A productive employee used to be one who could work quickly: They could hammer lots of nails, churn out lots of product, all while never missing a day’s work. Sick days were a lost opportunity for a day’s wage and taking a mental health day was unheard of. Today, strength, stamina and a perfect attendance record are not attributes we list first on our resumés. With automation and the shift from goods-producing to service professions, intellect is number one. A valued employee is no longer one with just physical prowess, but one with resilience, problem solving skills and innovative ideas as well.

As a result, maximizing employees' mental potential is becoming more important than ever before. Or at least it should be. Unfortunately, mental health still isn't top of mind at many organizations.

While employee assistance programs are miles ahead of the in-house alcohol treatment programs they originated from in the 1940s, not all organizations have such plans in place – and many don’t have a mental health initiative at all. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, this can cost them. According to their statistics, 500,000 Canadians miss work each week due to mental health issues. That means a significant loss in productivity to the tune of $50 billion per year.

And that doesn’t count for presenteeism in the workplace either – employees who are physically at work, but not mentally present. Fortunately, Canadian mental health campaigns have gone into overdrive in the past few years, hoping to eradicate the stigma associated with mental illness. Many have been supported by corporations; witness Bell’s Let’s Talk initiative every year. Despite those efforts, many people still don’t see the personal connections they have to mental illness - or just how common it really is.

The reality is that one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem in any given year and those of prime working age are hit the hardest: 20 per cent of the working population in Canada is currently struggling with their mental health.

What that means for business leaders is that if they've never faced the issue in the workplace, they probably just aren't aware of it.

So what can businesses do to promote better mental health? Here are a few tips.

Start Talking

Recognizing the importance of mental health is one thing, but actually talking about it is another matter. Mental health can be a sensitive topic, and business leaders who aren’t prepared to have conversations about it can discourage employees from coming forward with an issue. The worst-case scenario is having an employee suppress the problem for fear of ramifications or discrimination. The first step, therefore, is removing stigma around mental health in the workplace.

Get Prepared

Supervisors of all levels should be equipped to handle a mental health concern. The Mental Health Commission of Canada offers a Mental Health First Aid course, which is designed to improve mental health literacy and provide people in the workforce with the skills to help them manage potential mental health problems in others - and in themselves - before they rise to a crisis level. This course can help improve workplace sensitivity around mental health, and give people the tools for talking about it. In many cases, this also helps ensure people are able to seek out proper help with the support of their employer.

Lend a Hand

If you don’t have the know-how to solve an employee’s issue on your own (assuming you’re not a registered psychologist), don’t leave them hanging. Point them in the right direction, whether it’s to the Employee Family Assistance Program or to an outside resource. One of the most valuable aspects of Mental Health First Aid training is being equipped with resources that struggling staff can be directed to. Most cities have a number of resources that provide mental health support and services. Knowing where to find them is the key to helping others access the help they need.

Check In

Simply saying hello to staff members can help you spot if something is wrong. If an employee is especially quiet, or their performance is falling, ask what’s going on. Keeping a good working relationship with others and showing that you care can go a long way toward ensuring employees reach out for help. It can also help build the organizational morale and support that helps prevent mental health issues in the first place.

Don’t Overshare

For employees coming forward with a mental health concern, talk to the supervisor you feel most comfortable with one-on-one. Don’t feel the need to disclose every issue of your illness; it’s not necessary to share sensitive information for the sake of defending your illness.