Where do we start with psychological health and safety?

Not sure where to begin in addressing psychological health and safety in your workplace? We can help. You will find steps to get buy-in, communicate the plan and support continual improvement.

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Implementing the entire National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is an ideal approach, but there are many other options available. You can effectively begin improving psychological health and safety in your workplace, even if you have limited resources and budget.

While content under Implementing the standard on the Workplace Strategies for Mental Health website will take you step-by-step through the various parts of the Standard, this guideline may help you avoid some of the potential problems associated with managing these changes. Begin by getting buy-in and commitment from all workplace stakeholders through thoughtful preparation, assessment, and a plan for acting on the results.

Get buy-in

Each of the following points can help you be prepared to respond to questions and concerns from senior leaders in management or labour. This is important to get buy-in and commitment to proceed with a plan to address psychological health and safety in your workplace. Others have found that without this prior approval, the process can be halted by concerned leaders who are not clear on risks and benefits.

Consider the costs and benefits of addressing psychological health and safety in your workplace.

  • The economic and social benefits of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace should include sustainability of an engaged workforce and a healthy bottom line.
  • For help in establishing costs see Psychological health and safety cost benefits.
  • A SWOT analysis (strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats) can be a useful tool for decision-making for all sorts of situations. Free information for conducting a SWOT analysis is provided courtesy of Businessballs Free Work and Life Learning.
  • Many organizations or departments will report that they are very busy, and may believe that they do not have enough time or resources to invest in this.
  • Simply opening dialogue about psychological health and safety in the workplace may result in positive changes, even without a formal implementation process. Larger initiatives and programs are not always required.

Be prepared to respond to concerns that addressing psychological health and safety will open a "can of worms" or invite unreasonable criticism of the workplace.

  • Avoiding or denying issues related to psychological health and safety in the workplace may allow problems to worsen until they become a crisis.
  • Proactively considering psychological health and safety issues can help prevent time-consuming and morale-dampening situations.
  • The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace provides an evidence-based framework to support taking action and helping avoid risk to employee psychological safety.

Estimate the time and effort required to do the psychological health and safety assessment, analyze results and implement change. The size and scope of your plan will be relative to the complexity of your organization and the initiatives you choose to implement. Some organizations have completed all tasks over a couple of weeks, while others have required several months.

Estimate the time your organization may need for the following tasks:

  • Develop the business case, including baseline measurements.
  • Secure senior leadership commitment, including labour and management.
  • Create a communication plan addressing potential concerns.
  • Set up the assessment process, choosing how and what will be measured.
  • Conduct an assessment such as Guarding Minds at Work. (This is probably the easiest part).
  • Analyze the results of any assessment.
  • Communicate results, celebrate successes, and identify areas for improvement.
  • Engage the workforce in developing action plans. This participation is critical to success.
  • Engage the workforce in implementing the plans. This needs to become part of day to day routine.
  • Measure outcomes. Did the plans achieve the goals that were set?
  • Take corrective action including additional plans or modifications.
  • Establish a process of continual improvement. Consider re-administering the assessment every couple of years.
  • Ongoing time allocation, e.g. even one hour every two weeks per team, should be considered to allow for an ongoing process of sustaining psychological health and safety in the workplace.

Consider competing demands and priorities. Addressing psychological health and safety is always important. Like other health and safety approaches, it is an ongoing process, but if this is a new approach in your organization, you may wish to consider the following:

