Health at Canadian Mental Health Association, shares her five good ideas on how to create a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. Katharine talks about ways to implement the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the workplace, reduce stigma, implement policies, procedures and programs and how to approach workplace mental health training.

Five Good Ideas

  1. Reduce stigma

• Normalize the conversation
• Use appropriate language
• Hold space to check in

  1. Prioritize flexibility

• Involve your employees in decision-making
• Remain agile and flexible
• Get comfortable with the accommodation process

  1. Lean on the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

• Tools not rules
• Explore how it can work for your organization
• Bring in an expert

  1. Review policies and procedures

• Psychological health and safety policy
• Periodically review
• Share, update, and reshare

  1. Provide training, programs, and benefits

• Leadership training
• Evaluate EAP programs and benefits
• Consider additional programs (e.g., Not Myself Today)



Presentation transcript

Please note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Many of you are calling in from across Canada, and I noted in the RSVPs that we have people right across from Victoria to Halifax. And I think we even have some from outside Canada, so welcome to you as well.

But I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work, and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we’re meeting and connecting virtually today, I would encourage you to acknowledge the place that you occupy.

I acknowledge that I am, and Maytree is, on the traditional territory of many nations, including in the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, and the Haudenosaunee and Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13, with the Mississaugas of the Credit. This territory is also covered by The Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, which is an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Ojibway and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.

So, today’s session: as we’re entering year three of the pandemic, which no one imagined, our workplaces and how we work have profoundly changed. These have been challenging times, in particular for our mental health. How we respond as organizations and on a personal level will have a big impact on how we come out of this.

In today’s session, Katharine Coons will present her five good ideas on how to create a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. Katharine is the national workplace mental health specialist at CMHA National. She has over 10 years’ experience working in mental health and holds a master of science in occupational psychology, focusing her thesis on workplace wellbeing. She has worked in a variety of industries across Canada and the UK, and brings a diverse understanding of employee and organizational needs. For Katharine’s full bio, plus her ideas and resources, please download the handout in the chat.

It is now my pleasure to welcome Katharine. Welcome, Katharine.

Katharine Coons: Hi everybody. My name is Katharine. I’m the National Workplace Mental Health Specialist at CMHA National. And thanks so much for joining me today. It’s such a pleasure to spend some time with you and talk about my personal passion, which is workplace mental health and psychologically healthy and safe workplaces.

So like many who work in mental health, the reasons for pursuing this field and this career are inspired in part by my personal lived experience. Really from an early age, I understood the importance of taking care of your mental health and saw the impact that workplaces and organizations can have on an individual’s mental health and mental illness specifically.

Through my work at CMHA, I’m able to work with organizations and individuals to help support their mental health in the workplace, through various trainings, workshops, and through our program called Not Myself Today, which I’ll speak about later as well.

Really, the complex nature of mental health, mental health challenges, and mental illness leave many organizations wondering how to support their employees, and especially in this, hopefully, post-pandemic world. According to the World Health Organization, the economic burden of mental illness is $51 billion per year. And on any given week, at least 500,000 Canadians will be unable to work due to a mental illness. And we spend most of our waking lives at our job, so it makes sense that our mental health challenges are going to show up in our work. We can’t leave our mental health at 9:00 and pick it up at 5:00. It’s really carried through everything that we do, including our daily working lives.

Through the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in awareness around workplace mental health, and organizations are really looking to take a more strategic and intentional approach to supporting their employees inside the workplace. And again, of course mental health challenges in the workplace have always been there, but through the pandemic we’ve really seen it being pushed into the limelight, and it’s no longer considered a nice-to-have for organizations, but it’s really a need-to-have as we move forward in this new world.

There’s also been lots of talk around what the future of work looks like and how to support employee mental health and psychological health and safety as we navigate, again hopefully, this post-pandemic world. Personally, I believe that the future of work is flexible. It’s always changing, evolving, and growing, and it prioritizes employee mental health. There’s an undeniable shift happening across the world from an employee perspective. Employees, themselves, everywhere, are redefining what work means to them and redrawing their expectations of employers and of organizations. We know supporting mental health and providing flexible working options are no longer exceptional. They’re now really the imperative if an organization wants to remain competitive and support their employees.

And so, really all of that to say is that a workplace needs a mental health strategy, and a workplace mental health strategy isn’t ping pong tables. It’s not a snack bar. It really requires real and strategic considerations of policies and programs, of the benefits we offer to our employees, training options and opportunities, maybe flexible work arrangements and accommodations, all of which really underpin a psychologically healthy and safe work culture.

So there really are many different approaches to creating a workplace mental health strategy and creating psychologically healthy, and safe work environments will vary from organization to organization and based on the industry.

But today, I’m really going to highlight five different ideas that kind of serve as a good place for us to start thinking about how we can make that shift within our organization. So we’ll talk about reducing stigma, prioritizing flexibility, using existing standards and research that already exist and are out there, reviewing our policies and procedures, and then providing additional resources like training, programs, and benefits to our employees.

1. Reduce stigma

So I’ll first talk about reducing stigma. A real serious problem associated with mental health is the attitude or stigma attached to those who suffer from poor mental health or mental illness. The kind of, “Stop whining and suck it up” response may keep people from confronting their problem and getting help, making that exacerbating and get worse.

We know that two thirds of employees wouldn’t tell their manager or supervisor about a mental health challenge or a mental illness. And why is that? Well, really the thought that we may be looked at differently because of an illness is a barrier to accessing support to stay healthy. Sometimes people don’t feel safe sharing their struggles for fear of what other people will think or say. You might be fearful that you’ll face discrimination in the workplace, you might not be taken seriously, or might not be up for the same type of promotion or additional responsibility if you share your mental health challenges. And this kind of starts with that organizational culture and how we talk about mental health in the workplace.

Many well-established beliefs and attitudes towards people with mental illness are unfounded or just plain false. When individuals hear these misconceptions, they’re less likely to want to seek help, which can be damaging on a personal level to the employee, but can also cost the organization more money in the long run. We know that preventative and early treatment options tend to cost less than intensive treatment once the problem has worsened. So really start by normalizing the conversation and creating a space where people can feel they can bring their whole selves to work, is a great place to kind of start and think about how we can reduce stigma in the workplace.

When we talk about mental health more openly, people are more likely to feel more comfortable raising their challenges with their managers and increasing the likelihood they’re able to access care that they may need. Leaders and managers should be encouraged to engage in open and honest conversation with their employees in regular one-on-ones, when they ask staff how they’re doing, address concerns and look for ways that the organization can support them. Leaders and managers can show empathy by validating feelings and concerns. The more genuine and regular check-ins are the better. As employers, they can really help to understand and solve problems before they become major challenges, if we’re checking in regularly.

So especially in a virtual world, we need to be really intentional of taking the time to check in with how somebody’s really doing, making sure we are reserving that time in our meetings, blocking that off, including that as an agenda item to make sure we’re protecting the time to have our employees share what’s really going on in their lives, that are outside of our work, kind of daily stresses.

We also want to make sure we are using appropriate language. A really great way to reduce stigma is making sure that we are using inclusive and non-offensive language. The distinction between mental health and mental illness is a simple and kind of great place to start. So mental health is just like our physical health. We all have it to some degree, we need to maintain it and can often work to improve it, either on our own or with assistance. It’s also part of our greater understanding of health, which includes mental health, physical health, and social health. So when we talk about mental health from this holistic view, we’re really talking about our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, our social connections, and our understanding of the world around us. Our state of mental health depends on many factors, such as life situations, stresses, chemical or neurological challenges, and lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise.

And although mental health and mental illness are sometimes used interchangeably, the two terms are actually quite different. So while mental health refers to our psychological and emotional wellbeing, mental illnesses are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour, associated with significant distress and impaired functioning. There is no one single definitive cause for any mental illness and is often considered to be a combination of genetics and the environments in which we live, work, and grow up.

Mental illness is something that about 20 per cent of people in Canada will personally experience in any given year and about half of Canadians by age 40. This of course applies to people of all ages, education, income levels, and cultures. Although it is true that factors such as racism, poverty, homelessness, discrimination, and gender-based violence can make things worse, many people might not be used to talking about mental illness or mental health very openly. So the vocabulary of it may not come naturally, or there may be worry surrounding around what to say and what not to say.

Even if we do have all the right words, we are still going to mess up sometimes. So this is where it’s really important, in those moments, to practice apologizing and holding yourself accountable, reacting non-defensively when others correct you. Our language is always evolving. Maybe words that were acceptable five, ten years ago are no longer deemed appropriate. And the same as maybe things we are saying today that we accept as being appropriate, in five years we learn actually no longer are they inclusive.

So the point isn’t to be 100 per cent correct all the time. The point is to be committed to learning. And especially as leaders and managers, really correcting yourself and holding yourself accountable if you say something you didn’t mean to say. So we’ll talk about some examples and some small changes we can make when we talk about mental illness and mental health in the workplace.

So firstly, we want to use person-first language. So when we’re referring to somebody with a mental health concern, this means avoiding labels like bipolar or schizophrenic. Instead, we want to refer to the person first and their health condition. So instead of saying, “She is mentally ill,” you would say, “She has a mental illness,” or, “She is living with a mental illness.”

A common stereotype that you may hear is that people with mental illnesses are lazy, unproductive, or unmotivated. Of course, this is not the case. And it’s more helpful to reframe our thinking and understanding to highlight people’s efforts to remain productive. So, for example, it wouldn’t be fair for you to get upset with somebody for walking slowly, for having a broken leg, so it shouldn’t be appropriate to describe somebody with depression as lazy either. Again, more helpful to reframe thinking, to highlight their efforts, to remain productive and contributing. So that’s saying, “He can barely get his work done,” and changing that to, “He is still coming to work despite his poor health.”

We also want to make sure we are reserving words that describe mental illness for their intended use. So say how you really feel without using a mental illness to label it, unless of course you are talking about an illness specifically. So instead of saying, “I’m so depressed today,” really using a word to describe the actual emotion and say that you’re feeling unhappy or down. For example, another one, sometimes people will say, “Oh, I’m so OCD about my workspace. I’m so OCD about the notifications on my phone.” We really want to change the words to describe how they’re really feeling, instead of using an illness to label it. Of course, feeling like you like to feel decluttered and like a clean workspace is different than symptoms of OCD. So we really want to respect that and be inclusive in our language.

