Improving the mental health of Canadian workers

By CPABC in Focus
May 7, 2021
Photo credit: nadia_bormotova/iStock/Getty Images

Did you know that Canada has both a national mental health strategy and a National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace? While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly shone a brighter spotlight on mental health issues, the federal government has actually been working to improve the mental health of Canadians—including at work—for almost 20 years. Here’s a summary of the strategy and the standard, two of the most significant national initiatives to date.

Mental health milestones:1

  • 2007: The federal government creates the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and tasks it with developing a strategy that will serve the mental health needs of all Canadians.
  • 2011: The MHCC releases The Life and Economic Impact of Major Mental Illnesses in Canada: 2011 to 2041, a seminal report that helps shape its mental health strategy.
  • 2012: The MHCC officially launches the Mental Health Strategy for Canada, the country’s first national mental health framework.
  • 2013: The MHCC spearheads the creation of a national voluntary standard for employers, called the “National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.” It is recognized as the first standard of its kind in the world.
  • 2016: The MHCC releases an updated framework to accelerate the uptake of its national mental health strategy.
  • 2020: The MHCC creates an online resource hub to help Canadians navigate COVID-19 and partners with the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction to study the impact of the pandemic on mental health and substance use.

Transforming Canada’s mental health system

The Mental Health Strategy for Canada2 consists of 26 priorities and 109 recommendations for action, grouped under the following six strategic directions:

  1. Promote mental health across the lifespan in homes, schools, and workplaces, and prevent mental illness and suicide wherever possible.
  2. Foster recovery and well-being for people of all ages living with mental health problems and illnesses, and uphold their rights.
  3. Provide access to the right combination of services, treatments and supports, when and where people need them.
  4. Reduce disparities in risk factors and access to mental health services, and strengthen the response to the needs of diverse communities and Northerners.
  5. Work with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis to address their mental health needs, acknowledging their distinct circumstances, rights, and cultures.
  6. Mobilize leadership, improve knowledge, and foster collaboration at all levels.

Promoting mental health and preventing harm in the workplace

The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace3 is a voluntary set of guidelines, tools, and resources to help employers promote mental health and prevent psychological harm in the workplace.

Adoption of the standard involves creating a Psychological Health and Safety Management System that incorporates five key integrated elements:

  • Commitment, leadership, and participation;
  • Planning;
  • Implementation;
  • Evaluation and corrective action; and
  • Management review.

Download the MHCC’s free implementation guide, Assembling the Pieces: An Implementation Guide to the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

Protecting mental health isn’t just a liability issue for employers—it’s a productivity and retention issue as well4 

  • 1 in 5 Canadians experience mental illness every year.
  • 1 in 2 Canadians experience mental illness by the age of 40.
  • The annual economic burden of mental illness in Canada is approximately $50 billion.
  • Mental illness in the workplace translates to an annual wage-based productivity impact of over $6.3 billion.
  • Every week, 500,000 Canadians miss work due to mental health issues.
  • Mental illness represents 30% of disability claims but accounts for 70% of the total costs of disability claims.
  • The MHCC predicts that by 2041…
    • 8.9 million Canadians will be living with a mental illness; and
    • The total economic burden of mental health issues in Canada will reach $2.5 trillion.

Case studies show that employer attitudes are changing

In its three-year Case Study Research Project,5 the MHCC studied 40 organizations across Canada as they implemented the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. These organizations ranged in size and sector.

Average rate of compliance with the standard

  • At the start of the project (2014): 55%
  • At the end of the project (2017): 72%

Top reasons for implementing the standard (2017 data):

  • Doing the “right” thing: 90%
  • Protecting employees’ psychological health: 84%
  • Increasing engagement: 72%
  • Enhancing reputation: 63%
  • Managing costs: 47%
  • Reducing liability: 41%

Top psychological health and safety actions (2017 data):

  • 78% of the organizations enacted respectful workplace policy and education programs.
  • 70% provided employee and family assistance programs.
  • 66% enhanced employees’ awareness of mental health.
  • 61% carried out resilience-building activities.
  • 59% supported stay-at-work programs.
  • 59% trained managers on how to respond to mental health issues at work.


This article was originally published as an infographic in the May/June 2021 issue of CPABC in Focus.

1 Mental Health Commission of Canada, Accessed March 30, 2021.

2 Ibid.

3 MHCC, Case Study Research Findings, March 2017.

4 Smetanin, P., Stiff, D., Briante, C., Adair, C.E., Ahmad, S. and Khan, M., The Life and Economic Impact of Major Mental Illnesses in Canada: 2011 to 2041. RiskAnalytica, on behalf of the MHCC, December 2011; and MHCC, Changing Directions, Changing Lives: The Mental Health Strategy for Canada, 2012.

5 MHCC, Case Study Research Findings.

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