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The Economic Case for Health, Wellness and Balance at Work

I spent most of my career in pretty hard-charging Type-A cultures, where it really was ‘survival of the fittest’ and those of us who had more rounded temperaments kept those ‘softer’ aspects of themselves well masked in order to fit in and stay on the fast track.

That’s how I rationalize the fact that still today my eyes glaze over when people start talking to me about work-life balance. ‘Suck it up’ is the response most commonly offered up by that sarcastic voice in my head.

More and more I’m learning that having a psychologically safe and healthy workplace isn’t just the right or legal thing to do; nor should it be delegated to the HR department to manage. It’s a strategic issue and a competitive enabler that makes good business sense:

Research by the Consortium for Organizational Mental Healthcare (COMH) at Simon Fraser University shows that when businesses adopt policies and programs to address psychological safety and health, they book between 15% and 33% fewer costs related to psychological health issues. Mental health problems are expected to be the root of more than 50% of all disability claims administered over the next five years—making it even more pertinent for employers to address these issues now.

Further, new research shows conclusively that a manager’s approach to work-life balance predicts how likely her employees are to have a heart attack or a stroke, events that the Conference Board of Canada estimates cost $25 Billion annually in direct costs alone. The study found that inflexible managerial practices correlated very accurately with employees’ cardiovascular status as well as their sleep patterns. Managers who believe that employees should leave home issues at home are those most likely to put their employees at risk, increasing the odds of a catastrophic health event up to six-fold.

In the past, we’ve spoken at length about the importance of ensuring your managers are providing the right glue in the organization – they need to be talent magnets who are capable of weaving strong, productive relationships with (and between) the people under their stewardship. The days of a demanding boss who uses terror tactics around the office are over—at least in the eyes of the law.

“There is an increased willingness in the law to recognize this concept of mental injury. And a willingness to recognize that mental injury is created by conduct in the workplace,” explains Martin Shain, founder of the Caledon, Ont.-based Neighbour at Work Centre (quoted in Benefits Canada). “Ten years ago, the law recognized only really outrageous acts of abuse that resulted in mental injury. [Now,] the whole thing has shifted toward a higher standard of care and a lower threshold of liability. It’s easier to get into trouble as an employer.”

The Mental Health Commission of Canada cites that between 10% and 25% of workplaces are characterized by conditions and environments that are considered “mentally injurious.” Occupational health physician specialists report that 50% to 60% of their caseloads are related directly or indirectly to mental health concerns.

With greater frequency, courts are deciding that in cases where an employee is overloaded with chronic, unreasonable work demands, the employer should have known that these demands could cause mental stress… and that they should have taken steps to diffuse the stress. Employers don’t generally intend to create psychologically unsafe situations at work. It’s often a matter of simply not understanding the extent of the issue or poor communication between all parties involved.

Having what the law determines is a psychologically safe workplace doesn’t require extreme efforts on the part of employers. A psychologically safe workplace is one where people can come in, do the job they are hired to do and leave in the same or better shape than when they got there. It doesn’t mean people have to have their dream job, just that it’s mentally healthy and not causing psychological damage.

According to, “While having a job can improve a person’s outlook on life, having the wrong job can actually make them more miserable”. Citing research by Dr. Liana Leach at the Australian National University, it seems that people are healthier in jobs that are satisfying to them and that meet their needs. In fact, people who moved from unemployment to jobs that were a poor fit were much more likely to be depressed than those who remained unemployed.

Simply paying attention to the critical aspects of fit – having the right employee in the right job, working with the right manager and the right team goes a long way towards setting the stage for this kind of positive mental energy.

How hard can that be?

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