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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Employers Who Are Walking the Walk

Donna Panitow

Reprinted from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (3), p. 29,30

Employers are just starting to recognize that mental health issues are a big problem in the workplace. They are also realizing the benefits of giving staff tools and resources that promote healthy work environments and work relationships.

Many employers in BC have begun to set examples of what it means to include mental health in their vision of a healthy workplace. These employers are coming up with innovative approaches and unique solutions to the issue of mental health in the workplace. And they’re starting to see results.

The Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division (CMHA) has worked with many of these organizations through our work with Mental Health Works and the Bottom Line Conference on Workplace Mental Illness. Following is a look at just a few employers we’ve worked with.

District of North Vancouver: From crises and financial burdens to solutions

Cindy Rogers is human resources manager for District of North Vancouver municipal operations, including the fire department. She admits there were a few telling signs that mental health issues had to be addressed in her workplace. A couple of years ago, she noticed that large amounts of the District’s extended health care costs were going toward medications to treat mental illness. Visits to Employee Assistance Program counsellors for therapy were increasing. On top of that, several District workers were affected by a tragic event (non-workplace). District service workers were called upon to attend this tragic event, in which family members of an employee died.

The employees directly affected by this event began having symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder Experiencing these symptoms also brought on feelings of ‘shame’ at having mental illness. They took two to three months sick leave from work, under medical care..

The human resources department (HR) saw that management didn’t have the skills to deal with the mental health concerns of their staff, especially the cases of major trauma. The managers needed to feel comfortable talking about mental health issues. To help them feel more comfortable, HR looked to CMHA’s Mental Health Works training workshops.*

The “Complex Issues. Clear Solutions.” workshop was offered to District managers. This workshop taught participants how to start conversations with employees who are struggling. Participants also learned how to avoid falling into a therapist role when talking to employees with mental health issues.

The following year, Mental Health Works’ Awareness of Workplace Mental Health workshop was offered to interested employees. Forty people turned out. This workshop aims to increase the comfort of employees when facing a co-worker who is ill. It also teaches employees how to effectively respond with support.

While still suffering from the grief of loss (which can last for years), the employees whose lives were shattered by the tragedy returned to work. Because of the mental health training done in the workplace, these employees were greeted with positive support from both management and co-workers.

Rogers notes that proper support and an environment where people aren’t afraid to reach out for help lessens the shame of mental illness. She adds, “We’re still learning. Identifying and responding to mental illness on an individual basis is still a challenge.”

Coast Capital Savings Credit Union: Do the math—mental health pays off

Lynn Roberts, vice-president of Human Resources at Coast Capital Savings Credit Union, believes that leadership is crucial to reducing workplace stigma around mental illness. In fact, Coast Capital CEO Lloyd Craig has been championing senior management’s support of mental health for over 10 years. He lost his son to a depression-related illness, so knows first-hand the toll mental health issues can take.

Even the most motivated leaders still have to face the issue of money. But, says Lynn, “Do the math. The cost of recruiting and training a new hire to replace an employee who falls victim to mental health challenges far exceeds the small cost of providing [health] resources per year.” For her company, this amounts to no more than $200 per employee annually. Resources include: staying in touch with employees who are on short- or long-term disability; ensuring employees get the help they need; disability management; and carefully crafted return-to-work plans. Counselling resources are brought in to work areas where stress, grief or anxiety levels are high.

Three keys to success

Coast Capital focuses on three areas of mental health promotion for its employees:

  • Raising awareness about the importance of mental health and taking a holistic approach by placing just as much importance on physical health. This is done through management training and employee education.

  • Encouraging early intervention by providing employees with access to help, such as Employee and Family Assistance Programs (EFAPs), counselling services and online assessment tools.

  • Creating a support system that follows up with employees and stays in touch with those on short- or long-term disability leave. Lynn suggests bringing counselling resources to departments where stress, grief or anxiety levels are particularly high.

These measures have produced a noticeable difference in the workplace in the short time they’ve been used. There have been more early interventions, and there is a higher awareness among staff of mental health issues.

BC Mental Health and Addiction Services: A strategy for wellness

BC Mental Health and Addiction Services (BCMHAS) is an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA). BCMHAS provides a variety of direct mental health services to people around BC and offers support and resources to other service providers.

BCMHAS has developed its own mental health and addictions strategy for its employees, based on best and promising practices. Its first goal is to make the culture within the workplace supportive, as well as mentally and physically healthy. This includes the relationships between staff and management. As a starting point, PHSA’s human resources department surveyed employee health. They used a questionnaire provided by Healthcare Benefit Trust, who partnered with PHSA to analyze the survey data. The survey included questions about chronic conditions such as depression and diabetes, as well as health factors such as sleep, diet, exercise, stress and anxiety, mood and productivity.

As a result of survey findings, BCMHAS now has an early prevention program, and relapse prevention strategies for its employees. It also has a project to improve the experience of people returning to work after a leave due to illness, including mental illness.

Information and education resources available to the workplace community include:

  • A customized health promotion intranet site that gives staff members tools for tackling their own mental health and addiction issues, as well as those of their loved ones

  • CMHA’s Responding with Respect mental illness first aid course for managers and directors (

  •™, a web-based self-assessment tool for early diagnosis1 (

  • Antidepressant Skills at Work, a self-care manual funded by BCMHAS ( and developed by the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction at Simon Fraser University (

Peter Coleridge, vice-president of Education & Population Health, stresses the importance of total-body health, including both mental and physical aspects. He cites this as a key part of their overall strategy.

Partnerships are also important. BCMHAS works with other organizations, exchanging ideas and tools around mental health issues in the workplace.

Advice to employers and managers

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Coleridge advises managers who want to introduce a mental health strategy in their organization, but may have limited resources. There are resources online (,,, plus the links noted above) and in the community that employers can use; some of them are free.

Coleridge also assures that investing in the improvement of an organization’s culture, when it comes to mental health, is not as daunting as it might seem. In fact, it may be easier for a smaller employer to engage and interact with its employees because of the smaller, more intimate work environment.

As for managers who haven’t yet taken a step in this direction, Coleridge stresses that they are risking more than just poor employee health and productivity. Newer generations of workers consider healthy workplace culture more important than traditional priorities like position and job security. An effective approach to workplace mental health can go a long way toward both recruiting and keeping employees in a quickly changing and mobile workforce.

For more information about Mental Health Works visit

About the author
Donna is a Communications Assistant with the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division
  1.™ is a resource developed by Mensante Corporation, a group of Canadian and American psychiatrists. Visit the website for more information.

  2. Bilsker, D., Gilbert, M. & Samra J. (2007). Antidepressant Skills at Work: Dealing with Mood Problems in the Workplace. Burnaby: Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University.


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