How HR Leaders Can Build A Wellness Strategy To Promote Mental Wellness At Work


In any given year, one-in-five people in Canada experiences a mental health problem. Each week, 500,000 employees are unable to work due to mental health issues. The Mental Health Commission of Canada notes that mental health conditions are the leading cause of workplace disability, absence, and presenteeism, with an estimated cost of at least $50 billion dollars annually. 

Employees report workplace stress as the primary cause of their mental health problems. This is exacerbated by the increasing pace of change, and  feeling  “always on” due to advances in digital technology that allow us to be continuously available. 

Often, organizations approach mental health from a risk mitigation perspective: preventing issues and avoiding absenteeism and disability costs. However, given the growing evidence that well-being drives performance, proactively promoting and enhancing employee well-being has become a business imperative for high-performing companies.

Health Canada states that good mental health “allows you to feel, think and act in ways that help you enjoy life and cope with its challenges.” Our well-being at work carries into our personal lives and vice-versa. Most of us spend more of our waking hours at work than we do at home with our families. The workplace can be a source of purpose, camaraderie, intellectual challenge and many other benefits. HR leaders have a tremendous opportunity to positively impact employee well-being and mental health, while advancing the organization’s objectives.

Well-being Starts With Organizational Culture and Work Practices

When considering how to promote mental well-being, it can be tempting to jump straight to interventions such as a wellness fair or an app to promote mindfulness. Although these programs have merit, “random acts of wellness” are not likely to be effective unless they are aligned with the other elements of the employee experience. BlueShore Financial  takes a holistic approach to wellness, incorporating physical, mental and financial elements. Mental well-being is part of a larger wellness strategy which starts with the foundational element of our culture and work practices.

Not surprisingly, the elements of the work experience that contribute to high employee engagement also contribute to good mental health. HR leaders can play an active role in:

  • Fostering inclusive leadership throughout the organization, ensuring employees feel they can be authentic,  bring their whole selves to work and be valued for their uniqueness; and understand how their work contributes to the organization’s mission.
  • Cultivating an environment where employees feel physically and psychologically safe, where they can freely and confidently express their opinions and ideas.
  • Promoting team spirit and positive interpersonal relationships. Given how much time we spend at work, coworkers can be a critical support system and employees need to feel that their colleagues “have their backs.” Workplace conflict  can adversely affect mental well-being if unaddressed. BlueShore’s respectful workplace policy includes multiple channels for employees to get help if they cannot resolve issues themselves.
  • Providing benefits to support well-being, such as an Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP), to help employees manage life issues and be productive at work. Encouraging employee use by promoting the service on the intranet and in other employee communications  raises awareness and helps reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues. Many organizations have expanded eligible paramedical practitioners to include registered clinical counsellors, and  increased the dollar limits for coverage related to mental health.  Benefits such as BlueShore’s unlimited sick days, offered on an honour system, can help employees attend to their mental wellness. Financial counselling also promotes employee peace of mind.
  • Training people leaders to recognize signs of potential mental health issues and take appropriate supportive action. Managers aren’t responsible for diagnosing illness; however, they are responsible for knowing their people and demonstrating genuine concern, without making assumptions or judging, when their employee doesn’t seem to “be themselves”, and then recommending resources. If an employee needs time off work, a critical aspect is recognizing the impact on the employee’s colleagues, and effectively involving them in reintegrating the employee when they return.
  • Implementing flexible schedules or remote working arrangements that recognize employees’ lives outside of work. In addition to making their lives easier, it can improve  productivity. Encouraging leaders to model work-life balance, including “disconnecting” when away from work or on vacation, makes it clear that this behaviour is endorsed. 
  • Supporting employees’ professional development. Learning new skills can engender a sense of accomplishment and enhance resilience and self-esteem, all of which are important to well-being.
  • Helping employees give back to their communities and causes that are important to them with programs that support their volunteering efforts. For example, BlueShore provides paid time off to volunteer, and financial support to volunteers’ designated charities.

Provide a Physical Environment That Promotes Wellness

The physical environment at work directly impacts employees’ mental health. This can be as simple as providing areas where employees can have private conversations or collaborate with others. Exposure to natural light and the inclusion of outdoor elements such as rock, water or wood can enhance well-being. BlueShore positions employee workspaces around the perimeter, close to windows, using  “interior” space for meeting rooms.  Thoughtfully designed employee rest areas provide an opportunity to recharge; our “employee retreats” include comfortable chairs, fireplaces and  artwork, and incorporate local West Coast natural elements.

Take a Targeted Approach and Leverage Other Resources

Determining additional programs to round out the wellness strategy can be daunting. The key is to find programs that are not resource-intensive and are easily sustainable.  BlueShore Financial  created an employee-led wellness committee that includes representatives from across the organization. The committee conducted a survey to determine  programs that would bring the most value to employees. Simple but effective solutions include:

  • Summer yoga classes after work, combining physical and mental well-being
  • An annual summer photo challenge to promote physical activity and work/life balance. Many employees choose activities that involve their workmates, furthering their sense of belonging.
  • Chair massages by registered practitioners at the office to alleviate stress during busy periods.
  • Exercise is a powerful antidote to depression and anxiety. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 15 minutes of running a day or an hour of walking reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. As such, making exercise convenient and accessible, through an on-site gym, a wellness subsidy, partnerships with local fitness centres to give special staff rates,  on-site bike lockers, and an interest-free loan towards the purchase of an e-bike, are some of the programs we offer which have been welcomed by our employees.

Take advantage of services offered by your benefits providers. Many offer “wellness centres” within their online portals, with free online health risk assessments  covering a variety of mental health concerns.  Through our EFAP provider, BlueShore hosts seminars on mental health topics such as developing resiliency, with Skype access available to employees who cannot attend in person.

Maximize the return on your investment by leveraging established programs such as Canada’s Healthy Workplace Month to raise awareness of  programs available within your organization, as well as highlight additional external resources.

Promoting well-being at work requires an integrated approach across all areas of the employee experience. It  doesn’t have to be complex; even small changes can pay huge dividends for employee and organizations, resulting in happier, healthier employees and improved business outcomes.



Marni Johnson, CPHR, is the Senior Vice President, Human Resources and Corporate Affairs at BlueShore Financial. Read her other article, titled, How HR Leaders Can Cultivate An Inclusive Workplace Culture. 

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