This week I had the pleasure of connecting with Dr. Joti Samra to ask her a few questions about psychological health and safety in the workplace. Dr. Samra is a national thought leader on issues relating to mental health. She is Program Lead for the online Centre for Psychological Health Sciences at the University of Fredericton and a member of the Global Expert Panel for WellteQ. She is an innovator in the area of psychological health and safety in the workplace, and has been the lead on a number of pivotal national workplace projects that have contributed to policy change in Canada.  Dr. Samra has been involved as an expert advisor on a number of provincial and national steering committees in the area of workplace psychological health, including being a founding member of the Technical Committee that developed Canada’s National Standard for Psychological Health & Safety in the Workplace (CSA Z1003/BNQ9700) – the first Standard of its kind in the world.

Hayley: What are the primary considerations and responsibilities of workplace leadership in supporting the mental health of employees?
Dr. Samra: Primary considerations are for workplace leadership to recognize that they have a responsibility to pay attention to, and support the mental health, of employees. The responsibility is becoming increasingly clear through emerging guidelines and best practices, as well as legislation. The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace came out 5 years ago, and although it is a voluntary standard, we know that CSA Standards really establish best practices across a whole host of areas that impact our day to day life. We know that CSA Standards over time, tend to impact the development and evolution of legislation over time – and already over the past 5 years we have seen a number of provinces implement legislation that very much pertains to psychological health and safety in the workplace, particularly relating to bullying and harassment, as well as the responsibility we have when it comes to protecting the psychological health of those in high-risk industries, namely first responders. We know that the Standard is here and the Standard is here to stay. The Standard, although voluntary, has a very clear establishment of responsibility that employers have. My first wish item is that every workplace leader recognizes that 1. Psychological Health and Safety is a ‘need-to’ when it comes to addressing this in the workplace and 2. It’s a ‘win-win’. That is, employers and employees benefit when we put energy and investment into supporting not only individual employees who are struggling, but more broadly starting to look at the factors that are problematic within our unique work environments.

Hayley: What do you see as the likely costs or consequences if workplace leadership fails to adequately respond to these considerations and responsibilities?
Dr. Samra: I’ll start with the benefits of addressing these considerations – the research is very strong and very clear. When we look at organizations that are investing in creating psychologically healthy workplace environments and supporting their employees, on a whole host of indices they do better. Absenteeism rates are lower, presenteeism rates are lower, people are more engaged, there’s lower turnover, there’s higher retention, people are more likely to expend discretionary efforts – so extending that extra effort and going the extra mile when you need to for your workplace. They are more satisfied, they are of course more psychologically healthy, but also importantly, they are more physically healthy – we know that there is high comorbidity between psychological and physical health. Particularly when we look at environments where there is a safety sensitive risk, we know that enhancing and investing into workplace psychological health and safety reduces workplace injuries, accidents and incidents. The likely cost or consequence is when we’re failing to address this, people are disengaged, they are not satisfied, they are more likely to ‘check out’, they’re more likely to be less committed, to be more often away from work, to have presenteeism and low productivity. Whereas, we know when employees are more emotionally invested and engaged, performance is higher and productivity is higher. There is a very strong body of literature that makes it very persuasive to say that addressing workplace psychological health and safety is something that is absolutely ‘win-win’ for both employees and leaders.

When we don’t see psychological health and safety in the workplace as a priority from leadership we lose trust. When we feel supported by our organization, we are much more likely to feel trust and loyalty and respect; when we’re not being supported, it’s really the opposite of that. We don’t feel trust, we’re not engaged, and we’re not intrinsically motivated to do our best at work. I love this quote by Sigmund Freud who says “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” It is a fundamental human need for us to contribute in some way to society, and for the majority of us paid work is both the necessity and the manifestation of how we do that. Work is so good for our mental health, we have a sense of pride, it provides social connection, provides structure for our day – even on days when our personal life can be a struggle.

Hayley: What would your message be to employers regarding the recruitment and inclusion of workers with mental health accommodation needs?
Dr. Samra: Numbers don’t lie, if we take a look at the stats we know very conservatively that one out of five working Canadian adults, every year, are going to deal with one of the main psychological health conditions – either depression or anxiety. Our lifespan estimate says that its closer to 50%, my belief is that the number is 100%, that everyone at some point will be impacted – if we live long enough and go through enough life experiences – whether or not we receive a formal diagnosis. The stats also tell us that the vast majority of people with psychological health conditions are working; successfully and productively. There continues to be widespread misinformation and stigma surrounding mental health but the stats are simple – most people are going to deal with a mental health issue at some point in time, and the vast majority are working successfully. So this ideally would be a non-issue when it comes to consideration with hiring, we don’t need to pigeon hole people based on mental health issues. We have very good evidence of the benefits when individuals are given supportive work environments, it’s really a ‘win-win’ for everyone. Workplaces can’t argue against the benefits of that.

Hayley: What do you hope to see achieved from awareness campaigns like this week’s ‘CMHA – National Mental Health Week’, what do you hope people take away from the #GETLOUD campaign?
Dr. Samra: It may sound simple, but having the dialogue. I still feel that we’re just starting to normalize something that is normative. But there’s still a lot of stigma and we don’t see mental health issues as a normative experience. My hope is that with more education and awareness that people continue to have these discussions. I hope that people that themselves are struggling, or have a family member or loved one who is affected, have the courage to take steps to reach out for support, or encourage their loved one to do so. There are such amazing evidence-based treatments that exist; seeing a professional about your mental health issues has so many benefits. I also hope that with that increase in self-awareness, that people have the heart and empathy to reach out people in their environment that are struggling. There’s still such a silence around mental health issues, my hope is that people reach out with the same empathy that they respond to with other medical/ illnesses that people face.

For more information about Dr. Samra and the latest initiatives she’s involved in, see DrJotiSamra.com and MyWorkplaceHealth.com. You can also connect with her via social media @drjotisamra and @myworkhealth.

Hayley Richards

Engagement & Communications Coordinator at Calgary Alternative Employment Services
I have a background in mental health and have had the pleasure of working in several different human service capacities. I am thrilled to continue to partner with other Calgarians to foster more inclusive communities through the areas of workplace psychological health, non-profit marketing and branding, and diversity recruitment and retention.
Hayley Richards