Canadian departmental chiefs handed mental health brief
The Canadian government has launched a new strategy to tackle workplace mental health problems, giving departmental chiefs responsibility for addressing a major cause of long-term sick leave.
The workplace mental health strategy requires every federal organisation to draw up their own action plans on mental health, which accounts for almost half of all disability insurance claims in the federal public service. Deputy heads – the most senior officials in each department – are now expected to promote positive mental health, identify gaps in support, and prevent psychological harm due to workplace factors.
The strategy was implemented in a bid to bring down the number of people on long-term sick leave due to mental health problems, said Michael Wernick, Canada’s clerk of the privy council and cabinet secretary, in an exclusive interview with Global Government Forum.
He said that the Canadian government, like many others, had failed to prioritise mental health in its disability management system. “Our disability management system has not been good on mental health – but not many people could say theirs is,” he commented.
As a result, he explained, “mental health issues have tended to surface in the disability insurance scheme, because people were unable to return to work due to conditions which are very difficult to X-ray and measure.”
“What tended to happen was people would slide off into long term sick leave and be forgotten. We had this sort of zombie class of people walking around, not being dealt with, not being treated properly, and community healthcare services in mental health are not great.”
In 2015, 49% of all disability insurance claims in public service were due to mental health conditions, with about half of those due to depression.
Wernick said frontline managers would now be provided with mental health first aid training, and there would be a focus on de-stigmatising mental health issues. The government is also looking into whether there is enough coverage in the insurance scheme to fund the use of psychologists.
Wernick praised the public service unions, pointing out that – despite heavy collective bargaining on issues like compensation and job security – the unions are fully on board with the government’s plans on mental health. “This is an area where there’s no friction and they’ve been incredibly helpful, which is nice to see,” he said.
The federal public service is the largest employer in Canada, employing more than 250,000 people in 125 organisations.
The mental health strategy will evolve over time, based on research and employee feedback. It has three main goals: to change workplace culture to be more respectful towards mental health issues; to develop tools and resources for employees; and to measure and report on progress.
In March 2015, the government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada established a joint mental health taskforce, which reported back in December 2015 and May 2016. The new strategy builds on its findings.
Click here for our full interview with Michael Wernick
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