Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental illness costs the Canadian economy a huge amount every year. Although some aspects of this are hard to calculate, it is accepted that the economic burden of mental illness in Canada is enormous.

This cost occurs in both direct health care costs as well as loss of productivity in the workplace.

Since mental health problems directly affect roughly one quarter of Canadians at some point during life and usually begin in early adulthood, it is safe to say that these problems will have an effect on the working population.

Recent surveys indicate that mental illness in Canada costs $16 billion every year - or 14 per cent of the net annual profits of Canadian companies. There is no denying that mental health is a subject that needs to be addressed.

In fact, a recent study found that close to 50 per cent of long term disability claims are psychiatric in nature.

Many times, the excessive stress of the modern, fast paced business world plays a role in exacerbating or triggering mental health problems. However, even in a healthy working environment there will be mental illness because it is not solely caused by stress, and for susceptible individuals even normal stressors may be enough to trigger symptoms.

Not only do mental health problems hinder the productivity of businesses, but they also affect the ability to recruit and retain talented workers, to remain competitive and protect customer service.

It is important for senior executives and government to work to eliminate unnecessary stress, promote mental health at work and deal with the persistent stigma surrounding mental illness in the workplace so that those who do become symptomatic can get treatment quickly.

Untreated depression often results in decreased productivity and an increased use of sick days. Experts agree that depression will soon become the nation's second leading cause of lost work days - second only to heart disease.

Stigma surrounding mental illness still exists in this country. It is a well-documented fact and it is estimated that between 40 and 75 per cent of individuals with a mental illness will not seek help because of shame, stigma or lack of information.

It is unacceptable that so many people still feel as though they will be permanently labeled or even lose their jobs if they openly seek help for mental illness.

When individuals are afraid to seek the help they need, they may continue coming to work but be less productive and require more effort to function even at minimal levels. This is bad for the affected individual as well as the company. It is estimated that these losses are two to three times greater than the losses due to absenteeism.

A study of women suffering from depression or anxiety found that these mental health problems are greater barriers in the workplace than the more traditional barriers of pregnancy, raising children or sexism.

Of the women surveyed, 74 per cent said their symptoms made them feel overwhelmed, 59 per cent said they didn't feel motivated to get things done and 44 per cent stayed home from work. More than 20 per cent were on long term disability leave.

Only half said they could discuss their problems with their employer and half had had their symptoms for five years or more.

A few ways to better deal with mental illness in teh workplace include having open and candid discussions of mental illness; recognizing that stress and mental health problems are not exclusive to either work or home; and providing education about mental health within the workplace.

Too many people still believe mental illness to be a weak person's problem, a female problem or the symptom of bad parenting. This is not true.

Employers can review disability claims to raise their awareness of mental health within their own companies and can then review their return to work policies, education programs and workplace attitudes about mental health.

When individuals are off work with a psychiatric disability, it is unrealistic to require them to return to work full time and 100 per cent better. Often a graduated return to work is necessary to help them regain their confidence and overcome anxiety.

Finally, employers should consider implementing assistance programs for employees experiencing mental illness. These measures can help to make the workplace more productive and more compassionate.


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