Healthy Minds: Building a culture of positive mental health - Retail Council of Canada
Canadian Retailer Magazine | Human Resources

Healthy Minds: Building a culture of positive mental health

February 18, 2017

Building a culture of positive mental health


IT’S hard to measure agony, and so it’s hard to measure how depression, anxiety and other illnesses affect an individual. But, make no mistake: mental illness is responsible for damaging lives, affecting every Canadian in one way or another.

When economic costs are measured, however, it becomes very clear how mental illness affects Canadian businesses: a report by the Conference Board of Canada suggests that mental illness costs the Canadian economy almost $50 billion in lost productivity annually. Each week, 500,000 Canadians miss work because of mental health issues. And one in three disability claims—and 70 per cent of all disability costs—are directly related to mental health issues.

Despite this drag on productivity, only 39 per cent of companies surveyed have a strategy to improve the mental health of workers. And this comes in spite of mounting evidence that shows healthy employees are happier employees, who produce more, work more efficiently, and are less likely to quit.

Perhaps because of the hectic and stressful pace of retail, employees working in the industry experience more mental health issues than the average (54 per cent of employees compared to 44 per cent of the broader workforce). Employees in the retail sector are also less likely to receive mental health information from employers and less likely to feel comfortable asking for supports.

With new attitudes, new science, and new resources available to support good mental health, life can change for retail employers and their employees. And it should change.


Starbucks Canada

New ways

“Mental health challenges are more prevalent today than in decades gone by, even though it was more hidden in decades gone by,” says Barb Mildon, Vice-President and Chief Nursing Executive at Ontario Shores, a research centre focused on understanding mental health.

Mental health has found its way into public consciousness in recent years for a variety of reasons, she says. The chief reason is science: the medical establishment has developed better tools to identify mental illness. Depression, anxiety and addiction, previously relegated to the realm of “personal problems”, are now recognized as mental health conditions requiring medical interventions.

Awareness is the other reason for the high profile mental health issues have attracted. Canadian businesses and NGOs had found a cause in promoting good mental health. Leading the charge since 2010 has been Bell Canada, with its “Bell Let’s Talk” outreach and fundraising program.

Bell put in place a rigorous set of initiatives—including manager training and employee benefits programs—to support employees dealing with poor mental health. Mary Deacon, Chair of Bell’s Let’s Talk initiative, says the programs were “the right thing to do” but also good business. Virtually every one of Bell’s 9,000 leaders has been trained on how to respond to employee health concerns, and employees have become more aware of the resources available to help them, and more willing to use those resources. Bell has seen a 119 per cent increase in the number of people using the company’s family assistance program. Deacon says this is a “good thing”. “It means people are getting the help they need”.

The work has benefited Bell’s bottom line: the company has seen 20 per cent fewer short-term disability claims related to mental health.

While building a positive mental health workplace requires upfront costs, Mildon says the longer term benefits of investing in workplace mental health supports are “easy to quantify”. Businesses that invest see lower EAP costs and a decrease in absenteeism and turnover. Costs are eventually returned to employees. And, she says, “keeping employees healthy gives back to Canada at large”.


Bell’s Let’s Talk

Retailers act

Some retailers, recognizing the harm to employees and to the business that comes from ignoring the issue, have responded by making psychological services more easily available to employees. Safeway Canada has led in this area. As early as 2011, the retailer removed the limit to how many counselling sessions an employee could claim through the company’s benefits program. To broaden access to services further, the retailer made e-counselling sessions available to employees.

More recently, Starbucks increased mental health benefits to $5,000 a year for employees who work 20 hours-a-week. Sara Presutto, Vice-President of Human Resources at Starbucks Canada, says Starbucks acted to support employees with mental health issues based on what employees said they needed. The coffee shop retailer said the company acted on principle, and without first developing a formal business case that might point to a specific benefit to the business. “This is about changing lives for the better. We have led with our hearts on this issue simply because it is the right thing to do,” she says.

Standards and training

Retailers who want to improve the psychological health of their employees, and reap the economic benefit of a healthy workforce, need to be mindful of how workplaces stress employees. A foundational document to building mindful workplaces is a standards document for creating psychologically healthy workplaces.

Launched at the beginning of 2013, the standards document, available through the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and developed by the Canadian Standards Association, establishes baseline standards for what constitutes a healthy workplace and provides tools and guidelines to help employers make workplaces more responsive to employees in distress.

Retailers can download the national standards document related to psychological health in the workplace from the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s website, A range of resources, including webinars, auditing tools, and training guides, are available through MHCC.

“Mental illness is a real illness,” says Ed Mantler, Vice-President of Programs and Priorities at MHCC. He says that because retail has a higher prevalence of mental illness, and because surveys show retail employees are less likely to ask for help, retailers need to step forward and put in place programs that adhere to national standards for promoting psychosocial health. This is what the standards document helps retailers accomplish.

The standards are the “backbone” of Bell’s initiatives. One of the most important initiatives has been providing a leadership training program to every manager in its business, including its retail operations. The training gives managers the skills they need to recognize and respond to the mental health challenges facing, according to current statistics, one-third of their employees.

Individual responsibility

In private, some businesses have expressed concerns that catering to mental health issues might turn businesses “soft” and make employees less accountable for productivity. “Not true,” says Deacon. “The evidence shows [good mental health policies] are having the opposite effect.” Beyond the tangibles of reducing turnover and short-term disabilities, bringing mental health out of the shadows has helped employers and employees talk about what is really happening. “People now understand mental health,” says Deacon. “It’s not an excuse but it can be a reason for certain behaviours. But that doesn’t absolve employees from responsibilities.”

Katie Robinette, Executive Director of Healthy Minds Canada, says a well-grounded approach to supporting good mental health can help businesses underline and support individual responsibilities. “The behaviours, not the disease, are what we can manage,” says Robinette. Addictions, like alcoholism, for example, are illnesses, and illness must be treated by health professionals. But behaviours that contradict company policies, like showing up drunk to work, can be addressed by management. Businesses can hold employees to account for their behaviours, not their illnesses.

In spite of the attention given to mental health concerns, more must be done, particularly in how businesses serve employees. “Benefits are shocking,” Mildon says of EAP programs offered by most businesses. “They cover almost nothing of the cost of a visit [to the doctor].” She encourages retailers to look at the limits on psychological services provided through employee benefits. “Look at the benefits and maximize coverage,” she says.

Presutto agrees. “We do not believe the current level of support for mental health benefits is sufficient to provide treatment and we encourage all companies in Canada to step up and join this important effort. And we recommend that other companies work in collaboration with their provider to determine what level of support they can provide their employees.”


Customers can increase workplace stress unnecessarily. Mantler says retailers should adopt a policy of non-tolerance for abuse and harassment of employees by customers.

Robinette offers strategies for how retailers can deal with customers who may suffer from a mental illness.

  • Put in place an early detection system. Train employees to spot behaviours that may indicate a customer is distressed.
  • Train everybody. Give tools and training to each employee, so that challenging issues aren’t left on the foot of one person, like the store manager. Use role-playing as part of the training so retail employees can learn what real situations might look like.
  • Intervene in pairs. Younger, less experienced employees shouldn’t be left on their own to deal with a distressed individual.
  • Personalize every issue. Each person is unique, and every issue retailers encounter will need to be tailored to the person in distress.
  • Work with others. Join a local mental health working group to discover how other local businesses are building supportive environments for employees and their customers.