Mental health is the capacity for each of us to feel, think and act in ways that strengthen our ability to enjoy life and deal with its inherent challenges. It is often described as how we feel and act — our behaviors, mood, and attitude toward our lives and our environment. We often reveal our mental health through our ability to cope and respond to stress, how authentically we express ourselves, how we relate to family and friends, and how we operate at home, work, or school.

Symptoms of poor mental health, such as depression and anxiety, are all on the rise. Mental illness costs organizations billions of dollars annually in lost productivity and increased benefit expenses. In fact, it has become the number one cause of disability in Canada. The Conference Board of Canada recently estimated the cost to the economy of lost labour market participation from the six most common conditions afflicting the working-age population – depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, social phobia, panic disorder, and agoraphobia. These six alone will cost about $20.7 billion in 2012. Advancing at a rate of almost two percent every year, this will grow to $29.1 billion annually by 2030. Despite all we know about mental illness and its treatment, organizations continue to be at a loss as to how to address this growing crisis.

While the costs associated mental illness in the workplace are not appropriately determined by employers, mental illness can be directly and indirectly linked to the bottom line. This includes decreased revenues, increased expenses and a negative impact on customer and peer relationships. Many large companies now realize that their employees’ productivity is connected to their emotional health and well-being but are at a loss as to what to do about it. 

What Causes Mental Illness?

Mental distress is a direct result of frustrated emotional needs and living in a constant state of self-protection. It happens because of thoughts and feelings occurring in the brain that lead to more despair and feelings of helplessness. Mental health and well-being comes when we are intrinsically satisfied by what we are doing and when our emotional needs are met at work. Negative mental states or brain states can be transformed when we know what we must do to satisfy our needs. Unfortunately, we know more about how to take care of our cars than we do our brains. Too bad people don’t come with user manuals!  

A lack of understanding around emotions and behavior has created a stigma around mental illness. People are often ashamed of how they are feeling and are reluctant to seek help. In addition, there are so many stigmas attached to mental illness that it prevents people who are suffering (20% of all people) from seeking help. According to The Canadian Mental Health Association, almost half of those suffering never get treatment.

Too often, the responsibility for their employee’s mental health is tasked to organizational leaders without equal expectation for employees to participate. Many try to make employees feel better by giving employees positive feedback or having a dress-down day on Friday. They offer stress reduction programs, yoga or lunch & learns, which all have some positive effects, but fail to get at the root cause of the issues. Mental health programs must be created from two perspectives: “What is the organization doing to create the context for mental health?” and “What is each employee doing to sustain their own mental health?”

How Is Your Organizational Culture Impacting Mental Health?

Culture sets the tone for an organization; if that culture is negative, it can undermine the effectiveness of the best programs, policies and services intended to support the workforce. An unhealthy culture creates more stress in the workplace, which lowers employee well-being. If an organization has a culture of ‘profit at all costs’ and constant chaotic urgency, it can create an environment in which burnout is the norm. While the term “emotional intelligence” is common, the acceptance of an emotional life of employees at work is still far from being realized. We hear it all the time from leaders “I just don’t have the time to deal with emotional issues or conflict. Can’t you do something about it?” The idea that how employees feel doesn’t affect their work is well-known myth. However, most employers still don’t know how to or don’t care to get involved with their employees to partner with them to create mental health at work. Despite the costs and the increase in mental illness in employees, many employers are reluctant to take a business-based approach to creating a positive environment for mental health in their organization.

Employee disengagement, presenteeism, depression and anxiety are common emotional symptoms of mental distress in organizations. Often these symptoms are caused by the organizational culture at work. The way employees are expected to work (deadlines, workload, unclear expectations) and the social context they work in, including relationships with managers and supervisors, colleagues and coworkers, and clients or customers can negatively affect the culture. In addition, a work environment that does not pay attention to whether or not employees trust their leaders and feel they are honest and fair in their dealings sets the stage for mental illness and dysfunction. Employees’ psychological responses to work and work conditions are at the root and need to be addressed rather than ignored or dismissed by leaders.

While taking a programmatic approach to creating mental health in an organization is imperative, it cannot be done without addressing these root causes. Building trust and creating an environment where employees feel cared about takes time, energy and effort. Too often, leaders want to skim over the relational parts of leadership and fail to develop productive social processes within their workplace. As trust and emotional security form the basis for employee engagement, cooperative behavior, commitment, and loyalty, it is imperative to understand what employees need to feel psychologically secure and to emerge from their behavior that is driven by fear and anxiety. 

Time for a New Paradigm to Creating Mental Health in Organizations

The shift that needs to be made is from focusing on mental illness to creating mental health. This approach is inclusive of the needs of employees and the needs of the organization. Because mental health is an emotional problem, any program for creating mental health in organizations must be built by addressing both needs. Using the Striving Styles Whole Person, Whole Organization Mental Health Model for designing programs that ensure both needs are met, organizations ensure their framework is inclusive of the whole person/whole organization.

The following are critical elements of the Model to make the paradigm shift to creating mental health. The program:

  • shifts the focus from trying to fix the problem of mental illness to empowering employees to create mental health over the long term
  • address the cultural norms that foster mental dis-stress and dysfunction
  • gets employees to stop blaming the organization and their managers for how they feel and to take their mental health into their own hands
  • identifies the predominant needs of employees, using the Striving Styles Personality System, and creates a culture that is supportive of employee needs
  • trains leaders and managers to engage employees and to identify what they are doing that might be frustrating their employees needs
  • helps leaders and managers get past the fears they may have around employees’ emotions, teaching them to separate the issue from the emotional state of the employee
  • helps remove the stigma of mental health issues

Employers Can Attend to Employee Needs by Helping Employees:

  • take responsibility for their own mental health by understanding what is expected of them in the MH Program around participation
  • understand their predominant need that must be met for them to be satisfied in their work
  • understand the beliefs that create barriers to engagement and help employees work them through
  • build self-awareness and self-management skills
  • build awareness of what they need to feel at work to be satisfied based on their own brain style and what to do about it when they don’t
  • to engage in the creation and maintenance of an open environment that fosters group unity
  • see their progress by providing them with ongoing feedback about changes in their levels of engagement, resilience, adaptability and productivity

Employers Can Attend to Organizational Needs by:

  • creating a dynamic work environment where employees feel valued for who they are and what they contribute
  • providing opportunities for teams to strengthen relationships through shared experiences (i.e. regular and frequent team meetings, training, team building, etc. )
  • identify leaders whose leadership style creates anxiety, fear and distress in employees and provide coaching and training
  • identify departments, teams, workloads that raise stress and anxiety levels and create plans to alleviate the problems
  • provide conflict management and communication training with facilitated round table follow up sessions to encourage working through conflict and using new skills
  • communicating frequently about what is going on in the business (i.e. town hall meetings, lunch with the management team, etc.)
  • holding everyone accountable for their participation in the Creating Mental Health Program and Strategy. In particular, managers and senior leaders must be held accountable for their very important role in making it a success


Investing in a brain-based program for creating mental health reduces the spending on employee absenteeism, reduced productivity and benefit costs associated with mental illness. Organizations that focus on ensuring the experiences employees have at work and in their relationships increase employee sense of their own value, build confidence and engage their intrinsic motivation. Emotional and social support engender a sense of belonging and a robust platform for employee retention. By building a culture that focuses on creating mental health, an organization builds a solid platform for the success of the organization and its members.

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Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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