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Imagine this scenario: it’s Monday morning and you’re just starting your workday when you start to feel unwell. You’re experiencing shortness of breath, tightness and pressure in your chest, nausea and sudden dizziness – you’re pretty sure you’re having a heart attack. So what do you do? Chances are that you get yourself to a hospital as soon as possible, and with good reason.

Whether it is a broken leg, a heart attack, or some other significant physical health condition, we don’t typically say to ourselves “oh come on now, just push through it. I don’t need help, I can control this by myself. I just need a good self-help book and I’m sure I’ll be able to set the bone right!” Yet we all-too-often take this approach with mental health issues.


If you put your hand in fire, you feel pain – that’s your body’s way of protecting you, by telling you to take your hand away from the flame so that you don’t get burned. Our bodies are communicating to us all the time through these types of symptoms and signs, and not just for physical health concerns either. In fact, someone suffering from anxiety may very well present with exactly the same physical symptoms as someone having a heart attack – shortness of breath, tightness and pressure in the chest, nausea and sudden dizziness. Yet despite our bodies’ best efforts, we are often reluctant to hold our mental health to the same standard as our physical health.

The link between h@w and mental health

Oftentimes, when we hear the term “mental health” our brains immediately jump to thinking of things like stress or anxiety or depression; this is partly because the term is often conflated and used interchangeably with the term “mental illness”. Yet “mental health” is neither a positive nor a negative term – it is, quite simply, the way your mind feels and works. People can be mentally healthy just like they can be physically healthy; people can be mentally unhealthy just like they can be physically unhealthy. And just as those people with poor mental health (which, by the way, is not the same as mental illness) are likely experiencing frequent negative emotions like fear, guilt, anger, and frustration, people with positive mental health are likely feeling frequent positive emotions like gratitude, joy, pride, and love. So when we talk about workplace happiness, we’re essentially talking about work environments that actively promote positive mental health.

Laying a strong foundation for a happy and healthy workplace

At the organizational level, our reluctance to treat mental health in the same way that we treat physical health can have profound implications. An employee who’s suffering from cancer or a broken hip would be forgiven for taking sick leave or requiring special workplace accommodations by even the strictest of bosses. Unfortunately, there isn’t nearly the same level of empathy, understanding or insight when it comes to employees suffering with poor mental health. A lot of employees are still very reluctant to talk about their own mental health issues because of feelings of shame, fear of being judged, or fear of getting fired. In fact, according to the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, stigma prevents 40% of people with anxiety or depression from seeking medical help.

If an organization truly does want to create a happier workplace, they’ll need to start by enabling their employees to get whatever support and treatment they need in the moment. Some effective ways to do this include:

    • building a common language and having open and regular conversations about mental health at work.
    • sending a clear message from management that mental health matters to them.
    • educating managers and employees about the signs of mental health issues and training them to respond appropriately.
    • offering a variety of evidence-based options for an employee to get treatment.
    • having resources already in place and easily accessible.
    • ensuring employees know what mental health resources are available to them and how they can be accessed.

Taking a proactive approach to workplace happiness and mental health
Offering real-time support is a critical and necessary step for laying the foundation for a mentally healthy workplace. Once stigma is addressed and employees are accessing real-time mental health resources to support their recovery, organizations will then want to focus on identifying and resolving root causes of issues: for example – if people are getting really stressed out because of an unnecessary organizational policy, then change the policy! Or if employees are too scared to give feedback about their managers, find a way to anonymize the process!

In addition to problem-solving, organizations will also want to take a proactive approach to employee happiness. This means finding ways to enhance the employee experience, beyond just eliminating the negatives. Some practical ideas on how to take more of a proactive approach include:

As an individual

    • Understand how your job contributes to the team’s success. If you don’t know, ask!
    • When possible, offer to help coworkers with their work when they seem to be overwhelmed.
    • Find out what kind of mental health support exists at your organization, before you need it.

As a manager

    • Recognize the good work of your employees – celebrate the small wins.
    • Set realistic goals and deadlines for your team.
    • Emphasize the importance of work-life balance by encouraging employees to take breaks, to use their vacation time, and to limit out-of-hours work and email.
    • Include employees in key decisions that will directly impact their work.

As an organization/leader

    • Before making any major decisions, changes or policies, ask the question “How might this impact mental health and wellness?”
    • Create a culture of trust by encouraging risk and celebrating mistakes.
    • Encourage strength-based management.
    • Create policies and structures that allow maximum flexibility to be able to accommodate as many people as possible.

Have some ideas of your own? We’d love to hear them!

Author: Sheona McGraw