The Ultimate Guide to Implementing Employee Mental Health Strategies in the Workplace Part 1

Midhat Zaman

Canadian adults spend more time at work than anywhere else in their lives; it comes as no surprise that their work environment has a direct impact on their well-being [footnote 1]. The joys of producing rewarding work and having solid team dynamics can provide motivation and forge a sense of belonging, but sometimes stress and the realities of life outside work manage to seep in. People at work are not only employees; they wear many hats outside their clocked-in commitments. It has never been more important to minimize employee suffering by fostering an inclusive, destigmatized professional environment where all feel they have access to compassionate care to alleviate the burden of feeling down.

These last few months have resulted in a secondary pandemic of sorts, in the form of burnout. Our new normal created months-long waiting lists for mental health professionals as more and more people began dealing with increased stress and anxiety. According to a 2021 Environics Research study [footnote 2]:

Mental health issues are debilitating conditions that require a lot more than a few deep breaths and a quick cry in the bathroom. There is a cost to mental illness [footnote 3]:

Looking to the future, we will need to keep our eyes peeled for residual anxiety disorders (including obsessive-compulsive tendencies), depression, and chronic loneliness.

Back to basics: defining mental health

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual recognizes their abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to their community [footnote 4]. Mental health issues manifest in many forms, including depression and anxiety (the most-diagnosed duo in Canada), substance abuse, eating disorders, and in the most severe cases, suicide [footnote 5]. In any given year in Canada, regardless of age, education, income level, and culture, 1 in 5 people will experience mental health issues. The way people experience them, and their resulting reactions can vary, depending on their genetic and biological predisposition, environmental factors, and personality.

Despite no one being immune to mental health challenges, stigma and discrimination still exists, which ultimately prevent people from getting help when they need it, sometimes even foregoing treatment entirely. Such issues tend to get even more hush-hush in professional environments, where employees are generally expected to leave any emotional baggage at the door. Implementing a workplace approach to supporting mental health can have a huge impact on employee well-being at the office, leaving room for safety, inclusion, and understanding.

Tell-tale signs of stress and burnout

Anxiety and depression top the leaderboard in terms of most-diagnosed mental health conditions in Canada, and a successful mental health strategy needs to address these common but debilitating conditions. However, in the workplace, stress and burnout stand out from the crowd as related but distinct issues experienced by employees [footnote 6]. Stress and burnout don’t stop at psychological symptoms; there are physical signs to watch for as well.

Signs of workplace stress

Work-related stress occurs when there are negative discrepancies between workplace demands, employee capabilities, access to resources, and their needs [footnote 7]. The perceived pressure or expectations from these triggers put added emotional or physical strain on the employee.

Signs of employee burnout

Employee burnout, on the other hand, occurs when an employee enters a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress [footnote 8]. People suffering from burnout at work tend to feel emotionally drained and unable to function in their job and other areas of their life.

Stress and burnout are less like siblings and more like distant cousins: they’re related but manifest differently [footnote 9]. Someone experiencing stress generally tends to become over-reactive and hypersensitive, but over a shorter time period. On the other hand, those dealing with burnout tend to disengage, even becoming depressive and detached, resulting in the mismanagement of their symptoms.

Mental health in the workplace

The cost of absenteeism

As workplace stress continues to drain employees of their energy, organizations are experiencing a strain of their own. With mental health-related short-term disability rates continuing to rise, Canadian companies are spending billions in payroll costs, talent management expenses and lost productivity [footnote 10]. The financial and human impact of mental health issues is significant:

  1. Absenteeism costs employers $16 billion per year.
  2. Stress affects 72% of employees.
  3. 1 in 5 Canadians requires disability leave every year, citing mental health issues as the number one cause

Managers might create a stellar work culture and integrate values everyone is proud of into their team projects, but employee mental health could still be compromised if impacted by professional or personal circumstances. Issues at work could include:

  • a heavy workload
  • a recurring struggle to maintain a work-life balance
  • an abrasive relationship with one’s manager

Personal stressors that may affect the work environment include arguments with significant others, caring for a sick loved one, or moving house. The effects of the pandemic have added new worries to the mix too.

What is presenteeism?

Presenteeism occurs when employees have a mental health condition but opt to come in or log in to work instead of calling in sick. The tendency is born from ongoing workplace stigma and the desire to protect the sanctity of team spirit. Little do most know that this “good sport” mentality of showing up when unwell impacts every part of an organization.

Stigma is a dominant player. If there isn't a corporate culture that exists around appropriately managing and acknowledging mental health issues, employees are less likely to seek appropriate help when they need it. Furthermore, many employees lack knowledge about the symptoms of mental illness. Without knowing that what they’re experiencing can be successfully treated, they won’t be able to seek appropriate help. They’ll ignore their psychological pain or discomfort, often believing that they will feel better if they push on through. In the absence of that knowledge, they show up to work, think they’re pulling their weight, and believe they’re still contributing to their team. The truth is: they aren’t; they’re unwell.

This guide has been summarized for Educate & Explore. To read the full guide visit Dialogue.


[1] Mental Health Commission of Canada. 2021. Workplace Mental Health.

[2] Environics Research. 2021. Canadian Attitudes on Health and Virtual Care.

[3] CAMH. Workplace Mental Health – A review and Recommendations.

[4] World Health Organization. March 2018. Mental health: strengthening our response.

[5] CMHA. July 2021. Fast Facts about Mental Health and Mental Illness.

[6] Koutsimani, P., Montgomery, A., & Georganta, K. March 2019. The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.

[7] Mood Disorders Society of Canada. May 2021. Mental Health in the Workplace.

[8] CAMH. 2021. Career Burnout.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mercer. April 2018. How much are you losing to absenteeism?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Olympia Trust Company, Olympia Financial Group Inc., or any of its affiliates. The author’s views and opinions are based upon information they consider reliable, but neither Olympia Trust Company, Olympia Financial Group Inc. nor any of its affiliates, warrant its completeness or accuracy, and it should not be relied upon as such.

Midhat Zaman
Content Specialist, Dialogue

Midhat Zaman is a content specialist and marketer at Dialogue, dedicated to helping HR leaders and employees better understand and address workplace challenges. Midhat puts her love for great content to work with health and wellness in mind. Through articles, guides, and more, she aims to provide Canadians with the support they need to improve their well-being.