  • Organizations may choose to begin with only looking at one of the factors identified in the Standard and known to impact psychological health and safety. One example is workload management. Workload management is not about doing less work, but doing work with less stress. This can open dialogue, identify solutions, reduce stress-related absenteeism, and help create an atmosphere for continued improvement.
  • Leading-edge organizations that conscientiously choose best practices for continual improvement can add a Psychological health and safety to existing policies and processes.
  • If you have a poisoned or toxic workplace, it is important to put safeguards in place to help ensure that no further harm is done to psychological health and safety. This could include immediately addressing issues of Violence prevention, Harassment and bullying prevention, or Discrimination prevention and inclusivity already known to the organization.
  • Be transparent about accepting responsibility for the current situation, and the need to make changes. By accepting responsibility, you can reduce the need for others to justify or defend their current behaviours or positions, and open the door to a new way of doing business.
  • Employers of choice or those who have already won recognition for their healthy workplaces can use the heightened focus on psychological health and safety to continue to energize and motivate the workforce.
  • If there has been a recent traumatic incident in the workplace, being open about the effects of the trauma and providing effective supports could be a first response. This can also be a window of opportunity to engage staff in building protective factors around psychological health and safety in the workplace. It will be necessary to be sensitive to the current ability of those who are affected by the trauma to engage in this process, but in many cases, it could be helpful in the recovery process. See also Impairment and addiction response for leaders, Grief response for leaders, Suicide response for leaders, and Psychosis and how to help in a crisis.
  • Consider organizational readiness for change. There may be internal or external factors that enhance or impede action, such as a pending merger or major reorganization.
  • If there are current labour disputes this may not be the ideal time to begin a process where management and the union are expected to co-operate closely.
  • If there are impending difficult business issues such as shutdowns, layoffs, terminations or deployments, the focus should be on limiting the risk related to the impact of these issues. In these situations, employees who are left in the workplace may face increased workplace demands that can make it more difficult for them to also become involved in the development of new processes. This should not prevent the workplace from zeroing in on how the particular psychological health and safety issues currently impact the workforce (e.g. change management, grief at the loss of co-workers or increased workload pressures).
  • Engage external experts, if appropriate. Assessments such as Guarding Minds at Work are free, self-serve resources, but some organizations prefer the support and assistance of an external consultant.
  • Show that this is a priority to the organization by obtaining written commitment from senior leadership (labour and management), in the form of a directive or policy statement, in support of addressing psychological health and safety in your workplace.

Develop and communicate the plan

  • Identify one or more champions in the ranks of senior leadership who have the ability to influence and mobilize resources and commitment throughout the process.
  • Establish a psychological health and safety working group comprised of key stakeholders who will help drive the process.
    • These stakeholders should come from all levels of management, and include employees and employee representatives.
    • Where possible, involve a representative from each department, such as human resources, occupational health and safety, or finance.
    • Include someone with communication skills in the working group.
    • Include someone with authority to access organizational data to help inform working group decisions.
    • The mandate of the working group is to plan the assessment, analysis, and communication about the process. They would help steer the planning, implementation, evaluation and continual improvement stages.
    • Finalize a timeframe and budget for the stages of planning, implementation and evaluation of your psychological health and safety initiative.
    • Involve key stakeholders in discussion about the working group’s approach, getting critical feedback from employees, union, and management before communicating the plan to the rest of the workforce.
  • Clearly communicate your plan. Explicitly state potential concerns and explain how your approach will address these. For messaging ideas, see Commitment, leadership and participation for psychological health and safety. Getting everyone on the same page in this way helps support the process of improving psychological health and safety, even before any other actions have been taken.
  • Determine who needs to receive the communication and how best to deliver it.
    • Ensure you communicate with all workplace stakeholders including senior management, union representatives, line managers, occupational health and safety representatives, human resource professionals, your employees and any other individuals who play a role in the workplace.
    • Provide written communication to those without access to a computer.
    • Consider holding meetings to discuss the process in person or instruct each department or team leader to hold a discussion after they have been thoroughly briefed.
    • Consider any other challenges or limitations, which may include employees working offsite, vision or other impairments, vacation, on leave, etc.
  • Address employee privacy concerns Employees should understand that:
    • Participation in this data collection project is voluntary.\
    • The choice not to participate will have no adverse effects on employment.
    • Each employee should be assured anonymity when completing and returning their submission.
    • No personal or identifying information should be gathered. Survey respondents should be asked about their experiences and perceptions about their workplace only from the perspective of their current position.
    • Any information that is obtained during this data collection project should be kept strictly confidential.

There are many considerations that can guide the decision as to where to start taking action. In reviewing the results of your assessment, it is important to first identify any immediate safety concerns. Existing issues such as bullying, harassment, violence or discrimination should be addressed first. The next step may be to identify whether there are any issues relating to human rights, health or safety. You could also start with psychosocial factors identified as potential areas of strength. This can allow you to build on good work already done on those areas, understanding that many of the psychosocial factors can be protective even in the face of other unavoidable stressors. Finally, consider engaging employees for feedback and guidance on the psychosocial factor(s) that they perceive to be most important through focus groups, suggestion boxes, or staff meetings. You can share the results of all factors with short descriptions, which are provided below, or provide a select number that you want to focus on and have the employees prioritize.

Share results

Many organizations will find that they have assessment results indicating potential areas of strength. Celebrating these areas helps reinforce the employee contributions toward a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.

