Mental Fitness: Can getting proactive reduce the risk of mental illness?

April 25, 2023

For business owners, plan sponsors and administrators

At any given time, every organization could have people grappling with mental health challenges. The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates 1 in 5 Canadians live with a mental illness each year.1

And we’ve seen how much this can cost. Short-term disability leaves for mental illness cost $18,000 on average.2

We’re working with you to reduce these costs where we can, but workplace mental health programs can move beyond reactively treating mental illness. What if we could help people prevent absences due to mental illness?

We see strong potential in mental fitness training. This preventative measure may help your employees improve their resiliency and reduce the risk of absence due to mental illness.

What is mental fitness?

Dr. Bill Howatt defines mental fitness as the intentional actions we take daily to employ coping skills and the behaviours we choose to build resiliency. He says it’s easier to understand if you first consider what we know about physical fitness.

“Most employers understand the quality of their employee’s physical health predicts their risk of physical illness, meaning they know the algorithm for good physical health: exercise, diet, sleep, and lifestyle choices,” Howatt says. “This is why many employers provide programs to support employee physical health.”

Dr. Bill Howatt has over 30 years of clinical experience in the mental health field. Dr. Howatt also regularly contributes to workplace mental health research and publications. And Dr. Howatt has over a decade of experience as a senior leader on Wall Street.

But he says many mental health programs only treat mental illness after it occurs, like an emergency room treating an existing physical sickness. That support is important, but Howatt says more can be done to help employees strengthen their emotional wellbeing.

“Mental fitness is a mental illness risk prevent approach. The primary goal is to teach employees the knowledge and skills that, when they become habit, can positively impact employees’ emotional well-being,” Howatt says. “The foundation for good mental fitness begins with four dimensions (i.e., bodies, emotions, thinking, and relationships) that collectively influences how a person feels about themselves, others, and their life.”

Howatt says there are hundreds of micro-skills we can apply to build our mental fitness. Some skills may be familiar to us, like journaling or random acts of kindness, but other skills, like anchoring positive behaviours, might be new concepts. Mental fitness skills are easy to pick up, but they aren’t a quick fix. Howatt says it will take measured effort for employees to develop daily and on-demand habits that protect their mental health.

So how can you help employees apply mental fitness and create positive impact?

Creating a culture of care: Tips to generate mental fitness impact

Dr. Howatt has detailed information on his website about establishing workplace mental fitness plans. But he provides these 3 tips to get you started.


  1. Teach employees how to develop a personalized mental fitness plan

This plan maps out how the person can create positive emotions on demand. There are many kinds of micro-skills that can help a worker improve their body (walk 10,000 steps a day), emotions (overcoming personal frustrations), thinking (challenge faulty assumptions), relationships (connecting with friends). Here’s a sample of Dr. Howatt’s personal mental fitness plan:

Bill’s Mental Fitness Plan

Mental Fitness

Physical Health

Social Connections




Daily Actions

  • Journaling
  • Deep breathing (when feeling anxious)
  • Random acts of kindness
  • 45 minutes daily activity
  • Focus on nutrition: 3 litres of water and 100 grams of protein daily
  • Target 8 hours of sleep each night
  • Interact with partner daily via phone or text
  • Contact family weekly
  • Connect with core friends


Dr. Howatt offers a downloadable journal to help you begin your mental fitness journey. Find his Journal 45 in the Mental Fitness section.

Check out Dr. Howatt’s free resources

2. Educate employees how they show up daily matters

All employees and leaders have an influence and can support others’ emotional wellbeing by how they show up in your organization. Understanding that every little human interaction with another can be a drain or a charge to both individuals. Another dimension to build into an employee mental fitness plan is influence. The primary focus of this dimension is focuses on developing knowledge and skills to positively influence others (e.g., be an upstander versus a bystander to protect peers from bullying and harassment).

3. Employers creating psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces

Employers can facilitate protective factors like psychologically safe leaders and assigning budgets to get employee access to employee support (e.g., psychologists) as well to develop and maintain their mental fitness habits. A good reference for protective factors is the ‘National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace’ created by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Mental fitness programming can help remove stigma by normalizing talking about mental fitness like we all do with physical fitness. Taking care of one’s emotional wellbeing shows responsibility and is good for employees, their families, and the employer.

Employers must also understand that there is no quick fix. Workers’ mental health likely won’t be supported by offering random resiliency programs and apps. However, employers can promote mental fitness to develop habits that protect employees’ mental health by influencing the environment and employee experience.

Why we’re considering mental fitness

Mental health is a growing concern for the younger generation of workers. Manulife data shows a 27% increase in the number of workers, aged 18-34, submitting claims for mental health treatment in the past year.3 And we saw a 22% increase in the number of workers, aged 18-34, going on long-term disability for mental illness since 2019.3

The good news is current, reactive support like employee assistance programs (EAP) can help. A review of research found EAPs offering counseling in the United States improved work absenteeism by 28% and work presenteeism by 24%.4

Still, it’s worth investigating if proactive mental fitness programs can build upon that success and improve your employees’ resiliency and reduce their risk of mental illness. Testing concepts like mental fitness helps us bring you proven solutions to improve employee health.

Watch for more on mental fitness as we consider its potential for innovation.


Some opinions expressed in this post are those of Bill Howatt and do not necessarily represent the views of Manulife. The information in this article is not to be relied upon as professional advice for specific situations.


1 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 Mental Health Commission of Canada 2011.

2 Dewa CS, Chau N, Dermer S. Examining the comparative incidence and costs of physical and mental health-related disabilities in an employed population. J Occup Environ Med. 2010 Jul;52(7):758-62. doi: 10.1097/JOM.0b013e3181e8cfb5. PMID: 20595909.

3 Manulife Group Benefits aggregate claims data, 2022.

4 Attridge M. A Global Perspective on Promoting Workplace Mental Health and the Role of Employee Assistance Programs. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2019;33(4):622-629. doi:10.1177/0890117119838101c

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