Ultimately, we want to avoid making assumptions, and give employees the space to share what they need. If an employee shares with you that they are struggling, thank them for sharing with you, ask them if there’s something that you can do to support them, and then offer to share the resources that you may have available to you internally. And then, making sure that we are checking back in, booking that time in our calendars, reserving that space, making sure that we’re clearly communicating, and what that check-in looks like, what the expectation is of our employees, and then protecting that time. It’s so, so important to make sure we are being respectful of our employees’ time and making sure we are still holding space for that as well.

2. Prioritize flexibility

My second good idea is to prioritize flexibility. So, really, productivity has come through a different lens through the pandemic. And productivity is really not defined by where and when we work, but rather how and why. We are seeing a huge transformation in how people like to work and what it means to work for them.

For many, remote work has dramatically improved their quality of life, allowing better work-life balance, more time for relationships and increased productivity. On the other hand, some people have missed in-person interaction and are really clamouring to kind of get back into the office or into the workspace. So the wants and needs of your workforce and of your employees will vary pretty much person-to-person. We need to remain flexible to those wants and needs and trust that our employees know what’s best for them. Organizations that give their employees autonomy in their work environment are prioritizing their employees’ mental health. Of course, remote work options are not available to every industry and job. So we’ll have to consider what is available to our specific organization and work within those parameters.

The workplace looks very different than it did two years ago, and it’s shifting before our very eyes. If we want to stay competitive and attract the top talent, we have to remain flexible and agile when it comes to employee mental health. A one-size-fits-all approach just isn’t going to work anymore, but there are some really great targeted solutions out there that will. And starting with employers empowering its employees, engaging them in this discussions and decision-making, really taking the time to consider our employees’ perspectives and their values and their wants and needs. Before we make any sort of decisions, before organizations even start to think about next steps for the future of their workforce, we really need to be making sure we are asking our staff what they are looking for, and even on an individual basis, within each team.

Then after that, organizations can consider creating a process that lets employees tell them what’s best for them. Whether or not we’re able to accommodate all of these requests, we know that when employers engage with employees in the decision-making process, it helps staff gain a professional and personal stake in the decision and in the organization. It’ll engage employees to feel like they have more autonomy over their work and really make sure we’re getting that balance right, and that they feel like they’re being heard and considered in that decision-making process.

3. Lean on the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

For my third good idea, I really recommend that organizations learn more about the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. So this is something that was developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and partner organizations back in 2013. It’s a document that really outlines a systematic approach to develop and sustain a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. The overall intent of the National Standard of Canada and Safety in the Workplace is to assist organizations in moving towards a higher position of care, and ultimately reaching the goal of carefulness and diligence and protecting worker psychological health and safety.

It focuses on mental illness prevention and mental health promotion. It follows a similar framework for physical health and safety. So folks who work in occupational health and safety will be familiar with the kind of format and processes that exist within the National Standard. It’s really urging people to consider psychological health and safety the same way we consider physical health and safety in the workplace. The standard is really created for everybody, whether or not they live with a mental illness. Today, it is something that is voluntary. It may evolve over time into a sort of regulatory document, but as of now, it is voluntary.

So through the past couple years of the pandemic and through our workplace mental health portfolio of work at CMHA National, we have seen a steady increase in interest and training around the national standard. Folks looking to kind of adopt it and kind of lean into it and lean on the standard for a guideline and a guiding kind of regulations around supporting employee mental health. It’s meant to be used as tools, not rules. So it doesn’t have to be incredibly prescriptive. You could use it to kind of reflect and guide and think about what this might look like in your organization.

So the National Standard really clearly outlines 13 psychosocial risk factors that play a role in creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. So the 13 factors are things like organizational culture, psychological and social support, clear leadership and expectations, civility and respect, psychological demands, growth and development, recognition and reward, involvement and influence, workload management, engagement, balance, psychological protection, and protection of physical safety. These can all be found online as well, and these might be things, as an organization, you might already be considering. But the national standard just gives a really great framework for you to kind of think about it in a systematic way, and be able to kind of map out what might be really going well and what might not be going well for your organization.

There are loads of free tools and surveys online to use to help organizations assess their workforce. I really encourage folks to read more about the National Standard and look into free tools, like Guarding Minds at Work, as a helpful tool to help map how your organization is doing from an employee and leadership perspective, directly onto those 13 factors. If you don’t have somebody in your organization who can dedicate time to that, consider bringing in an expert. There are also loads of folks out there who are experts in the national standard. We offer a training at CMHA National that does a deeper dive into how to apply the National Standard in your workplace. And there are of resources out there. So I encourage everyone to kind of think about looking into it, and reading a bit more about the National Standard is a good place to start, and providing a helpful framework to consider psychological health and safety in the workplace.

4. Review policies and procedures

Next, we want to consider our internal workplace policies and procedures. Policies and procedures form the backbone of an organization’s culture and provide a framework for employees to know how to behave and how not to behave. They really define how an organization values its employees and how colleagues interact with each other. Policies help us prevent harm and improve organizational excellence. Policies that are in place, up to date, and understood by all employees help reduce stress and uncertainty for both the manager and employee, should any sort of situation arise.

To start, organizations should have a policy outlining what psychological health and safety means to them, including the organization’s values and the culture it wishes to create. We also want to consider how all of our current policies are reflecting on psychological health and safety. So we’re viewing them through the lens, refining them through the lens of psychological health and safety. Meaning that the mental health impacts of each policy are examined. This might include conducting an audit of your current policies and procedures, being prepared to adapt them. If you’re looking for a place to start, you can look at considering policies like discrimination and inclusion, harassment and bullying, maybe bereavement, remote working, and paid time off.

