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How a psychologically healthy work environment is good for business

Improve productivity, engagement and resilience in a crisis like COVID-19

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Research shows that teams in psychologically healthy workplaces are more communicative, collaborative and inclined to solve problems together, all of which deliver strong benefits to the bottom line.

So how do you go about creating that kind of workplace in your business?

Jordan Friesen, National Director of Workplace Mental Health at the Canadian Mental Health Association, says it starts by trying to balance four different factors: Demand, control, effort and reward.

“Highly demanding workplaces where employees have little control over their work or recognition for their efforts are usually stressful and hard on mental health,” he says.

“When demands are reasonable and employees have some control and get recognized appropriately for their efforts, the environment is healthier—and usually more productive.”

Strike the right balance

Demand Control
Effort Reward

Friesen says the four factors will look different from one workplace to the next. The best way to find out what works for your business is to talk to your employees.

Dealing with disruption

Maintaining a psychologically healthy work environment can be especially tough when events like the COVID-19 pandemic disrupt normal working patterns, Friesen acknowledges. Many businesses have had to shut down entirely. Others have shifted to remote-working teams, which require different management approaches.

“There’s a big difference between working from home, and staying home and trying to work,” he says.

Friesen recommends employers update employees on the overall situation as often as they can. “Be transparent and share details as you learn them, and also acknowledge what you don’t know—and how you’re trying to get more answers.”

There’s a big difference between working from home, and staying at home and trying to work.

For many employees, isolation, concern about loved ones and additional caregiving responsibilities make this an especially stressful period, so it’s wise to shift expectations about productivity, Friesen says.

“Be extra clear about the priorities—what must get done by a specific deadline. Try to be flexible on the less urgent items. Talk to your employees about their challenges, and let them know you’re ready to work with them to come up with accommodations together.”

Make mental health a priority

While larger companies may have more resources to implement formal supports such as employee assistance programs (EAPs), Friesen says entrepreneurs have the advantage of being directly in touch with the front-line reality of the workplace.

“In a smaller business you can often make changes faster to adjust workplace conditions,” he says.

His advice when employees come forward with mental health issues is to ask these four questions:

“What can I do to help you?”

There may be accommodations or other changes you could make that would relieve some of the burden.

“What can you do to help you?”

Encourage your employee to seek support from their own network or take other actions that will support their mental health.

What additional supports would help?”

Identify resources that might be useful, such as the employee’s family doctor or an EAP, if one is available. If you don’t have an EAP, try to familiarize yourself with other resources in the community that you can suggest to employees in a time of need.

“When will we talk about this again?”

Friesen says follow-up is critical but often overlooked. “Make sure your employee knows this isn’t a one-and-done conversation, that you’ll check in to confirm that things are improving—and then follow through.”

Don’t forget to take care of yourself

While it’s important to look after the mental health of your employees, remember to care for your own. According to a study by the Canadian Mental Health Association, supported by BDC, entrepreneurs report mental health problems at nearly three times the rate of the general population (21% vs. 8.1%).

Friesen advises entrepreneurs to reach out to their networks for connection, support and advice. “The same way you ask each other about how to handle business challenges, you can share thoughts about how to get through a tough time or help an employee in need.”

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