National standard gives us a mirror we can hold up to spot gaps in our own systems

The key to a happy ship is to keep everyone safe on board, and not focus our efforts solely on trying to rescue anyone who happens to fall overboard.

The same can be said about mental wellness in the workplace. It’s about the very nature of the workplace as whole, and everyone in it, all the time. It’s not just about reacting to incidents or seemingly isolated cases.

Not to say we shouldn’t have life jackets and guardrails and lookouts and a dinghy ready to launch if anyone goes in the water. But Job One is to do everything we can to make sure we only rarely need to use any of those things.

But, where to start?

One of the big problems faced by organizations that are trying their best to manage and improve mental wellness in the workplace is that the whole topic seems really hard to define.

Well, a good place to start is the National Standard of Canada – Psychological health and safety in the workplace. This makes very interesting reading  — it is both useful and practical.

Interestingly, the standard gives a definition of what is meant by “mental health” as it applies in the workplace. (it’s basically the same as the term “mental wellness” that we often use.)

Definition: Here’s how the Standard defines mental health: “A state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” (When they say “realizes his or her abilities,” I think they’re saying “put their abilities to the fullest possible use.”)

And what does it take to achieve this? The Standard comes through for us on that question, too: it’s all about human needs.

The human needs: These human needs, according to the standard, “include security and physiological safety, belonging, social justice, self-worth, self-esteem, self-efficacy, accomplishment, or autonomy.” When met, these requirements lead to psychological and organizational health; when unmet, they can be risk factors for psychological distress.

So this is all good stuff. It tells us – as most or all of the readers of this blog already know – that we want to build a well workplace in which all employees enjoy the state of well-being that comes from having our human needs met (as least as far as work goes).

The Standard then lists what it calls the “strategic pillars” of a comprehensive plan:

– prevention of harm,

– promotion of health, and

– resolution of incidents or concerns.

Okay, all fine and well. But how do these principles apply in the real world? What should we actually be doing? How do we identify problem areas that may exist in our organization and, if we want to fix them, what will they look like once they’re fixed?

In other words, how do we translate standards and principles and good intentions into changes we can implement that will make a difference?

Let’s go back to the three pillars of the national standard and look at them in terms of human needs and the definition of mental health in the workplace. That’s the model we can hold up and compare ourselves to.

Prevention of harm:

– Are any of the human needs missing from our workplace structure or our culture?

– If we chat with people, will they tell us that social justice is a bit weak on the ground?

– Are self-worth or self-esteem of employees somewhat diminished because the reporting structure does not always give credit where credit is due for accomplishment?

– Are job descriptions the best they can be for getting the job done and giving the employees a sense of fulfilment?

In other words, are we doing harm by holding back on fulfilment of human needs in any of these areas?

Promotion of health:

This is the other side of the same coin. We can go down the list of needs, one by one, and ask ourselves, a series of questions for each one.

– What can we do to enhance the feeling of belonging that we should all be sharing in the workplace?

– How can we improve social justice?

– How can we better recognize accomplishment?

– How do we free people to do a good job using all of their skills?

Resolution of incidents or concerns:

This is where most of our efforts have been concentrated in the past. This is where the employee assistance plan (EAP) fits in – or telehealth, or counseling services and all of the programs and policies that workplaces have instituted to assist employees in crisis. These things remain as important as they ever were and we should even be looking at extending and improving them.

The only problem with resolution of incidents is that we may be putting all of our effort into, for example, removing the stigma of asking for help with stress and burnout, when we could much more profitably and effectively put effort into removing stress and preventing burnout.

So here’s the thing. We need the lifeboats and the comfort that comes from knowing that they are in place and that they’ll do the job if we need them. But what we really want is the happy ship that never needs a lifeboat because all our are people safe on board.


Member spotlight: Bill Zolis. Benefits Alliance does a regular feature called Meet the Member, and I guess it was my turn. Five quick questions – actually it was fun.


I really appreciate comments, ideas, suggestions or just observations about the blog or any other topics in benefits management. I always look forward to hearing from readers. If there’s anything you want to share, please email me at

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