By: deborah connors

Winter 2018 Issue

While completing research for my Master’s degree back in the 90s, I interviewed a number of directors from a municipal government about their views on employee health and assistance. The prevailing notion was that if an organization was the cause of the employee’s ill-health, they should cover the employee assistance; but if the condition was not caused by the employer, the employer should not be required to assist.

We’ve come a long way since then in terms of workplace psychological health, but in my opinion, not nearly far enough. 

As part of my research on a new book, “A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture”, I interviewed many organizational health experts in Canada and around the world to gain more insight on this topic. 

Dr. Martin Shain says, “What happens in the workplace doesn’t stay in the workplace. It migrates out to families and communities and society at large as net social capital or net social loss.” The opposite is, of course, also true.

What happens outside the workplace travels into the workplace and impacts individual employee contributions, plus the social well-being of the workplace culture. Many organizations understand this and accommodate accordingly. There are a myriad of new tools available to assist the employer, including the National Standard for Psychological Health & Safety in the Workplace, which provide employers with guidelines and resources to help support employees’ psychological health and prevent psychological harm due to workplace factors.

What is not as prevalent is the notion of how to build a culture that promotes positive mental wellness for everyone, and how a leader’s practices can impact this effort.

Maximizing Mental Energy 
Mary Ann Baynton is Program Director for Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. She was asked about the most significant changes regarding psychological health in the workplace over the past decade.

What she sees now is a recognition that the measures that leaders talk about, like performance management, organizational culture, engagement, work-life balance, innovation, and creativity, are all built upon the mental health, mental well-being, and mental energy of employees. “When we talk about workplace mental health, we are not talking about people with depression. We are talking about the mental energy of your employees to do their best work. It is a really good business tactic to maximize mental energy,” says Baynton.

In the process of leading, we have a choice. We can have a culture that is so busy and exhausting that people are always stressed and not able to contribute their best. Or we can create a culture where continual renewal and resilience is possible. The behaviours and practices of the organizational leaders make a difference on the direction a company takes.

Finding our own way to flourish and be resilient as leaders, and helping our teams and organizations find theirs is one of our most important jobs as management consultants.

The downward cycle of being over-extended and exhausted decreases mental energy and negatively affects the culture. As stress levels rise, creativity and innovation drop; and as energy drops, we are more apt to misread communication from others and to respond negatively. These cycles can lead to burnout for individuals, and a slow death for organizations.

The Energy Project, started by Tony Schwartz, warns that the North American trend today where people work 10-12 hour days is not working. Not only are we underutilizing people (exhausted people don’t perform as well) and seeing an increase in burnout, but study after study show that this way of working does not help us to be more productive.

Schwartz says that energy is a renewable resource and there are ways to use it more efficiently. He recommends shortening our focused work time and including more frequent breaks. In the work phase, just focus on work. No phone calls, Facetime or email checking (which is easier to do when the timeframe is shorter). In the rest phase, focus on things that allow you to rest and renew, like taking a short walk. No social media or email checking, or you defeat the purpose. Schedule time to check emails and social media as a part of your focused work time.

The Energy Project reports that people who take frequent breaks have 28 per cent more focus and 30 per cent higher self-reported health and wellness. Working long periods without renewal drains the cognitive resources that control our behaviour, desires, and emotions.

As leaders, we can model and teach the practice of taking more frequent breaks to boost mental energy at work.  Finding ways to recognize and reward balance, fairness, and community within our organizations is another way leaders can inspire psychological well-being.

An example of an initiative focused on improving fairness in the workplace is the “Are you an Ally?” campaign, introduced at Toronto's Sinai Health. This initiative teaches people how to be an ally to anyone who may feel they are being discriminated against or are in a psychologically unsafe situation.

It also places high importance on balance. Melissa Barton, Director of Organizational Development & Healthy Workplace at Sinai Health, lists the National Standard as one of her most highly recommended tools, in particular the Stress & Satisfaction Offset Scale, which is embedded in the risk assessment part of the National Standard to start conversations about the balance between effort, reward, demand, and control in a workplace.

Questions for Leaders
Reflect on about leadership practices and how they impact the psychological health of a workplace by asking yourself these questions: 

  • Am I walking the talk? What do my employees think that think is important? For example, if balance is one of our values, but I'm sending emails to staff on the weekend, I'm not modelling the values and behaviours we espouse as being important.
  • What are my hypocrisies as a leader when it comes to maintaining mental wellness? Shain states that "leaders need to declare their vision of how the workplace should be run based on the recognition that how we relate to each other in the workplace affects our mental health in significant ways." Once that vision is declared, we need to be the vision keepers by keeping what we say and what we do in line.
  • How is my own anxiety level? If high, what can I do to change this? Sinai Health System suggests that its team members reflect on questions such as: How am I reacting to the change? What is my emotional state like? Where am I in the change process? Practices that can be developed to reduce anxiety over time include mindfulness (learning to pay attention in a particular way), meditation (which research shows increases positive emotions with as little as 80 minutes per week), and gratitude practices (which also increase positive emotion if practiced regularly.).
  • Does the way I assign or schedule people to projects impact balance in their lives? Does the way I assign or schedule people to projects impact balance in their lives? Dr. Linda Duxbury, Professor of Management and Strategy at Carleton University, and one of the leads in the ongoing Balancing Work and Family study says, “Many managers work incredibly long hours. They can’t expect the same of their subordinates, and do not recognize that their subordinates are not in the same place and rewarded in the same way.”  
  • How does my language impact others' psychological health and safety? For example, Sinai Health System uses a “privilege” checklist that helps people to reflect on language they use, and may not have thought about, but may be offensive to some. 

Creating a culture of continual renewal is not currently the norm, but it starts with self-transformation. To keep a workforce psychologically healthy and able to contribute its best, however, it is the only choice. Without renewal of our mental energy, we increase the organizational risk of a downward spiral and burning out our best people.

What deliberate move can you make today toward a more psychologically healthy culture?

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. A captivating speaker, storyteller, author, and workplace coach, Deborah researches breakthroughs in organizational health and culture around the globe. She has interviewed many of the leading thinkers, which forms the basis of her work and her new book “A Better Place To Work: Daily Practices That Transform Culture.”

Deborah is a prominent figure in the story of how Canadian workplaces have adopted practices to become better places to work, through her development of The Better Workplace Conference. This powerful initiative, which she successfully led for 17 years, created a whole generation of workplace health professionals and a huge community of practice. She has distilled the knowledge from in-depth interviews with ten featured influencers and combined it with her own leadership experience to bring you the best of what we know to date on shifting workplace culture, and how it benefits the organization and the individuals who work there.

To order “A Better Place To Work” or for more information about Deborah’s work, visit: