People with mental health problems work in Canada’s C-Suites and storefronts, in factories and offices and in every other workplace in the country.
Only a decade ago, to suggest mental health was a critical issue for Canadian businesses would have seemed ludicrous. That sentiment seems to be rapidly waning. With its announcement earlier this month of a national standard to help businesses put in place policies that improve employees’ psychological health, Ottawa highlighted what many had long suspected: There are far too many Canadians with mental illness for the business community to ignore them.
The standard came in response to the findings of a federal study showing there are as many as 800,000 well-educated workers in Canada who suffer from mental disabilities but who are perfectly capable of working if offered the right conditions in which to do so — a staggering number considering the labour shortages faced by many of the nation’s critical industries.
Mental illness is an economic, as well as a health-outcome problem.
Mental health problems affect businesses and their bottom lines in many ways. According to The Life and Economic Impact of Major Mental Illnesses in Canada: 2011 to 2041, a 2011 study conducted by RiskAnalytica for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, just absenteeism and presenteeism (being physically present but otherwise too unwell to be fully productive) due to mental health problems cost Canadian businesses $6-billion annually.
In addition to this lost productivity, Canadian businesses, through employee assistance programs, healthcare benefits and disability costs also bear a significant cost for mental health care in this country. In fact, with medication, psychologists and specialized treatments, including therapies for PTSD (now understood to afflict a wide array of people) not typically covered by government-funded health care, many Canadians turn to their employers’ benefits programs for help.
“Mental illness is an economic, as well as a health-outcome problem,” says Philip Jacobs, executive director and CEO of the Institute of Health Economics and one of the authors of a 2010 report to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. His study found the private sector spends between $180- and $300-million on short-term disability benefits related to mental illnesses and $135-million for long-term disability benefits. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental health is the fastest-growing disability claim in Canada’s workplace. In fact, 21.4% of the working population currently experiences mental health problems that can affect productivity. Much of that is made up of individuals in their prime working age of 25 to 54.
People with mental health problems work in Canada’s C-Suites and storefronts, in factories and offices and in every other workplace in the country. Stereotypes that depict people with mental health problems as “crazy” and incapable of functioning in normal society have perpetuated a false us-and-them divide between the “mentally ill” and the “normal” majority.
The reality is mental health problems affect one in five Canadians every year. Most have led normal working and family lives, but also struggle daily to overcome the symptoms of their mental health problems.
Some businesses today could be contributing to the problem. In his research for The Alberta Survey of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health in the Workforce report in 2009, psychologist Angus Thompson found 18% of respondents experienced extreme workplace stress. “There are other studies that have found workplace stress is quite high in Canada,” says Mr. Thompson. “That is something that needs to be addressed.”
Researchers at the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA) have identified 13 psychosocial risk factors that can lead to an unhealthy, high-stress environment, which is to mental health what hazardous and unsafe workplaces were in the past to physical health. These factors include the way deadlines, workloads and work methods are handled, as well as the context in which work occurs, including relationships and interactions with managers and supervisors, co-workers and customers. CARMHA says when companies embrace psychological health and safety policies and programs, they incur 15% to 33% fewer costs related to psychological health issues.
But in these times in which Canada is shifting toward a knowledge economy, and in which companies increasingly rely on the minds of their employees from the frontlines to the C-suite to identify solutions and innovations, psychological health and safety is increasingly also about protecting a company’s greatest asset.
“We almost take for granted physical health and safety in the workplace these days. All of that started during a time when the bulk of work was based on brawn not brain. The economic engine of Canada today requires a lot of brainpower, so when you think about psychological health and safety standards, there’s a parallel to the development of what was going on in the 1940s when physical health and safety standards were introduced,” says Mary Deacon, who heads Bell Canada’s $50-million multi-year national program in support of mental health launched in 2010 and was previously president and CEO of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation.
Ms. Deacon is also a huge proponent of the government’s recently introduced mental health standard. “What the new standard does is provide employers with a management system, a toolkit for systematically looking at your organization, to help you look at what options you have to fill the gap and how do you follow a road of continuous improvement,” she says. Many have put great hopes in the new standards to not just help improve mental health and safety in the workplace but also spark much-needed dialogue. For example, while large organizations can afford to provide benefits and employee assistance programs, many smaller organizations simply lack the finances to do so.
Even when companies have such services in place, it might not always be enough. “Research would say that both drug and talk therapy is recommended treatment protocol for many types of mental illness. Many organizations are very limited in the amount made available to employees for talk therapy approaches, such as a $500/hr. coverage toward a psychologist or psychotherapist,” says Kathy Jurgens, national program manager of mental health works at the Canadian Mental Health Association.
There is consensus on the important role played by awareness and education, open and public discussions, more investment in research and treatment as well as an exploration into the far-reaching impact mental health problems have on Canadian society, including Canadian businesses.
Ms. Deacon believes the new standards will allow business leaders to feel their approach is based on expert counsel and encourage them to commit to improving the mental health situations within their organizations. “That should result in cost-efficiencies, better employee recruitment and retention of talent and it should result in a sense of a culture of an organization that really cares about its employees,” she says.
The long-term benefits of employers proactively dealing with mental health in the workplace won’t just be a happier and healthier workforce, but also lower costs, improved productivity and more optimal work environments, a healthier workforce and work environments. Of course, it won’t hurt the country to save the estimated $50-billion in annual costs spent on mental health each year.
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