So for example, I was reading recently, a lot of different companies have kind of taken different approach to paid time off and religious holidays. So for example, if your organization takes time off for religious holidays, ask yourself if those days can be flexible, so that folks can celebrate the days of their choice and the religious holiday of their choice. Just kind of a simple example of how we can consider more flexibility through those policies and procedures.

Again, policies and procedures and flexibility that come with it, that are allowed, will vary by industry and organization. But the secret here is to really prioritize inclusivity and integrate employee wellbeing into every policy and procedure. We also want to make sure that we are reviewing policies regularly, to make sure that the policy remains relevant and up to date. Make sure that we are communicating and over-communicating any changes to a policy or a new policy to employees. Posting the policies in a place where all employees will see it and have regular access to it, to make sure that our managers know about what is expected of them and carrying out that policy, and where necessary, provide training and education.

So often when we get onboarded to an organization, the first thing we do is kind of have to sign off on these 10 different types of policies. It’s your first week during your new job and you kind of check, check, check, you sign there, and that’s kind of it. Very rarely do we do a deeper dive into what those policies and expectations are. So as organizations, making sure we are reviewing them, we’re re-sharing them. Maybe quarterly, we go through each policy, and making sure everybody knows what’s expected of them, making any changes as we kind of review them and go through those policies and procedures as well.

5. Provide training, programs, and benefits

Finally, we want to consider additional programs, training, and benefits that we can offer to our employees. When it comes to workplace training, we sometimes need to call in the experts in order to become experts ourselves. After nearly two years of the pandemic life, employees are struggling with their mental health, and many managers and leaders are ill-equipped to have these types of conversations. So when it comes to supporting their employees’ mental health, they sometimes don’t know where to start. And that’s totally okay, there are ways we can improve that understanding and that knowledge.

So begin with training for our leaders and our managers, not just to support their employees, but also to support themselves. There’s a common saying that we have to put our own oxygen mask on before we put on somebody else’s, and that’s especially true for our managers and leaders. Making sure that they feel that they themselves are supported, know how to support themselves before they support somebody else.

Your leaders need training to understand the factors that impact their employees’ day-to-day, in order to identify unsafe or unhealthy workplace practices and make changes to prevent mental health problems from enriching. And when an employee needs help with their mental health, managers and leaders need to know how to triage and support them to get the care that they need. They need to know what to say and what not to say. We aren’t expecting our managers to also become clinicians or therapists. The role of the manager is to really create a safe space for that employee to share, and then connect them with the resources that are available to them. Whether that’s internally or externally, making sure managers and leaders really are familiar with any sort of benefits, or programs, or flexibility that’s available to them internally, and then feeling comfortable with that accommodation process if that situation may arise.

So there are many different types of workplace mental health programs out there. We do know that investing in proactive employee mental health programs can bring valuable returns and even see a positive return on investment. So at CMHA National, we have a program called Not Myself Today, as an example of a program that helps organizations build greater awareness about mental health, really reduce stigma, and build supportive work cultures. Organizations might also consider implementing a peer support program, connecting employees who are struggling with their colleagues, who have experienced similar challenges. By providing your employees with resources and programs to improve their mental health, you are supporting them to build their own internal resilience and their capacity to deal with stress, may it arise.

Lastly, we want to consider the benefits that are offered at our organization. So tons of organizations have increased or enhanced their psychological benefits and employee assistant programs through the pandemic. The unfortunate thing is that employee assistant programs are actually widely underused and may not be actually meeting the employees’ needs. Sometimes offerings were discussed in the onboarding process, never to be mentioned again, similar to policies and procedures. There may also be perceived stigma surrounding the use of these programs, which contributes to the lack of usage of the programs. You can turn your EAP program into the great resource it is meant to be by reevaluating the needs of your employees. Again, really involving them in that discussion and ask what they would like to find in their workplace, and what they would find the most useful and beneficial. Remind your teams frequently of what is currently available to them and encourage them to explore and use these services. Make sure our leaders and managers are experts in what’s available.

We also need to make sure that working schedules and workloads allow your employees time to access these resources. If our employees have unsustainable and unmanageable workloads, these EAP programs and other programs will go on being underused, despite our best efforts to modify them.

Employee health and psychological wellbeing need to be top priorities right now. Organizations should consider providing additional supports through extended benefits for mental health supports, as well as additional education or training. For employers that already have supports in place, staff can be reminded about what’s available to them when returning to the workplace or returning to the office. It’s also good practice for employers to keep a list of resources in the community that they can provide to our staff. So take a half an hour of a senior leadership meeting to kind of compile some additional resources in a shared document and share that with your teams, making sure you are aware of external resources, as well as internal resources.

The workplace looks very different than it did two years ago. It’s shifting before our very eyes. Again, if we want to stay competitive and attract the top talent, we’ll have to be flexible and agile. We can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach anymore. We need to take more targeted and individual solutions, providing flexibility as best we can. And it starts with understanding what’s really going on currently in our organization. You need to know where you are to understand where to go. How workplaces will look in the future depends on how well employers consider employee psychological health and safety.

