11/10/2014 05:33 EST | Updated 01/10/2015 05:59 EST

How Canadian Bosses Can Boost Our Mental Health

Natalie Young via Getty Images

Canadians love reward programs. Air miles, groceries, power tools, and even a mopping robot -- you name it, we'll collect points to get it. Free stuff apparently makes us feel good.

Now there's an incentive program where even the act of earning points can help make us happier -- by encouraging Canadian employers and employees to make our workplaces less stressful and more supportive of our overall mental health.

Every week, more than a half-million Canadians miss work because of mental health problems, costing the Canadian economy over $50 billion a year. So there's good reason why the Economic Club of Canada teamed up with business leaders and mental health organizations to launch the Wellth Management Mental Health at Work Challenge this fall in cities across the country.

Under the program, organizations sign up and take steps to implement Canada's National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety, and in doing so they earn points toward bronze, silver, gold and platinum-level recognition for their commitment to mental health in the workplace. Meanwhile, employees can rack up points by taking online courses on workplace mental health, and earn prizes like spa packages, all-paid vacations and fancy restaurant meals.

In all, it's a creative and motivating way to get more Canadians thinking about mental health in the place we spend most of our waking weekday hours.

While our jobs are frequently a major source of stress and anxiety, our employers are in an ideal position to champion the issue of mental health by creating a work environment in which people thrive mentally and by offering support with mental health challenges. It's also in organizations' best financial interest to get on board, as mental health problems drain productivity through absenteeism, reduced work output and increased disability claims.

We asked two experts -- Joseph Ricciuti of Toronto-based Mental Health International and Karla Thorpe from the Mental Health Commission of Canada -- for the best first steps that employers can take to build mentally healthy workplaces. Try taking some of these ideas to your boss, including the online points challenge --and don't forget to mention the free spa package!

1. Understand mental health

"A lot of people think they know mental illness," says Ricciuti, "but they often fall for the same old stereotypes." A key first step is to promote mutual understanding among all employees about what mental illness is and what it isn't, he says. Creating a company-wide conversation helps reduce stigma and encourages employees who are suffering in silence to seek help.

2. Know your employees' mental health needs

Surveys, town halls or expanding the mandate of the workplace health and safety committee are all means of learning where the mental health gaps are in your workplace, as is soliciting input from employees on improvements that can be made.

3. Reduce workplace stressors

Unreasonable work demands, inadequate support and resources, lack of control over work-related decisions, and imbalances between effort and reward are all common elements that can increase the likelihood of an employee having a mental disorder, and contribute to distress, burnout and demoralization. Employers need to find ways to assess whether employees' social and professional skill sets are a good fit with their job descriptions, their goals can be met on time, and if they have a healthy balance between work, family and personal life.

4. Foster healthy relationships

Provide mandatory leadership training for supervisors to manage their teams effectively and sensitively. This learning includes how to root out performances issues versus mental health issues, and how to detect when an employee needs help. Emotional intelligence training for all staff helps ensure that policies around workplace civility and respect are realized in practice.

5. Provide access to mental health resources

Thorpe recommends employers include counselling and other mental health resources in their benefit packages to help staff overcome the financial hurdle of seeking professional help. Employee assistance programs provide confidential access to counselling on any number of life issues--from marriage and parenting, to finances and mental illness--to help people cope with challenges that come up outside of the workplace.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


Photo galleryMental Health At Work See Gallery