Canada’s head bureaucrat makes mental health in the workplace a top priority

Kathryn May, Postmedia News

Canada’s top bureaucrat is making mental health in the workplace a top management priority in this year’s performance contracts for all deputy ministers.

Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick has notified deputy ministers that they will be assessed on the health and well-being of their departments. That means a portion of their performance pay will be tied to how well their departments are faring in building a “respectful” workplace.

It’s the second year in a row that the public service’s top bureaucrat has made mental health a management priority, which advocates say is key to driving the rollout of a much-anticipated strategy on how to make the public service a healthy workplace.

It’s unclear when the new strategy will be completed but officials say within months.

Mental illness — particularly depression — is now recognized as one of the most significant public-health issues of the 21st century. It is the leading cause of disability worldwide, hitting working populations in their prime.

The federal government has faced rising rates of mental illness among employees over the past decade. Mental-health claims, driven by depression and anxiety, account for nearly half of all health claims.

Mental Health International chairman Bill Wilkerson, who is heading a pan-European campaign on depression in the workplace, has been an outspoken critic of the federal government as one of the country’s worst employers for chronic job stress.

But Wilkerson said he believes the government has reached a “turning point,” and will come up with a plan to rid the workplace of the management and organization practices and policies that contribute to stress and depression of employees.

“Putting this in performance agreements is an important step forward because it will force deputy ministers to address the performance issues that are adversarial to good mental health for the people working in government,” Wilkerson said in an interview.

Wilkerson said the performance agreements will hold deputy ministers’ feet to the fire, especially if the government “ensures deputy ministers understand their careers are on the line if they don’t embrace what the clerk is calling for.”

Wernick’s decision to make mental health a corporate priority will cascade through the public service as deputy ministers demand the same in performance agreements with all executives.

Performance agreements are drawn up between the clerk and deputy ministers every year, laying out what is expected of the senior management team. Last year’s agreements expired March 31 and executives are now being assessed on how they did, as well as drawing up their commitments for this year.

The agreements lay out the expectations in four broad areas: policy and program, and results, leadership and corporate priorities.

Every year, the clerk selects a corporate priority, and Wernick chose mental health this year, as did predecessor Janice Charette last year. She was one of the first top bureaucrats anywhere to make mental health a management priority for government.

Wernick’s letter doesn’t set firm measures or targets to meet but asks deputy ministers to suggest how they will measure the health of their workplaces and progress made in improving it.

Donna Achimov, chair of the Association of Professional Executives of Canada (APEX), the association representing executives in the public service, said tying executive performance to workplace health is critical.

“APEX has been shining the light on well-being in the workplace and tackling mental health for years,” said Achimov. “Our research and surveys over the years show mental health has a huge role in the well-being of executives and the workplace. We applaud this and support this.”

APEX has led the charge for reforms to build a healthy workplace, pressing for them to be part of the Blueprint 2020 plan to modernize the public service.

The unions then brought the issue to the bargaining table last year. They joined APEX in calling for the adoption of the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s national standard on psychological health and well-being in all departments.

That led to the creation of a joint union-management task force — struck by then Treasury Board president Tony Clement and the Public Service Alliance of Canada. That task force made 11 recommendations aimed at creating a culture of “psychological health, safety and well-being.”

The task force argued a healthy workplace should be a goal of all workers and part of all employees’ performance agreements, said Bob Kingston, president of the Agriculture Union who sits on the task force.

The task force’s work is expected to be the foundation of the final strategy. Many say it will be flexible, rather than shoehorning a master set of rules, to accommodate different departments. The nature of work and federal workplaces varies wildly from white-collar office jobs to employees working on Coast Guard ships, at borders or in the military.

Along with the task force, Wernick has his own advisory committee on mental health. There is also an advisory group of assistant deputy ministers.

“This has been a rare example where management, the employer and bargaining agents are sitting down together on an issue,” said Michel Vermette, APEX’s chief executive officer. “It’s an interesting example of co-operation on understanding a problem and what to do about it.”

APEX has conducted surveys of executives — modelled after the groundbreaking Whitehall study of British bureaucrats — for 17 years. The next one is scheduled for 2017 and will show whether executives’ health is improving.

APEX has long argued that the organizational health of departments and agencies is central to the psychological health of employees, and that management practices and policies were central to the problems. APEX is making mental health central to its annual symposium built around health, innovation and leadership.

“I am optimistic about where we will be in a year or two in making the public service a more healthy place to work, but these things don’t happen overnight,” Vermette said.

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