The Government of Canada was the nation’s largest employer with 274,370 employees in 2018, according to Statistics Canada. The Government responds to the changing needs of Canadians by providing faster, more efficient, citizen-centred services. It also adapts to advanced technologies by shifting into high gear to collaborate and break silos. Meanwhile, the issues of mental health remain a blind spot – ignored and rejected.

Mental health became a topic of public discussion in 2010 when Bell Canada started the “Let’s Talk” campaign. The aim was to remove the stigma attached to mental health. Employers and schools now fight the battle against mental health by offering services like counselling and therapy to those who need it. The Government of Canada joined hands in this campaign through its employee assistance program, suicide prevention toolkit, resources for money management, healthy lifestyle tips, and tricks for managing everyday stresses.

Have these resources been enough?

In 2017, the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX) compiled the results of the Executive Work and Health Survey completed by 3,075 members. Of note:

  • 51 per cent reported that most days were extremely or quite stressful;
  • 70 per cent thought of leaving their job at least once in the last six months; and
  • 21 per cent classified themselves as having mental health issues, which was 10 per cent higher than in 2012.

With so many resources in place since 2010, why are mental health problems increasing rather than decreasing? What is the threshold considered significant enough to declare that there is a problem?

The mind and body work together; if one becomes weak, it affects total output. Public servants with mental health challenges experience effects on productivity, job satisfaction, and work atmosphere. Related outcomes impact the level and quality of services, as well as increasing time off from work, disability claims, and costs to employers.

Public service renewal through Blueprint 2020 promises to deliver more efficient, accessible, citizen-centred services to Canadians. The Government needs to make sure that its primary delivery capacity, its employees, are healthy enough to fulfil its commitment.

The way forward

The resources in place may be too external and unapproachable to have an impact on employee well-being. The Government of Canada needs more internal mental health campaigns to not only educate employees but also to establish resources that are accessible within the public service.

One suggestion is mandatory First Aid Mental Health training for all senior managers. The most important step is to be able to recognize the signs of an unhealthy mind. Management needs to be equipped with resources to address the problem once recognized. This might include discussing possible work arrangements to help employees get their health back on track. Or it might mean helping them get external services to deal with the problem.

Employers need to be able to recognize the signs of distress or suffering to adjust workload or time off for employees to cope with the situation.

Another suggestion is to practice healthy mental well-being. Managers must champion mental health exercises that are applicable to their workplace. Examples include managing stress in a fast-paced call centre or managing high workload volumes in a high-demand workplace. Employers need to lead the fight against mental health and be a beacon of hope in the workplace.

Employers also need to monitor changes more frequently. Surveys should be done semi-annually rather than relying on annual APEX surveys. More frequent surveys increase timely notification and resolution of problems.

The needs and priorities of Canadians in a fast-paced, complex, uncertain environment continue to evolve. It is imperative that employers keep the health of their employees centre stage. Without the main cast, the show cannot go on.