Before building a mental health strategy, it’s important to understand some of the foundational elements.

Culture is the bedrock of any workplace mental health strategy. It sets the tone for your organization. Without a supportive culture your efforts are likely to fall short of making a real impact.  

Enhancing your knowledge can help you recognize and better understand:

  • mental health issues
  • the factors that influence workplace mental health

It’s also important for addressing the stigma around mental health.

  • Key elements:

You play a key role in changing workplace culture and reducing stigma. You set the standards and tone for your organization. Leaders who champion the values of mentally healthy workplaces are likely to act in ways that support positive employee mental health.

Leadership commitment: fostering a mentally healthy and safe workplace will walk you through the essential elements.

1. What is organizational culture?

Organizational culture is the mix of values, beliefs and expectations that a group holds in common. Workplace culture cues employees to what is acceptable behaviour and how to solve problems.

Why is it important?

A poor workplace culture can cause negative health outcomes among employees. Employees tend to be less productive, engaged, and there is less shared problem solving.1

An organization with a health-focused culture enhances: 

  • employee well-being
  • job satisfaction 
  • organizational commitment, and
  • social support.

It can also help to retain and attract talent: A mentally healthy and safe workplace culture makes employees feel more comfortable coming forward with mental health concerns. It can help keep employees at work and support them when they return to work if they’ve been on disability leave.

What happens when a culture isn’t supportive?

A negative culture:

  • can undermine the effectiveness of the best programs, policies and services put in place to support the workforce, and 
  • increase stress, which lowers employee wellbeing2

2. Communication

Senior leaders who talk about mental health can:

  • break the ice
  • set the tone, and
  • change the conversation from fear to sharing new ways to support and help.

Leaders can help drive down stigma and empower employees at risk to get help early.

A mentally safe workplace will empower and enable employees to do their best. Leaders play an important role in creating these conditions.

Some initial steps to take action:

  • Make an all staff announcement on your commitment to workplace mental health. Show a genuine commitment. The message should come from the senior leadership sponsor and the champion.
  • Put mental health on the agenda using special events to create focus. For example, Psychology Month, Bell Let’s Talk, World Mental Health Day. Encourage open discussion about mental health.
  • Set performance measures for leaders around the mental health and wellbeing of their teams.

Language around mental health

Using safe, respectful and inclusive language is key to fostering a healthy and safe workplace culture. It’s also important to be consistent. This language goes a long way to addressing stigma. It lets employees know that it’s normal to experience mental health challenges from time to time.

We know that stigma is a powerful barrier to getting help. 60% of people with a mental health problem or illness won’t seek help because of their fear of being labeled. 52% of those with a mental health disability consider themselves disadvantaged in employment.3

3. Diversity & inclusion

The workplace can be a potent source of stress and poor mental health for:

  • Indigenous peoples,
  • underrepresented minorities,
  • people in the LGBTQ2S+ community, and
  • people who face discrimination and are marginalized in daily life.

Employees need to be able to be their true selves at work. Having to hide any part of their identity can cause stress and anxiety. Embedding diversity and inclusion in every facet of a workplace mental health strategy is critical. And it’s especially important as part of your mental health strategy. Workplace mental health supports also need to reflect the diverse needs of employees.

The best practices for diversity and inclusion align with key elements of building a mental health strategy. This includes:

1. Data and metrics

  • Workforce representation
  • Understand your talent. For example, who you’re hiring, promoting, the diversity of your talent pipeline).

2. Once you understand your gaps/opportunities

  • Make a commitment for change
  • Set specific goals

3. Culture of Inclusion

  • Connect with your employees
  • Create a space for dialogue
  • Obtain feedback. For example, survey your employees.  

At Sun Life, our practices reflect a promise to be an inclusive business. We focus on creating an inclusive environment  that not only supports our employees in all their diversity but also reflects our Clients and communities. Doing so allows us to better serve their unique cultures and needs.

Some examples of how we do this at Sun Life are through:

  • An enterprise-wide Diversity & Inclusion Council and our new Canadian and U.S. Task Forces accelerate our Diversity & Inclusion strategies, as well as measure and communicate outcomes.
  • Intensive diversity training for our Executive Team.
  • Internal learning forums about racism, racial diversity and inclusion. We've created safe spaces for our employees to share their personal stories, experiences, insights and perspectives.
  • Building on our existing diversity learning programs, we’ve added a new digital learning platform. The platform will help teams learn how to talk meaningfully about diversity and build inclusive behaviours.  
  • Creating development and mentoring programs for diverse talent. Of the 300 students hired in North America this year, over a quarter self-reported as ethnically diverse.
  • Embracing grassroots employee engagement initiatives driven by our inclusion networks. Groups within the inclusion network include:
    • BrightWomen
    • Sun Life Pride
    • Mosaic Network
    • DiverseAbility

For more information on the importance of diversity and inclusion, you can visit CAMH’s webpage on Health Equity.

In 2013, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) launched the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. It’s often called “The Standard.” It was the first of its kind in the world. 

The Standard is a voluntary set of guidelines, tools, and resources. It guides organizations in promoting mental health and preventing psychological harm at work.  

If you are looking to implement the National Standard, the MHCC has developed some free tools and resources:

The standard identifies 13 factors that can influence mental health in the workplace. These factors include the way employees do work and the work environment. It can involve things like  deadlines, workload and work methods. It can also involve relationships and how employees interact with managers, coworkers, customers. The 13 factors apply to all Canadian organizations and employees. This includes large and small, private or public sector workplaces.

  • Organizational culture
  • Civility and respect
  • Psychological & social support
  • Workload management
  • Protection of physical safety
  • Psychological protection
  • Growth & development
  • Clear leadership & expectations
  • Engagement
  • Psychological demands
    Reward and recognition
  • Involvement & influence
  • Balance

You’ll want to consider these factors when you start building a mental health strategy.

A series of videos of each of the 13 factors is available here.

If you have any questions along the way, contact us

1Ramkissoon, A., Smith, P., Oudyk, J. (2019). Dissecting the effect of workplace exposures on workers’ rating of psychological health and safety.” American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 62, 412-421.

2Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety Mental health – psychosocial risk factors in the workplace,

3Statistics Canada (2020). Canadians with mental health related disabilities.