The first step will always be engaging employees in the process, open lines of communication and increased transparency, and organizations should ensure employees feel included and heard. Whatever the future holds, it’s really simple. If employers don’t care about their workers, then workers won’t care about their work. It is a reciprocal relationship, and it’s something that is becoming more clear as the pandemic kind of continues on.

I do really feel that this is an exciting time for workplaces. It’s a great opportunity for us to kind of reconsider what work means to us and as our organizations, how we can offer different solutions and benefits to our employees. We can reimagine what the new normal looks like, and it can be creative. It can be flexible and it can be accommodating. And we’ll definitely see that continuing through organizations and I’m really excited to see what organizations will do in the future, and hopefully in this post-pandemic world.

But thanks everybody for listening to my five good ideas. I think we now have some time for some questions. I see Elizabeth is back.

Elizabeth McIsaac: I am back. And that was just terrific. Thank you, Katharine. You covered so much in terms of the workplace, how to think about it and what seemed like common sense good practices, but if not done well and not thoughtfully, it can create really detrimental effects on so many people. I want to just note in the chat, I think as you were talking, people were excitedly going after your resources. And so, I believe that Sarah has now fixed that. So for those who were struggling with the handout, that’s all fixed.

The Q&A box is now open. So I would ask you not to put your questions in the chat room, but please put them in the Q&A box, because that’s where I’m going to be looking.

And it’s interesting, the first question up is actually an evidence question. So have you seen an increase of distress tolerance in psychologically safe workplaces? So do we have research or evidence that demonstrates some of this?

Katharine Coons: Yeah, we do. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what those numbers look like, but we do. There is research around that and I think it’s becoming clear in the way that more and more organizations are reaching out for help, because it’s no longer avoidable. We can’t look away anymore. And we are seeing that as organizations look for those additional supports, they’re not just looking out of the goodness of their heart. I’d love that if that were the case. It is, of course, some people are motivated by it being the right thing to do, but others are motivated because they can’t do anything else. They need that additional support. So there is evidence for it there, for sure. I’m not sure those exact numbers, but definitely. And it’s something that I think through the pandemic, we won’t know exactly what the impact has been until a couple years out, but I think those kind of interesting different types of statistics are coming out for sure around that.

Elizabeth McIsaac: And we do know that there is a bottom line. There is a productivity… Again, it’s not the driver, but it is one of the measures that businesses will use. And as many of the people on the line are in the nonprofit sector and we’re [led] by sometimes very different motivations, there is still that sort of push around productivity because it’s just as important. So the pressure’s there.

Katharine Coons: Yeah. And I think people have different reasons for why we’re making this change. And I think that’s okay. I think not everybody has been impacted by mental health in the same way as everybody else. So I think that if we need to make the case around it being a business case, that’s okay too. And there is loads of research around that as well, specifically around employee retention, productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism. There are definitely some studies around the return on investment when you invest in your employee mental health. And sometimes, I do appreciate that there are other things to consider beyond it being the right thing to do. And if we want to make these programs be sustainable, then we do have to consider how we can make the costs work within an organization as well, but they are there for sure, just takes a bit more understanding and digging into that.

Elizabeth McIsaac: And this is less question, more commentary, but I noticed someone in the chat said, “Appreciate linking this to a good retention strategy.” I just heard earlier today that with all of the movement of people from jobs, from one organization to another, I heard somebody say in fact, “It’s retention and recruitment. It’s no longer recruitment and retention that’s so important. It’s holding onto the people that you have.” And so, the more that you can do to create that environment, where it’s not toxic, where it does feel psychologically healthy and that there’s wellbeing, that’s a key ingredient.

Katharine Coons: Yeah. Especially as more people have choice of where they want to work. In the virtual world, you could be working across the country. So there’s a lot more flexibility and there’s a lot more competition for getting the top talent. And employees are looking for that. So I think that’s something that comes with reputation and retention, and it’s a lot of money to kind of hire and bring somebody on board. So it’s more cost effective to keep somebody than it is to kind of bring somebody in new. So it’s definitely a main consideration for many as well.

Elizabeth McIsaac: I liked one of your phrases, when you were saying important to communicate and over-communicate. Is there anything such as you’ve done it too much? Because I just think it really is, people don’t hear it the first time. And you’re right, we’re inundated with so much information, not just when we join, but all the time. There’s so much information coming at us on work related stuff.

Katharine Coons: I think it’s really making sure we’re communicating in the right ways. It’s not just email blasts. It’s not just kind of quick things that are sent off. We’re actually taking the time to connect one-on-one or in small teams, to give people the space to ask questions, making sure they are understanding of what those expectations are. I think you can over-communicate if you’re just sending out emails constantly, because people aren’t going to read them. Everybody’s got many emails in their inbox, so it has to be intentional around our communication. We have to be thoughtful with that.

And if we are asking for employee feedback, we need to really strongly consider that, and make sure that there is some follow up. If we ask for employee feedback and then just say, “Great, but I’m not going to address anything, or I’m not going to talk about it,” then nobody’s going to give you that feedback the next time around. So if we’re asking for employee feedback and asking for their participation, we need to make sure we’re following up with our recommendations or the reasons for why we did make a decision and why we didn’t make a big decision, making sure that’s not just kind of left hanging. Bringing them into that whole process, and respecting their time that they’ve committed to kind of give that feedback and maybe respond to that survey.