It is important to show organizational commitment by sharing some plan of action with all staff soon after the results are in. If you can, develop some action towards improving workplace mental health before the results are even received. This way your organization will be seen to act immediately. More complex actions can be developed over time. Some examples of quick and cost-effective actions can include hosting a guest speaker, sending out awareness emails such as those found in Mental health awareness videos or implementing new team activities such as those found in Building stronger teams. The point is to take action as soon as possible after you have sought employee input about psychological health and safety to avoid cynicism about employer intentions.

Any communication should include intended outcomes and planned improvements for the future. Clearly communicate that the workplace will not become ideal overnight but will continue to focus on improving psychological health and safety and requires the contribution of all employees.

  • Engage all staff and stakeholders in helping to determine how to make positive impacts on psychological health and safety in the workplace. Each employee has a responsibility to contribute, since how they interact with others has a direct effect on psychological health and safety.
  • Engage work teams in discussing and developing their own unique plans of action. Ensure that these plans include a method to evaluate results.

Consider a range of appropriate actions

This can help guide teams that will engage in developing and implementing action plans. By choosing a range of appropriate actions that meet the both the organization's needs and the employee's needs, you can ensure that the results will be mutually beneficial.

  • Appropriateness: Is the action or response appropriate given the needs and resources of your particular organization?
  • Acceptability: Is the action or response acceptable to all relevant workplace stakeholders, including management, employees, union and clients?
  • Accessibility: Is the action or response available and accessible to all relevant workplace stakeholders (e.g. language or geographic location)?
  • Effectiveness: Is the action or response consistent with evidence that indicates that the intended consequence is what your organization requires?
  • Efficiency: Can the action or response be implemented in a cost-effective and timely fashion?
  • Safety: Could the action or response present an unintended health or safety risk?

Consider a policy review

Your analysis of the results may indicate the necessity to develop or refine policies within the organization. This relates to organizational practices and processes that are part of the day-to-day experience in the workplace.

  • Create a high-level strategy for what is practical for your organization to focus on in the near future. Examples:
    • "To address psychological health and safety we will begin by focusing on management training."
    • "To address psychological health and safety we will begin by raising mental health awareness."
    • "To address psychological health and safety we will begin with a policy review."
    • "To address psychological health and safety we will begin by holding focus groups."

Evidence-based actions by factor

Below are links to evidence-based actions as developed by Guarding Minds at Work for each psychosocial factor identified in the Standard. You will find actions and responses that can be implemented with a minimal investment of resources or cost to the organization. Lack of budgetary funds does not have to prevent you from moving forward with meaningful actions and responses.

Evidence-based actions for balance

A work environment where there is recognition of the need for balance between the demands of work, family and personal life.

Evidence-based actions for civility and respect

A work environment where employees are respectful and considerate in their interactions with one another, as well as with customers, clients and the public.

Evidence-based actions for clear leadership and expectations

A work environment where there is effective leadership and support that helps employees know what they need to do, how their work contributes to the organization, and whether there are impending changes.

Evidence-based actions for engagement

A work environment where employees feel connected to their work and are motivated to do their job well.

Evidence-based actions for growth and development

A work environment where employees receive encouragement and support in the development of their interpersonal, emotional and job skills.

Evidence-based actions for involvement and influence

A work environment where employees are included in discussions about how their work is done and how important decisions are made.

Evidence-based actions for organizational culture

A work environment characterized by trust, honesty and fairness.

Evidence-based actions for protection of physical safety

A work environment where management takes appropriate action to protect the physical safety of employees.

Evidence-based actions for psychological and social support

A work environment where co-workers and supervisors are supportive of employees' psychological and mental health concerns, and respond appropriately as needed.

Evidence-based actions for psychological competencies and demands

A work environment where there is a good fit between employees' interpersonal and emotional competencies and the requirements of the position they hold.

Evidence-based actions for psychological protection

A work environment where employees' psychological safety is ensured.

Evidence-based actions for recognition and reward

A work environment where there is appropriate acknowledgement and appreciation of employees' efforts in a fair and timely manner.

Evidence-based actions for workload management

A work environment where tasks and responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available.

Plan for continual improvement

  • Consider including in all business discussions about new or revised policies, procedures, programs and interactions the question:

    "How might this impact psychological health and safety?"

    This may allow you to permanently embed psychological health and safety considerations into your workplace without devoting a lot of time to an add-on program.

  • Execute the plans developed by work teams.
  • Measure results and look for opportunities for corrective action or improvement. See Evaluation and corrective action.
  • Continue the cycle for a method of continual improvement. See Management review and continual improvement for psychological health and safety.
Contributors include.articlesMary Ann Baynton

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