At Vancouver bookkeeping firm Bench, it's perfectly acceptable to turn down a meeting because you planned on going to the gym. In fact, employees are encouraged to schedule and follow through on their stress outlet of choice just like they would for a work commitment--it's all in the company's official mental health guide.

The brainchild of co-founders Jordan Menashy, Ian Crosby, Pavel Rodionov and Adam Saint, the 26-page digital guide contains tips for managing stress, setting goals and dealing with difficult co-workers, among other things. And rather than keep the document as an internal resource--one that only benefits Bench's 250 employees, for instance--the company's founders are now sharing it with the world, for free.

"Bench was created to support business owners, and now we get to expand that vision by sharing practices developed within our own walls in hopes that they have the same positive impact on the entrepreneurial community as they have had on our people," Menashy says.

Since the early days of the company, Bench's founders wanted to provide mental health guidance for staff, just like they would medical and professional development plans. However, they were disappointed by the lack of available resources.  In 2015, some junior-level staff members suggested Bench create its own guidelines, and the founders were all for it.

As it was coming together, it became clear that other businesses (including Bench's small business clients) would benefit from the ideas that were coming to light. The team thought they'd created something valuable that could help de-stigmatize the topic of mental health in the workplace.

"Every workplace has its ups and downs," says Menashy, who uses cycling to de-stress. "The bottom line is we just want to be there for people whether they are having a great time or going through a tough period."

Here are five mental health tips pulled straight from Bench's guide, which was released to the public earlier this month:

  1. Put mental health on the agenda. Menashy says the act of simply speaking up and sharing struggles with co-workers is an important step toward a healthy workplace. Describing the process at Bench, Menashy says, "People shared very openly and vulnerably their own challenges, which let others know it's okay to struggle and it's not something they should be ashamed about."
  2. Make time for mental (and physical) health. While talking about mental health is important, taking physical action to manage stress is the next step in Bench's philosophy. The guide recommends scheduling an hour, three days a week to exercise. "Treat this time like you would an important meeting," it says, "one you definitely cannot get out of."
  3. Utilize available tools to help. Need to de-stress? There's an app for that. In the guide, Benchmates recommend some of their favorite digital tools to help improve focus and manage stress: Buddhify for guided meditation, Noize for blocking out distractions, and SAM for self-reflection.
  4. Prioritize goal setting. In addition, Bench recommends identifying intentions--described as an ongoing focus on how you are feeling and what you're doing in the present moment. Some examples include, "I intend to be more mindful of my emotions when I am told to take on new projects" and "I intend to organize my schedule to make time for the things that keep me happy, healthy and grounded."
  5. Document your experience. We experience such a range of emotions throughout the day that it may be difficult to know why we feel anxious or exhausted. That's why Bench recommends keeping an empathy journal to pinpoint your emotional drivers, learn what controls  your mental well being and how to manage it better. "Start each entry by listing the five emotions that best captured your day. Follow a format like 'Today I felt _____ because _____.''

Within the company, Menashy says, the biggest impact of the guide was simply formalizing existing policies. Take for example personal days. These aren't vacation or sick days, but rather a tool for someone who needs a short, often unexpected, break from work. While many companies offer personal days, employees might feel uncomfortable using them if they aren't sick or on vacation. But Bench's leadership says whether you have an important personal errand, a family emergency or just had an unusually busy week and need a rest, the guide says "the important part is recognizing when you need a mental break, and then actually going ahead and taking that time off."

"We're the last company to want to impose so much structure on people's lives that they can't take mental and physical breaks," Menashy says. "Otherwise, Bench won't be the best company."