Elizabeth McIsaac: So important. Just a very quick question, “Can we obtain a copy of the Not Myself Today documentation?”

Katharine Coons: Yeah, I can definitely share that. You can also quickly go to I believe, or just search Not Myself Today on Google, and it’ll give you all the information. If you’re interested for your organization, I believe there’s a contact form you can fill out and then one of our representatives will reach out. But I can also share some more information around Not Myself Today. But it’s a quick search, you just type it into Google as well, find more about it.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Terrific. This is an interesting question: “I’ve noticed that psychological safety seems to be a cornerstone of equity, diversity and inclusion strategies, because it increases the capacity for folks to show up with their full selves. Has psychological safety often been crossed over with EDI initiatives?”

Katharine Coons: I think definitely. I think sometimes it’s interesting where it lands in different organizations, and it depends on resources and it depends on infrastructure, and many different kind of factors will go into that. I think it deserves its own call out, to be honest. I think it’s of course related in the sense that it has impacts on those different initiatives and creating an inclusive workplace. I think we need to be thinking about it the same considerations and attention we give to occupational health and safety, and physical health and safety. We should be giving the same consideration to psychological health and safety.

Sometimes, I think we also overburden our DEI teams and other teams, our social committees and things like that, to also take on psych health and safety. It isn’t something we do off the side of our desk. It is something we need to be really intentional about. It’s not just kind of this quick initiative we do. It’s something that’s really strategic and requires time and effort. It definitely has a crossover. And I think those two teams definitely work quite closely together and have similar goals in their programs and initiatives. But it really depends on the organization on where it kind of sits, I’d say.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Yeah, great. Sort of related, but it’s different. “Are there sector-wide resources that nonprofits should know about for employees and/or leaders? Shared resources will help organizations that are working with limited funding, your nonprofit reality. And just a big thank you to you because this is so educational and insightful. But what are the resources and what can we do on a limited budget?”

Katharine Coons: So a lot of these resources are free. So the National Standard is a free document. I mentioned the Guarding Minds at Work survey, that’s also free. There’s free websites that have a lot of free education. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has a lot of really great information around psychological health and safety. A lot of the resources out there are free to begin with. That being said, you’ll have to have some internal capacity to kind of drive that initiative. But I would say, start by looking at those Guarding Minds at Work free resources. There’s a website called Workplace Strategies for Mental Health. They share a lot of really great free resources as well. I think it’s initially put on by Canada Life.

Honestly, I think if you took some time to kind of start that Google search and look for some resources, you’ll find that a lot of the stuff is free. Training and things like that does come more, of course, at a cost, but there are also free webinars and things you can join, to look out for, to make sure you’re kind of staying up to date with that as well. But there is a ton of free stuff out there, for sure.

Elizabeth McIsaac: This is an interesting question and I think it’s an important one: “Must we identify the medical diagnosis of our mental health conditions with the employer, with HR? Do we have to?”

Katharine Coons: No, you do not. And the employer does not have a right to know the actual diagnosis. And it’s a human right to not have to disclose that. There are certain requirements when you’re asking for accommodation, but you don’t have to actually disclose the diagnosis itself, more just disclosing what accommodation you would need and justify why you would need that with a doctor’s note and things like that. But you do not have to disclose the diagnosis itself. And I actually strongly advocate for leaders and managers, that ultimately the diagnosis isn’t really important to our managers and leaders. The important thing is to know, “Is our employee struggling? Yes or no? How can I support them?” It’s not really that critical for us to really know a specific diagnosis.

And ultimately, unless you’re an expert in mental illness and mental health challenges, you’re not going to be in a better position to serve them if you know what the title is or not. And that’s also to say that you can also still have mental health challenges without having diagnosis. I think we need to be more clear around that and have more education around the fact that in a workplace, you do not need to disclose your specific mental illness diagnosis itself.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Right. As all of us are experiencing the transition of workplaces and it’s hybrid and it’s sometimes at home and I think it creates a tremendous amount of anxiety. “What’s it going to be like? Is this permanent? Is it going to change again?” And the amount of change and lack of certainty over the last two years has been profound, because for most people, work was pretty much a very predictable set of circumstances. And now, it’s kind of a constant flux of, “I think we’re going to try this. We’re going to do that.” Are there guidelines? Is it better for us to come out hard and fast and say, “This is the way it’s going to be?” Or does that actually trigger more anxiety? Do you have some best practice advice on that front?

Katharine Coons: I think from an employer perspective, from an organization perspective, transparency is always going to be the best option. What your workplace will look like in the future will vary on your organization and will vary on the individuals who work at it. I think, again, it’s not taking a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s letting your employees know the information that you have when you have it. It’s okay that you don’t have all the answers. Nobody has all the answers. And even the answers that we think are right, right now, maybe in six months won’t have been the right answers. And that’s absolutely okay. The way that we can kind of ease some of that anxiety is over-communicate what’s going on, give employees as much time as you can to process any sort of change, and give them the space to ask any questions and raise any concerns.

So I think as early as we can, and as clear as we can, and with as much transparency as we can, we want to let our employees know what the future might look like, what changes might be coming. As much time as we can, we want to give them that time to adapt. So if you’re asking your employees to come back in-person, give them flexibility for a certain amount of time, so they can test out the waters for whatever makes sense for them. That they have time to raise any concerns or they have time to make any changes they need to make in their home and life. So I think as flexibility, transparency, and then as much time as we can, and really communicate that, and giving people the space to raise any concerns.

