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Mental Well Being At Work Is A Business Priority. But Where To Start?

mental health Feb 10, 2020

Just before her 40th birthday, my mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At the time, I would have just been born. Now at 91, she has lived with her mental illness for more than half her life. As I grew up, I saw my mother’s illness progress from bad to worse. Every five years she’d slip into a manic phase which would last four to five months.

Together, my parents owned a cleaning company. During her manic phases, mom wouldn’t sleep well. When she stopped sleeping, her delusions became grander and her paranoia worsened. She’d stay up nights obsessively cleaning to a point where one could eat off the floors of our house. When her manic episodes ended, she would slide into depression for six to eight months. We could never predict how long her depression would last. Eventually, her bouts of depression would be treated with Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Yet, my mother would go to work every day. Even through her protracted periods of mental illness, we’d have dinner at 4 o’clock and my parents would go to work at 5. The only times I saw my mother not going to work was when she was hospitalized.

Looking back, I realize that going to work gave my mother something to do. It gave structure to her days. Knowing that people relied on her to be at work gave her a sense of purpose and responsibility. It gave her the impetus to contribute meaningfully.

Our perception of people living with severe and persistent mental health disorders is that they cannot be steady, contributing members to an organization’s bottom line. We think of them as business liabilities.

Depression and anxiety alone cost the Canadian economy an estimated $49.6 billion per year. Organizations incur these costs in one of two ways:

  • Direct health care costs and indirect costs
  • Loss of productivity, absenteeism, and disability costs

In 2020, the Canadian national statistics on mental health were emphatic:

  • 1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental health disorder;
  • 1 in 20 employees are depressed;
  • 4,000 Canadians (i.e. 11 per day) die by suicide every year; and
  • Millennials exhibit the highest rates of anxiety disorder

If hirers start to screen out those who have a diagnosed mental disorder or those who are pre-disposed to develop a mental health condition, the talent pool would shrink rapidly. The majority of existing employees already feel that their career prospects are blighted by mental health challenges either at work or at home.

Old school practices evaluated employees through their ability to contribute to the bottom line. This doesn’t work anymore. The onus is now upon organizations to prove that they’re fostering psychologically safe workplaces. The questions employers should be asking themselves is how do we create a workplace environment that does not inhibit those with mental health challenges? How does it benefit to build an efficient mental health strategy?

The biggest opportunity for employers today is in prevention. Focussing on how to create a discrimination-free and supportive environment for all employees, prevents absenteeism, high employee turnover, lost productivity, and disability, thereby, boosting the bottom line.

Building a case for a mental health strategy starts with getting buy-in from stakeholders i.e. CEO, senior management, and HR, followed by careful consideration of legal trends and ethical assumptions, weighing of financial costs, health, and safety issues, and reviewing the current landscape of employee engagement within the workplace.

For smaller companies, starting the mental health conversation with employees is one of the hardest first steps. But it’s a critical step to get ideas from your own employees about the supports they need to feel psychologically safe and mentally well to come to work every day. Having that conversation means you’re building a mental health strategy from the ground up.

Another vital step for small employers is to review their policies around sick time to assess if those are inclusive of mental health issues. Do employees have access to counseling services either through EAP services or an external party? For example, a company of 150 employees, I know of, has recently hired a psychologist on a retainer to enable its employees to schedule counseling meetings.

In Canada, Great West Life has developed free resources for employers who aren’t legally well versed about accommodating an employee with mental health issues. It’s a valuable resource to learn best practices and answer, “how do I have a mental health conversation with my employee”?

Other free resources Canadians can avail of are:

In the U.S., organizations seeking free guidance, use:

That mental health and wellbeing at work are a business imperative has been established. Never before has mental health at work received such a prominent spotlight in an organization’s consciousness.

Having worked with clients in Canada and the U.S., it’s clear to me that Canadian employers have moved the mental health needle further than our southern neighbours. In the U.S., companies favour paying for physical illness but not behavioural ones. The American Psychiatric Association’s 2016 paper, titled “Working Well: Leading a Mentally Healthy Business” mentions that the country’s Mental Health Parity Equity and Addiction Act was put in place to ensure that everyone’s access to mental health benefits is equal to their medical/surgical coverage. But in practice, most people pay out of pocket to treat behavioural issues, with no reimbursements from their companies. 

In Canada, we’re making organizations care about psychological health and safety.

Over the past 10 years, Canadian workplaces have moved slowly but surely in developing mental health indicators and measurements. Due to the nature of the Canadian healthcare system, organizations are more knowledgeable about benefits and cost of medications. We know that antidepressants are one of the highest prescribed medications in Canadian workplaces.

More employers are having mental health conversations with their employees. Whether it’s due to rising costs, or peer pressure, bigger corporations have realized that they need to get on board with building better business cases for a mental health initiative in the workplace.

The model we have of a person suffering from mental health issues is one of “that homeless guy on the streets, downtown.” This needs to change. I can help you change that.

Saying “I care about mental health” is no longer enough. Leaders need to follow through with measurable actions, that are backed by data.

Sign up for my online course A Leader’s Guide to Creating Mental Wealth in the Workplace, to find out how.

Feel free to leave comments or get in touch, if you think I can help you take your organization’s first steps to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, improve performance, and build a psychologically healthy and supportive workplace environment.


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