Supporting Mental Wellness at Work
Given the prevalence of mental health matters amongst Canadians, earlier this year, we identified mental wellness as one of the key HR Priorities for 2019. Last week (May 6 – 12) was also Mental Health Awareness Week in Canada; thus, a fitting time to review some statistics and discuss what workplaces can and should be doing to support mental wellness.
First, the stats (as reported by the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health):
- In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians will personally have/experience a mental health problem or illness; by age 40, half of all Canadians will either have or have had one (CMHA)
- Every Canadian will indirectly experience /be affected by it at some point in their lives (CMHA)
- In any given week, at least half a million employees are unable to work due to mental health issues; approximately two thirds are disability cases and the rest are absent on sick leave (CAMH)
- The financial impact for mental illness is twice that of physical illness (CAMH)
- Mental illness costs the Canadian economy over $50 billion annually (CAMH)
In 2017, Morneau Shepell and the Globe and Mail partnered to conduct the Mental Health Experience in Canada’s Workplace survey; significant results included the following:
- 70% of respondents said their work impacted their mental health
- 78% said mental health was the primary reason for missing work (depression and anxiety being the top two issues noted)
- While just over half said they have high/optimal coping skills, these included both positive (e.g. seeking professional help) and negative (e.g. drinking or smoking) strategies
- 58% said they had considered suicide as a result of their mental health issues
While it’s unclear whether mental health issues are on the rise (or whether more people are simply coming forward to discuss them), the statistics show that the prevalence of issues is significant. Further, as Dr. Bill Howatt indicated in the above-noted survey, the experience of mental health problems or illness isn’t binary but rather on a spectrum that changes depending on one’s life circumstances. There’s generally no one cause or reason for experiencing it; it may be genetic, the result of physical or psychological trauma, related to substance abuse, environmental or social – and very often, a combination of factors.
Despite its prevalence, discrimination and stigma around mental health still exist. As reported by the CMAH, a 2015 Ontario survey found that 64% of respondents were concerned about how work would be affected if a co-worker had a mental illness and 39% said they wouldn’t tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental health issue.
Below are some guidelines on what employers can do to both help reduce stigma and mitigate the impact of mental illness in their workplace:
- Start by becoming aware, knowledgeable and checking your own biases as an owner, leader or manager (refer to our post on unconscious biases)
- Get clear on the kind of organization you want to be and culture you want to have
- Where possible, provide flexibility for employees to work in the way that allows them to perform at their best (e.g. remote work, flexible hours, part-time, etc.)
- Ensure your policies and practices adequately address how you support mental wellness and accommodate, where possible
- Increase awareness in your organization and provide training for your managers
- Encourage conversation and dialogue; make it a safe place for employees to bring mental health matters forward
- Recognize that illness isn’t just physical; remove the unwritten expectation that employees must specifically describe their illness when they call in sick
- Provide resources such as Employee and Family Assistance Programs (EFAPs), coverage for counselling as part of the extended health care plan or health care spending plans
- Leverage available initiatives and resources such as the CMHA’s Not Myself Today Program or the National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace
- Check in!! We can’t stress this enough and this may perhaps be the most important thing you can do as a leader or manager; if an employee seems (or is clearly) not his/herself, ask how they’re doing, if they want to talk about it, and how you can support them (note: this doesn’t mean they have an obligation to get into the details, but rather lets them know it’s safe for them)
Although more than half of Canadian organizations don’t have an intentional strategy or plan around mental wellness, why should you make it a priority? Not only do employers have a legal obligation to reasonably accommodate those impacted by mental illness, but also from a purely humanistic perspective, a moral and ethical obligation and social responsibility to focus on a culture of mental wellness. While those reasons alone are hopefully enough, there’s also a strong business case for doing so. This includes increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, reduced turnover, attraction of talent and overall increased performance, resulting in better quality service and customer relations.