Mental illness: the trillion-dollar elephant in the workplace
By Kim Covert, Postmedia News
OTTAWA — In a knowledge-based economy, brains matter — and not taking care of our mental health has a negative impact on the bottom line, according to a recent report from the Global and Business Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, a group of scientists, medical and business professionals established to raise awareness of the economic impact of mental illness.
Depression has a fairly high profile these days — you can see TV ads for pills to treat it; Olympic speedskater Clara Hughes has gone public about her experience with it. A viral video campaign, begun in response to the suicide of a depressed gay teenager, features celebrities reassuring depressed teens that things will get better. Recent reports from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and Toronto's Center for Addiction and Mental Health, among others, have drawn attention to the need to deal with it.
But the taboo surrounding discussing depression on an inter-personal level, and especially in the workplace, remains.
Bill Wilkerson, co-chair of the round table along with Mulroney-era cabinet minister Michael Wilson — who has openly discussed the suicide of his son, who battle depression — says linking depression to other chronic conditions that have an identifiable impact on the workplace through absenteeism and health-care costs will help to remove the stigma.
"We're trying to get to the point of saying, 'look, this isn't about mental illness, this is about brain function, our immune system, our cardio-vascular health, our recovery from cancer, our avoidance of Type 2 diabetes, our capacity to have productive brain function in an economy where brain skills will be required in three-quarters of all of the jobs coming on-stream in the next five to 10 years," says Wilkerson. "This is a brain economy, depression is a brain disorder with profound implications for the systemic health of human beings and ironically the systemic health of an innovation-based economy."
The round table, funded in part by Great-West Life, was established in 1998. Its latest report calls for a business and science partnership "to loosen, lessen and then hopefully remove the grip that depression has on the health and productive capacity of the workforces of three countries — as a starting point anyway: the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada," says Wilkerson, who has already started making calls and laying the groundwork for the partnership.
The hope for 2012 is to match up major international corporations with research funding agencies in the three countries "and to develop a research agenda through which depression is attacked as a way to save lives . . . not merely to improve the mood of people living with depression," says Wilkerson.
Save lives and protect the bottom line in an economy which depends on brain power for progress. The round table's initiatives focus on the workplace because that's "where the impact of this condition is heavily concentrated." The round table estimates between 18 and 25 per cent of the population is affected by mental illness, and puts the cost of mental health at four per cent of gross domestic product — a trillion-dollar problem for North America and the European Economic Community combined.
"Finding a cure for depression, in our judgment, qualifies as a strategic business and economic objective in light of the asset value that can now be ascribed to cerebral skill sets and the cognitive capacity of working people," the report says.
The report focuses on "mentally injurious" workplaces and how they can be made more healthy for the people working there — because chronic job stress "can override our natural defences to ward off infection and viruses, escalate the production of inflammatory hormones that drive heart disease, obesity and diabetes, spark flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis, trigger depression, increase the risk of substance abuse and cause accidents on the job," the report says.
It calls for "discretionary modifications" to improve the tone of the workplace, which Wilkerson says includes managers actually caring about how people perceive their opportunities and their work; about how people worry and what concerns them, and how those concerns contribute over time to the "dissipation of mental energy."
He suggests managers give up communicating electronically with their employees.
"I think we have e-mailed ourselves into a corner because emails have created an anxious workforce," says Wilkerson. "There's just too much expectation, too many out-of-the-blue requests, too little body language — that often communicates a lot when people talk with each other." Put all this faceless communication together and "we are going to lose our capacity to perceive how others react and respond to things that are important in the workplace."
But a lot of the behavioural changes required to lessen stress and create a psychologically healthy workplace should be no-brainers, Wilkerson suggests.
"Be be a good person, be fair, the Golden Rule, human decency," he says. "It's about how you give people an opportunity to go home at night and feel fulfilled by what they do. . . . This is about the renewal of the ability to concentrate and the renewal of our own ability to understand what it will take to avoid the kinds of stressors that drive us crazy."