And sometimes, it’s not something major for them. It can be that they just want to be heard. They just want to share with you that this is a scary thing for them. And then, you can understand, “How could I make this easier for them?” If we think about the return to the physical workspace, some people are being fearful about using transit again, or having to find childcare, or somebody to come walk their dog and things like that. And those changes are really big changes for people who have been living in this pattern now for over two years. And so, we need to give people the space to come at it in their own terms and to give as much time as we can to prepare and ask questions.

And again, I think just transparency and I think sometimes involving them in that process as well. “It’s not just something we’re told to do, and then we have to do it. We’re part of the discussion. We were able to kind of early on express what we would like and what works best for us, and ask any questions around what’s available to us and what’s not available to us.”

Elizabeth McIsaac: Related to this: “Returning to the workplace in COVID amnesia times,” which I haven’t heard before. “So in COVID amnesia times, which means we pretend all is well, is extremely stressful for all the things that you’ve just said. Some workplaces are using a one-size-fits-all approach to bringing people back. Is there a way…” And this may not be your space, but how can employees challenge this or what is a good way of raising it as a challenge and trying to reshape it, from the employee point of view?

Katharine Coons: I think as the employee, really understanding what you are looking for, what you’re asking, and what you need, and some reasons behind that. You yourself before you go to that conversation, being really prepared around understanding what those needs are and what those requests are. I think first having a conversation with your manager, if you trust them, if you feel that you’ve got a safe relationship with them, bringing it up one-on-one, having that conversation, raising those concerns. I think it is a tough position to be in if you feel like your organization has taken a pretty hard stance on it, with a one-size-fits-all approach.

But I think it starts small, with raising your individual concerns. I think it’s expressing what works well for you, asking if there’s any sort of flexibility, asking about an accommodation process, things like that, to kind of get the ball rolling. You could say, “I just joined this webinar with Katharine Coons. She brought to my attention that a best practice for organizations is flexibility. Would you be interested in hearing it? I can share you the link.” Things like that, using articles you might have read to kind of introduce that topic. And then, explaining what makes sense for you and why you might need that.

Elizabeth McIsaac: So that’s employee to employer. This next question is really about employee to employee. “What resources would you suggest to encourage establishing psychological safety between or among employees in the workplace. While leadership can set a direction and encourage resources, on a day-to-day, if an employee doesn’t feel psychologically safe within their team environment, among their colleagues, this can also be a key challenge.” And that’s an important dynamic, I think, for us to consider.

Katharine Coons: Totally. Sometimes our colleagues know us better than our spouses. We spend so much time with them that they know some intimate details, and you spend so much time with them that if that relationship isn’t positive, it can have a really negative impact on your mental health. I would say that there isn’t necessarily resources to share. I would say addressing that head on, having those kind of meetings with those employees, understanding what’s not working well for them. Again, taking that time to really listen to them and understand if there is that friction, what’s causing that friction.

There are some resources on civility and respect, and maybe that’s what we want to think about our policies and procedures, about inclusivity and harassment and bullying in the workplace and things like that. Reviewing that as teams, making sure people know what’s expected of them. Maybe you might have a code of conduct of how we’d like our employees to engage with each other. Maybe as a team, you kind of come up with some different guidelines for team behaviour or communication, things like that.

But I think if you’re experiencing or you’re seeing some challenges within your teams and between employees, I think addressing that kind of head-on and maybe one-on-one first, is a good place to start to really understand what’s going on. Sometimes we make assumptions on what we think might be going on and we kind of interpret it ourselves, but really taking the time to understand and let people express, and then kind of triage it there after that.

Elizabeth McIsaac: So as a manager or an employer, one of the challenges of sudden remote work, when we all kind of went home and started to do this from home, and there was a lot of isolation felt by people. And so, I’m hearing from you, the proactive approaches are the good ones, where we sort of get in front and normalize the conversation, remove the stigma and all of that. If you have concerns about someone who’s not in front of you, who’s at home, is there such a thing as overreach from the point of view of the employer? At a certain point, if the person doesn’t want to come forward, do you just simply let it be?

Katharine Coons: Yes, that’s a great question, one I receive frequently around is, “What are those boundaries? Legally, what can I say? What can’t I say? I don’t want to overstep. I don’t want to make people feel like I’m making assumptions.” And that’s the thing, especially in a virtual world, you see me shoulders up and you see me for an hour a day, maybe. So we don’t really know. We don’t have the same sort of social cues as we would if we are in person.

So you’re right, the proactive approach is always great, is making sure we are checking in. We’re asking how people are doing. I think if you haven’t built that relationship and you kind of want to ask somebody how they’re doing, you could say, “On a scale of one to ten, how do you feel?” If somebody every day or every week says, “Oh, I’m a four, I’m a four, I’m a four,” you could say, “Oh, I’ve noticed that you’ve been not great on a scale of one to 10. Is there something going on?”

