Despite recent efforts to alleviate much of the stigma, for many small businesses workplace discussions about mental health can still be difficult to have. The issue is two-fold: stressful work environments can either cause mental health struggles or accelerate pre-existing issues. The result is the same either way: lower employee morale, retention, and productivity. On the flip side, a supportive workplace with open channels of communication about mental health can go a long way to alleviating symptoms, leading to more productivity and better well being.
With over 15 years as a registered psychotherapist in Toronto, Vera Cheng has seen many patients experiencing anxiety and depression and how it often exacerbates challenges in their work lives. But if COVID was good for anything, she says, it was how it forced companies to take their employees’ overall well being more seriously, and helped contribute to the normalization of discussions about mental health in the workplace. The response has been a slow shift towards mental health initiatives being incorporated into the structures of companies big and small.
“In the past, there was so much mental health stigma,” says Cheng, “but now we're recognizing that mental health is still health, and in order for employers to support their employees, it's really important to have an open dialogue with their employees.”
Nonetheless, the pandemic and its working from home scenarios introduced entirely new stresses for both small business owners and their employees — having to live and work in a compressed space for a prolonged period of time, with seemingly fewer and fewer boundaries between work and personal life. But at the same time, Cheng points out, employees also justifiably stressed about the prospect of returning to in-person work and the possibility of getting sick. While these sorts of issues can’t be solved at the level of an individual company, the anxieties raised can be addressed with workplace initiatives and policies designed to make employees feel safe, comfortable, and connected at work.
Even small things can help. “Social events, whether in person or virtual, during work hours or after work hours, help people interact with one another, so they're not just focused on working all the time,” says Cheng. “Another initiative is companies implementing specific times of the day that are blocked off with no meetings at all. I have seen a lot of clients who have meetings back-to-back and they don't have any time to do the actual work because they're constantly in meetings. I have also seen employer’s hosting a lunch-and-learn seminar regarding meditation or really how to take care of yourself,” she continued.
Cheng recommends that anyone experiencing mental health struggles take it one day at a time and contact their family doctor for a proper evaluation.
With hiring freezes and leaner workplaces due to the economic consequences of COVID — and its knock-on effects, like supply chain delays — many people are expected to work longer hours, leading to burnout and employees quitting at a higher rate. As a result, many small business owners have struggled with high staff turnover and a tightening labour supply. In this environment, efforts to enhance the mental well being of staff is one of the smartest investments in employee retention an owner can make — encouraging staff to feel more valued by the company, and more practically, reducing rates of workplace burnout and stress.
Jazmin Johnson, the owner of Pictus Goods, a Toronto florist and gift shop, has seen first-hand the positive effects of prioritizing mental health initiatives in the workplace. Having previously worked in high-stress jobs where talk of mental health was discouraged, Johnson knew she wanted to run her business differently. Johnson is also aware of the challenges that running a business has on her own mental health. “Something that I've struggled with the most is how to take a proper break,” she says, adding that it can sometimes feel impossible to turn work “off”, with emails and social media flowing into off-work hours.
Another large mental health stressor for small business owners? Finances. The unpredictability of certain markets, as well as having staff to pay, compounds the anxiety of owning a small business and trying to succeed.
“The stress as a small business owner is navigating the finances because they are so up and down. Especially when you bring staff on, you have the responsibility of paying them, whatever your sales or cash flow look like. I think that for me, the two hardest things are being able to turn off and being able to navigate the finances stress-free when everything is so inconsistent, specifically in the floral industry.”
Johnson takes a proactive approach with her staff—encouraging transparent communication between team members on how they’re doing mentally and encouraging breaks when needed. By providing paid mental health days, Johnson ensures that financial stress does not influence employees' choice to take needed time off.
“I offer mental health days that are paid if you're not feeling well and you just can't come in. I don't really want the stress of finances to impact your need for a day off. I think that creating that safe space has been really helpful for me as a business owner because I can be really transparent with my staff if I'm not feeling well, and for the employees it means they can be transparent with me.”
Johnson notes that it rarely happens that mental health days need to be used, but the knowledge that they’re available allows a more open work environment—for both herself and the staff. These small measures have a large effect on business, including healthy interpersonal relationships and higher productivity.
“If people are having bad mental health days, the productivity levels aren’t going to be very high and taking a reset is probably going to benefit the employer and the employees in the long run.”
If you’re interested in accessing more resources about mental health and the workplace:
McKinsey & Company, “How employers can improve their approach to mental health at work”
Mind Your Mind, “Coping with Transition During a Pandemic”
Resilience Development Co., training programs for promoting performance, growth, and well being in the workplace
Advice and research for Canadian small businesses from our expert team