indicatorPeople and Culture

Making mental health conversations the workplace norm

By ATB Financial 18 September 2020 6 min read

Mental health once was a taboo topic—especially at work. Now the conversation around mental health has started, but we’ve got a long way to go in making it normal to talk about. So how can you encourage open communication about mental health among your team members and in your workplace?

Encourage mental health check-ins for team-members

Well, we have some suggestions. One of your primary goals as a business owner is to normalize mental health conversations in your workplace, so your team members feel comfortable and safe to bring up the topic, and get their mental health needs met so they can do their job.

An approach you can take is creating a routine mental health check-in in team meetings (whether that’s once a week, once a day, or whenever a team meets), where you, your leaders and team members assess how you’re feeling emotionally, physically and mentally, without any expectations of disclosing or having to self-diagnose (we always leave that up to the professionals!).

An important note: Keep in mind that creating a safe environment takes time, and team members could potentially feel obligated to say that they’re doing well, especially in the presence of leaders. A leader should always share how they’re doing first, then invite other team members to share in whatever way they’re comfortable, whether that’s privately or within a small group. Be patient—this will take effort and time.

At ATB we use the Mental Health Continuum Model, with gradients from green to yellow, to orange and red for varying degrees of mental health distress. A comparable way for you to integrate this concept into your workplace is to use a traffic light as a metaphor for you and your team to identify your experiences.

You could identify with “feeling green,” which means you’re good to go as usual, or yellow, a warning that you should “proceed with caution,” or red, which indicates that you need to stop and evaluate. These colours are used as a self-evaluation, in private or with a group depending on how psychologically safe people feel.

Unlike traffic lights, people’s mental health isn’t clean cut—it’s a spectrum. Someone could feel great in one aspect of their life (green), but another part is starting to experience stress (yellow), so they could say that they’re feeling “lime.”

This approach gives your team the chance to share that they’re “in the red today" without having to give details—it provides a safe, confidential way to voice where they’re at with their mental health to the team without it having to be too personal. This way, you can ask them what they need to get back in the green—maybe you can assign them support to make their workload manageable, give them some time off, or whatever you can do to support their mental health.

A few important things to keep in mind when you establish these mental health check-ins in your workplace:

  • Just because a team member is experiencing mental health issues doesn’t mean they have a mental illness.
  • Mental health isn’t categorized by “good” or “bad”—it’s a spectrum.
  • Leave any diagnosing to a mental health professional—as a business leader, your job is to accommodate and ultimately help your team members succeed at work.

In 2016, there were 500,000 Canadian employees who weren’t at work for mental health reasons, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Not only do mental health struggles take a toll on your people—they can have devastating effects on your business—you want to keep your workforce and give them whatever support you can.

Being able to spot the warning signs of mental health struggles, and equipping your team members to do the same are part of normalizing conversations around mental health, and allow you to give the support your team needs to thrive in their job and their mental health.


Mental health and inclusion: an inseparable duo

Part of taking care of your team’s mental health and the health of your business is making diversity and inclusion a priority. If people of diverse backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, beliefs, abilities, orientations and more don’t feel a sense of belonging or have equal opportunity within your company, their mental health (and performance) will take a hit.

Your business could take a hit as well, if diversity and inclusion aren’t taken seriously. According to research from Deloitte, diverse and inclusive workplaces are two times more likely to meet or exceed their financial goals, six times more likely to be innovative and six times more likely to effectively anticipate change.

So, what can you do in your workplace as the business owner? Here are some practical actions to get you started:

  • Provide bias awareness training: many of us hold unconscious bias that can get in the way of creating a workplace that’s safe for all people—recognizing our own bias is the first step to eliminating it.
  • Have team members take an Implicit Association Test (and take it yourself!): expose the stereotypes and attitudes you and your team members have so you know what needs to change.
  • Write results-based job descriptions: these descriptions focus on the outcomes the organization needs from that particular role to accomplish its mission and goals. This allows for anyone who’s able to make these outcomes happen to have a fair chance at the job.
  • Conduct blind screenings to minimize unconscious biases during interviews: unconscious bias—judgments that people don’t realize they’re making based on someone's gender, race, or even name—are detrimental to your organization’s success and diversity. Luckily there are ways to hire without those biases getting in the way.
  • Ban “culture fit” as a reason for rejecting a candidate: hiring only the people you’d hang out with is a sure way to squash diversity—you’ll probably end up with a ton of similar people. Look for “culture add” in candidates instead—new and unique skills and perspectives that don’t already exist in your organization.
  • Convert all job descriptions to using gender-neutral language

Something we’ve done at ATB to encourage diversity and inclusion is creating inclusion networks. Our team members created six networks that all aim to empower each team member to be courageously themselves and allies for each other. These networks include:

  • An Indigenous network
  • A Black team member network
  • A South Asian team member network
  • MHAT: Mental Health Action team member network
  • An LGBTQ2+ network
  • A group for team members who are new to Canada
  • A group for ATB team members of Filipino heritage
  • Ellevate, a group for empowering women at ATB
  • The Ability team, for team members with disabilities

These networks have given the opportunity for like-minded people to build relationships with and support each other. Plus, they help guide our organization in how to communicate with and attract diverse talent and customers.

“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance...and belonging is dancing like nobody's watching.” -Vernã Myers

Resources for business leaders to integrate mental health into the workplace

If you’re looking for a deep dive on everything you need to know around how to grow your business and integrate a stronger focus on workplace culture and wellness, our ATB X Accelerator program might be just the place for you. Alternatively, feel free to reach out to one of our entrepreneur strategists to explore where you are with your business, where you want to be, and how to get there!

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