Two of the biggest issues currently facing jurisdictions around the world are a tightening of the economy and the rising pressure being put on our healthcare system, which translates into ever-mounting healthcare costs. I believe that both of these issues are deeply linked to our transition to a knowledge economy where cognitive ability is in greater demand than physical ability – and therefore, is linked to mental health.
Just as safety equipment and labour laws were developed in response to the new challenges of the industrial revolution, I believe we have a social need for new accommodations in response to this conscious revolution. These accommodations will stem from a new public perspective on what constitutes mental health.
We tend to differentiate between mental health, thought of in terms of mental illness and cognitive ability, the suite of skills that involves tasks like problem-solving, time-management, multi-tasking and innovation. Yet we recognize that both stem from our brains. The brain is part of our body and therefore subject to environmental stress factors that can lead to physical illness. Just as poorly-adapted workplaces can expose a body to unnecessary physical risks, the same holds true for our mental health.
The number one cause of workplace absenteeism is mental illness. Every day, 500,000 Canadians are absent from work due to mental health problems. In Canada, the resulting direct and indirect economic impact, including days absent from work, has been placed in the range of $51 billion by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). This cost is compounded by the “offset effect” where individuals will seek treatment or advice, including expensive diagnostic tests, for the physical effects (back pain, cardiac discomfort, etc) of what eventually is determined to be a mental condition.
While Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are of great help to those suffering from mental health challenges, they are reactive. A proactive approach is needed. The solution for reducing this drain on economic productivity and strain on healthcare budgets is to proactively accommodate mental health/cognitive ability in the workplace. Just as occupational health and safety led to the development of a safety equipment industry, proactive “mental fitness” can create new business opportunities.
Here are a quick few examples of how: kinesiologists, physical therapists and occupational therapists can expand their services to include assessing the “cognitive workspace”; employee training programs can include cognitive exercises and accommodation tools; gyms can add individual mental health assessments and training to their offerings by adding psychologists to their teams. All these initiatives bring proactive mental health care to the people, helping to keep them out of the healthcare system.
With the right knowledge and proactive accommodations, we can avoid unnecessary mental stress and maximize cognitive capacity and productivity. Given that our strained economy now depends on mental ability for growth, this isn’t just a matter of good social policy – its good business.