Alex Binkley on workplace mental health

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...

The Binkley Report

Workplace mental health worth the effort

A critical, creative approach can enhance the bottom line

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

29 March 2013 — The Mental Health Commission of Canada, and two partners, have drafted a national standard to promote mental health in the work place, much like existing accident prevention programs.

"Canadians spend more waking hours at work than anywhere else," says Commission President and CEO Louise Bradley. "It’s time to start thinking about mental well-being in the same way as we consider physical well-being, and the standard offers the framework needed to help make this happen in the workplace.

"One in five Canadians experience a mental health problem or mental illness in any given year and many of the most at risk individuals are in their early working years," she adds.

Mental health illnesses cost businesses more than $6 billion in lost productivity due to absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover in 2011. Within Canada's workforce, mental health problems and illnesses account for approximately 30% of short-term disability claims and are rated one of the top three drivers of such claims by more than 80% of Canadian employers.

In total, the economic cost of mental health problems and illnesses in Canada is at least $50 billion per year, the Commission says. This represents 2.8% of Canada’s 2011 gross domestic product. Over the next 30 years, dealing with mental illnesses could cost $2.5 trillion.

More than 6.7 million in Canada live with a mental health problem or illness today. By comparison, 2.2 million people in Canada have type 2 diabetes and 1.4 million are living with heart disease. The study shows that the impact of mental health problems and illnesses is especially felt in workplaces and among young working aged people.

Improved management of mental health in the workplace including prevention, early action to combat stress and identify problems, could decrease losses to productivity significantly.

The standard is voluntary and while making a workplace mentally healthy might seem daunting for an employer to undertake, lots of help is readily available, says Louise Chenier, research associate at the Conference Board of Canada. The Board offers a tool kit on mental health at work and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto and Great West Life Centre for Mental Health are invaluable sources of information.

"It’s not something that can be created overnight,” she noted in an interview. "First the employer has to take a close look at the work place and the different challenges employees could face. If the program is going to have any value, it has to have the resources and senior executives behind it."

Workplace mental health doesn’t end with the creation of a program, she adds. “The company has to make sure the program is working. This is the step most people don’t do. They have to ask themselves if the situation is getting better and whether there are fewer complaints that might be triggered by mental health issues.

"It will always be a work in progress and you have to work at it every day."

Christine Burych, director of organizational development at CAMH, said in an interview that even though her organization deals with mental health, it isn’t any easier for it to set up an employee mental health program.

"We understand the clinical part of it, but it is just as hard for us to run it in a workplace.”

Every employer has to decide whether an employee who is under performing is suffering from a mental health problem, she recommends. Signs to watch for are changes in working hours, increased sick days or isolation from coworkers. "They could still be doing their job, but there is something going on. The employer then has to discuss the issue with the employee and see if there is a way to help.

"Management has to convey to employees that it is genuinely concerned with mental health and managers have to be trained on how to deal with it," she continued.

“Colleagues are usually the first to see something isn’t right, but they won’t turn to the company to help unless they’re assured it won’t just lead to the employee being gotten rid it. They have to know something will be done or they won’t trust the process and that will undermine any goodwill that has been created."

A mental health program needs a champion in the workplace who knows he or she has the backing of the CEO and the senior bosses, she pointed out. If you don’t have that buy-in, the program won’t work.

Brych has worked in the mental health field for 25 years. "Companies have really resisted dealing with because people didn’t know what to do. They have to understand it affects their bottom line; employees are an asset."

The standard provides employers with a systematic approach to develop and sustain a psychologically healthy and safe workplace, Bradley explained. It identifies psychological hazards in the workplace, how to reduce their impact, what kinds of practices make for a mentally healthier workplace and how companies can monitor the effectives of their mental health programs.

The standard was developed by the Commission and the Bureau de normalisation du Québec (BNQ), and CSA Group with financial support from Health Canada.

"There is a clear business case which supports the need for continual improvement of psychological health and safety in the workplace," says Bonnie Rose, President, Standards, CSA Group. "Workplaces with a positive approach to psychological health and safety have improved employee engagement, enhanced productivity, and a better financial outlook."

It can be used differently by businesses and organizations of all sizes depending upon their needs, she says. Some businesses may use it as a starting point and focus on creating policies and processes to promote mental health, while others may determine that several aspects of the Standard are already in place and use the standard to build upon their existing efforts.