Case Study | How NEOC Winner CMHA-YR keeps their employees healthy and happy while doing emotionally challenging work

publication date: Jul 24, 2019
author/source: Marlena McCarthy

Working with people living with mental health and addiction issues is exceptionally rewarding and important work. It can also be emotionally demanding, and requires high levels of self-awareness, and an employer that values the whole person. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association – York Region and South Simcoe (CMHA-YR), which employs more than 285 people, is one such employer. CMHA-YR has won a Nonprofit Employer of Choice™ (NEOC) award three years in a row for its extraordinary commitment to creating and maintaining a healthy work environment. As an organization, it is focused on helping staff maintain physical and emotional wellness, offering ongoing recognition, year-round employee engagement and enjoyment, and ongoing training. They work hard to live by their staffing values of Respect, Trust, Teamwork, and Communication, and incorporate these into all their activities to enhance the overall employee experience. 

Heather Hilker, Senior Director of Workforce and Culture notes team members describe life at CMHA-YR is more about working ‘with’ the organization as opposed to working ‘for.’ “Our team members cite the open and warm culture, strong team relationships and empowerment as positive aspects of working life at CMHA-YR,” says Heather. 

 “Our work is rewarding and we acknowledge that at times, it can also be challenging and requires emotional dedication when dealing with complicated situations. 

“To help employees reduce stress and increase their resilience, we offer mindfulness training, as well as mindfulness movement and meditation sessions. Employee support ranges from debriefings, one on one coaching, a solid benefit plan, and a robust Employee Assistance Plan.” 

‘Bravery’ is also a theme in a new employee orientation session. In addition to the personal qualities it takes to work in the mental health and addictions field, CMHA-YR wants team members to be able to ask questions, challenge the status quo and boldly innovate client care. 

Employee engagement is a vitally important factor at CMHA-YR. Referring to staff as “team members” (and really meaning it), managers regularly invite staff to share their ideas on helping the organization better serve its clients. As a result, feedback is offered openly in regular town halls and staff meetings, online surveys, focus groups, and Yammer, an internal social media platform. Communication is a priority, with news and profiles of staff members shared on a dedicated intranet homepage, and the leadership team working together to ensure that critical messages about strategy, values and organizational change are shared in appropriate ways. 

Heather notes, “Due to this openness, we see leadership rising from all levels of our organization.” 

CMHA-YR’s annual staff half-day or one-day retreat includes both planning and team-building activities. Anyone can offer feedback and brainstorm on innovative ideas to explore in the coming year. Staff are polled in advance to choose what fun activities are incorporated as a way of facilitating relaxed discussions and camaraderie. In the past, employees have enjoyed barbecues, bowling, escape room adventures and lunch at a marina. 

Although recognition and appreciation are expressed year-round, annually there is a staff appreciation day with a barbeque lunch, shared learnings and fun activities, and employees are invited to nominate each other for awards which recognize exemplary demonstration of CMHA-YR’s organizational values; these are given out by the CEO at the Annual General Meeting. 

Cultural competency is the foundation of CMHA’s talent strategy encompassing leadership development, diversity and inclusion. Since the organization serves a wide range of communities, they ensure that staff reflect this diversity, representing different ethnicities, orientations, gender identities, cultures and religions. 

Holidays ranging from Hanukkah, Christmas and Eid ul Fitr are joyfully celebrated amongst staff with workstation decorating contests, pot luck dinners with culturally representative foods, and sometimes the teaching of cultural dances. Staff are also encouraged to join in community celebrations to develop a greater appreciation of their clients’ cultures and beliefs. 

Heather says, “We’ve used the NEOC review process since 2016. The feedback we’ve obtained from the experience each year has helped us build on our inclusive staff culture and provided valuable inputs into the development of our employee experience. 

“Being a Nonprofit Employer of Choice winner is helping to attract top talent and retain staff. This has become especially critical since in our last fiscal year, our staffing grew by approximately 30% to meet growing program and client needs. We highly recommend the NEOC program for the insights it can offer to nonprofits!”

Marlena McCarthy celebrates 20 years of working with charities as a fundraising consultant and writer in her company Done Write Communications. She loves marrying the science of fundraising with the art of storytelling to inspire generosity. If you need tips on how to keep your non-profit’s staff happy and productive, look for Marlena’s articles on NEOC winners in the coming months.


NEOC – helping nonprofits to better attract and retain staff

Since 2014, nonprofits have strived to strengthen their corporate culture using the Nonprofit Employer of Choice™ (NEOC) Award as a tool to help make them better places to work. By carefully analyzing an organization’s human resources and leadership practices and by anonymously surveying employees, the NEOC program comprehensively evaluates markers including compensation and benefits, worker morale, employee engagement and more. The follow-up report and continuous improvement action plan template help organizations build on good practices and address challenges, lowering turnover and helping them better fulfill their mission.  For more info: Mary Singleton (416) 267-1287

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