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The HR Mental Health Policies That Matter


What do workers who struggle with mental health and addiction issues really value from their employer?

Smiling man with apron preparing coffee for customer in his small business.
Photo: StratfordProductions

For people with mental health and addiction challenges, just doing one’s job can be a major struggle. They can feel judged by their co-workers and bosses; they may need to take time off for important appointments; or they may require accommodation on the length of shifts worked.

In recent years, human resources departments have developed policies and practices aimed at supporting employees facing such challenges. Some of the initiatives may be effective, others less so. But what do people on the receiving end of that support value most?

A recent study takes aim at that central question and, in the process, highlights the critical role supervisors and co-workers play in creating more inclusive environments.

The study was conducted by Kelley Packalen, an associate professor of strategy, organization and entrepreneurship at Smith School of Business, with Kaitlyn Sobchuk, Kelly Qin-Wang, Jenelle Cheetham, Jaclyn Hildebrand, Agnieszka Fecica and Rosemary Lysaght from the School of Rehabilitation Therapy at Queen’s University.

For the study, Packalen and her colleagues interviewed employees of seven work integration social enterprises (WISEs) located in Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton and London. WISEs are an ideal setting for this research; these small businesses hire and support vulnerable community members, including those struggling with poor mental health and addiction.

“They operate as legitimate businesses, such as cafés,” says Packalen. “From a consumer perspective, you wouldn’t necessarily know that it was a social enterprise because it looks similar to any independent café.”

The researchers interviewed 22 WISE workers who self-identified as having serious and persistent mental illness. The workers were asked to speak about the best and worst parts of working at the social enterprise, how those experiences compared to other jobs they held, and what aspects of working in the WISE helped them achieve positive changes for their mental health and social and work lives.

Their responses were then categorized into HR-related themes, which helped the researchers identify the different factors that went into creating positive experiences for the employees.

Destigmatizing and accommodating

Participants identified three HR practices and two priorities that they felt were important.

The first HR practice was simply destigmatizing mental illness so that workers are not judged by others. “This is just about being able to walk in and know you don’t have to talk about it,” says Packalen. “There’s a general understanding that everyone here is a little bit different, and everyone has their challenges, and that’s okay. They don’t have to be worried if they’re going to be found out.”

The second HR practice identified favourably was support for time away from work without feeling guilty. This makes it easier for employees to attend appointments with doctors and therapists, for example, which helps them maintain their health and wellness.

Flexibility in work hours and schedules was the third important HR practice. “This particular population has, probably, more severe challenges than you may see in a regular workforce,” Packalen explains. She adds that many of these employees could be on medication, for example, which causes drowsiness in the mornings, making it more difficult to work early shifts.

Flexible scheduling allows these employees to work later in the day while continuing to take the medication they need, she says.

As for the two employee-related priorities to which the WISEs were committed, interview participants singled out the opportunities for skills development and personal development. For example: a restaurant worker earning a food handler certification or learning how to interact with customers.

“Some of this population is transitioning into work, maybe for the first time,” Packalen says. “These individuals may not have soft skills or more technical skills, and it’s important to help them develop these skills.”

How colleagues can help

The workers who were interviewed for the study made it clear that supervisors and co-workers played a critical role in delivering on these HR practices and priorities. At the end of the day, Packalen says, it’s the supervisors in a position to enact the policy who can make a difference.

She adds that co-workers are also important in creating a supportive environment. They can help their colleagues develop skills and can be more understanding if a co-worker needs to take time off for an appointment.

Packalen says study participants often linked negative experiences to conflicts with unsupportive peers and to supervisors who did not understand the population they were working with.

“Occasionally, these organizations would bring in a supervisor who didn’t have that mental health training or familiarity working with that population,” she says. “That was where we would sometimes see more challenges.”

Replicating in other workplaces

WISEs receive funding to support their social mission, which allows them to hire more staff and maintain shorter work shifts. But this funding is minimal, and these organizations run on small budgets, Packalen notes. “WISEs are able to do these things despite their small operating budgets,” she says. “We found that these are not expensive interventions. They’re just about awareness, some training and some empathy. We see this is applicable to larger organizations as well because a little bit can go a long way.”

Packalen says conventional businesses can ensure their HR policies for employees with mental health and addiction challenges are implemented — but progress must start at the top of the organization. It is not enough to just advertise great policies that are undercut by the rhythms of working life.

“For example, there might be an emphasis on work-life balance, but then every lunch hour there’s a working meeting,” she says. “Enacting these policies from the top can set the tone so that you can see your supervisors themselves are adhering to it as well, and it’s not just the lower level.”

Packalen adds that if management supports the HR practices in place, organizations will have stronger and more productive teams, which will help them meet business demands.

“We’ve seen stories in the press about the challenge of presenteeism — people who come to work but do not fully engage,” she says. “Often presenteeism occurs because employees fear being fired if they don’t show up. Our research suggests that if companies provide workers flexibility during times of compromised health, they can reduce presenteeism and increase retention of valuable team members.”