Waterloo North Hydro offers 3 tiers of mental health programming

Company wins gold for Psychological Safety Award, as part of Canada's Safest Employers

Waterloo North Hydro offers 3 tiers of mental health programming

Waterloo North Hydro’s management team needs only to look at its employee history to realize why psychological safety is of upmost importance.

Enduring an employee suicide in the 1980s — and a second one in 2012 — was an eye-opening experience for the hydro company employing 123 workers in Waterloo, Ont., says Will Stratford, manager of health, safety, environment and sustainability.

“That definitely made us realize that this is not an isolated thing,” he says. “Caring about the psychological safety and the mental health of our employees is an obligation; it’s not a nice-to-have.”

The day following the 2012 suicide, Waterloo North Hydro implemented a psychological health and safety management program.

“There was huge potential for us to create an environment that brought out the best in people,” says Stratford. “We tried to take a concept that is definitely not comfortable for a lot of people — and definitely theoretical — and we tried to make it practical.”


Psychological safety concerns were added to tailboard meetings. The programming targeted stigma associated with mental health issues and coaxed workers to become more comfortable to discuss the subject. And while some hydro workers are exposed to highly stressful scenes such as motor vehicle crashes, the programming is intended to benefit all staff, says Stratford. Seven years later, management’s efforts appear to be paying off.

“People here are now used to talking about how they’re feeling and when they’re not feeling well and whether they’re fit to do what they’ve been asked to do,” he says. “It’s very much part of their vocabulary now.”

Stratford notes that commitment from senior leadership helped steer workplace culture toward an environment where civility and respect are expected, and mental health is embedded into business methodology. 

In terms of programming options, Waterloo North Hydro’s efforts in mental health are uniquely tiered in three categories: minimal, medium and high investment. 

Minimum investment includes promoting opportunities within the employee assistance program (EAP) and tapping into local resources whenever possible.

“We’re very aware of our local resources and we leverage them as much as we can,” says Stratford.

Medium investments include paying for lunch-and-learns and financial health seminars, as well as promoting a healthy work-life balance that allows staff the opportunity to use their lunch hour to work out or meal prep for their families.

And a recent high-investment initiative saw the hydro company offer the Ways to Mental Wellbeing program for five weeks for interested staff.

“It’s really skill building,” says Stratford. “It’s building the skills of your employees to become more self-aware of their own needs and give them a pathway to become more mentally resilient.”

Reworking corporate policies to include care for mental health alongside physical safety has also benefited Waterloo North Hydro. Altering the language used in the workplace has provided assurance to employees that psychological safety is worthy of consideration.

“It’s a slightly different approach to a traditional process,” says Stratford. “We’ve tried to connect people in a way that makes them realize that we don’t just care about their work; we care about them.”

The company twice circulated the Guarding Minds at Work survey to employees — in 2012 and 2017. The aggregated data helped management direct programming toward areas that scored lowest, with results from the 2017 survey revealing that efforts to alleviate concerns had been successful.

Also in 2017, Waterloo North Hydro offered a comprehensive mental health awareness program for all employees. Further, the hydro company augmented its return-to-work process to include cognitive demands to create a more inclusive environment that supports mental health. The policy applies to both work-related and non-work-related situations.