If you haven’t had that, you haven’t had time to kind of build that up. I think you can say, “Is everything okay?” You really want to focus on performance-related issues. Again, you don’t want to make any assumptions on somebody’s mood, on things like that. You want to focus on performance-related issues. So are they unable to meet deadlines? Maybe they’re showing up on Zoom with the camera off more frequently. Maybe there are different things that are kind of changes in their work environment. So we don’t want to make any assumptions and say, “Oh, you seemed sad,” or you seemed this, because we don’t know. We don’t really know. And we don’t have that much information. So focusing on performance-related issues as a way to kind of introduce that topic and just asking somebody how they’re doing, reminding them of resources that are available.

You’re right, if somebody says, “I’m okay, I don’t need those resources. I don’t need your help right now,” we have to respect that. We can’t make somebody use a resource. That’s not our place in general, but especially in a workplace. So all we can do as managers and leaders is let somebody know we are there, there are resources available, and that your door is always open, or your Zoom is always open if you need to have a conversation, because we don’t want to overstep and assume, and infringe on somebody’s human rights.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Absolutely. I’m just realizing there’s some questions in the chat that didn’t make it into my thing. So here’s one: “In addition to the resources, is there some kind of consulting support to implement the standard? It’s a complex task for organizations to implement, particularly those that lack the HR capacity.”

Katharine Coons: Totally. Yeah. So we run training out of CMHA National on the standard. We have two different types of training. One of them is more in-depth. So it’s for folks who come and learn about how to implement the standard, and then maybe go back to their organization and then actually implement it. That is a four half-day training. So it’s three hours every day for four days. We also have kind of the essentials course, which is a three hour course that we run, which is more of kind of an introduction to the standard, some kind of basic principles around it and a place to kind of get us started.

Definitely, if you’re looking to be connected with somebody who can actually do that work for you, feel free to reach out to me. I’m happy to kind of respond and I’ll put my email in the chat just now. Again, if you have any questions about that as well, but we do run training out of CMHA and we actually just went live today with opening some new courses. So I encourage you to either reach out to me or check out those trainings as well. Because there are people out there that can help with that process, for sure. The standard is also a lengthy document. It’s a big document. So it is helpful to have some guidance around that for sure.

Elizabeth McIsaac: And fairly technical, I imagine.

Katharine Coons: Yeah, it is.

Elizabeth McIsaac: So there’s a question on, it’s a bit of what you touched on with the bullying question, but, “Do you have advice on how to manage return-to-work with employees that are ganging up on managers in a unionized context?”

Katharine Coons: Ooh, that is a tricky one. I think you’re going to want to follow your policies and procedures. You probably will want to connect with HR and flag that. I think it’s hard to know what that actual situation is and what we mean by kind of “ganging up on your manager.” I think assessing what’s going on, I think connecting with your HR, and then connecting with somebody who can support you through that process. If you yourself are the manager and you feel like you are being ganged up on, talk to somebody who you feel safe within the organization, to understand and get some support. And then ultimately, find some policies and procedures around outlining what to do.

Katharine Coons: I think it’ll depend on what’s really happening and what the context is of that kind of disagreement or that kind of challenging behaviour. I think addressing it kind of one-on-one as well, as opposed to kind of a group format is always better, and kind of reasoning, because I think sometimes there might be some different motives for why somebody might be disagreeing or there might be something else going on with those employees. So kind of approaching it one-on-one is always kind of the best approach to start with.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Yeah, de-escalate.

Katharine Coons: De-escalate, yeah.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Okay, we’re at 1:57 there. There’s one last question in the Q&A and then we’re going to wrap up. And I think you’ve touched on some of this already, but maybe just another run at it: “What are the best practices for addressing performance issues that are caused by mental health challenges?”

Katharine Coons: I think again it’s, how do we know that those are caused by mental health challenges? I think we don’t want to make any assumptions that a performance issue necessarily is related to a mental health challenge because many folks live and have very productive lives while also struggling with their mental health. So I think we don’t really want to get into the space that we are assuming a performance issue is related to a mental health challenge. It may be. I think we want to treat them as performance issues and treat them the same way we would if we didn’t suspect a mental health challenge, is address what’s not serving them, what do they need, if they need additional support, if they need additional training, if their workload is too heavy, things like that. I think we really want to, again, don’t want to make any assumptions, don’t want to connect any dots that haven’t been cleared to us, because we don’t really know what’s going on. There could be many reasons for a performance-related issue. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s mental health. So treating them as performance-related issues to begin with.

Elizabeth McIsaac:Thank you. And thank you so much, there’s been all kinds of notes in the chat about how helpful this has been, and I’ve learned a ton. So I want to say thank you for the great advice and very practical, very doable advice that I think we can all take away, and begin to do things a little differently in our workplaces, which is the idea of Five Good Ideas.



Katharine Coons, M.Sc

National Senior Manager, Workplace Mental Health at Canadian Mental Health Association

Katharine is the National Senior Manager, Workplace Mental Health at Canadian Mental Health Association. She has over ten years experience working in mental health and holds a M.Sc. in Occupational Psychology focusing her thesis on Workplace Well-being. She has worked in a variety of industries across Canada and the U.K. and brings a diverse understanding of employee and organizational needs. Katharine is an expert columnist at Benefits Canada, has written for The Toronto Star and has been interviewed by the CBC, CPA Canada and Retail Insider. Katharine was also an expert judge of the 2021 Workplace Benefits Awards. She currently serves as the in-house expert and trainer for Not Myself Today and the workplace mental health program at CMHA National.