Eric Windeler is the founder and executive director of Jack.org.
The way Canada’s young people view mental health is changing. As employers, we need to prepare ourselves to follow the lead of the youngest members of our work force.
Five years ago, our son, Jack, was a student at Queen’s University. We didn’t know it then, but Jack was struggling with depression. In 2010, young people weren’t talking about mental health the way they are now. So Jack suffered in silence, and we lost him to suicide.
Things have changed a lot since then. A 2015 Nielsen survey shows that 87 per cent of young people between 18 and 24 are more aware of mental health than was the case five years ago. They’re reaching out to mental-health services in record numbers, and our system is feeling the strain.
But young people are doing more than seeking support for themselves. They’re becoming the first generation that not only accepts but encourages talking openly about mental health. At Jack.org, we’ve seen first-hand the openness to these issues that students are bringing to high schools and postsecondary campuses across Canada. They’re starting conversations with their friends, roommates and classmates that chip away at the stigma mental health still holds for many of us.
Universities, colleges and school boards across the country have responded. They’re encouraging mental-health awareness events and starting to weave the discussion into the curriculum. They’re expanding their mental-health services, and peer-support centres are opening. In some cases, instructors are being provided with courses, such as Mental Health First Aid, to help them better respond when students disclose mental-health struggles. There is still an enormous amount of work to be done, but things are getting better.
It won’t stop there. As these students graduate and move into the work force, our workplaces will need to adapt as well. Over the next 10 years, millennials will make up 75 per cent of the work force, and they have much higher expectations of the system.
I’ve seen the future. Everyone on my staff belongs to the millennial generation, as do the national network of students we work with. They have a progressive approach to mental health, and they expect that from me as well.
So what does this look like in practice?
It’s more than just offering medical benefits and employee-assistance programs (although these should be applauded). It’s how you react when an employee asks you to meet privately to request a “mental-health day.” It’s treating mental health with the same seriousness that you treat physical health. And it’s recognizing signs and symptoms of mental illness in your employees and encouraging them to get help.
Many will argue that these changes could result in higher medical premiums, or that employee “mental-health days” will be abused. But can we really afford to do nothing? According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 30 per cent of all short- and long-term disability claims in Canada are attributed to mental-health problems and illnesses. Of the $51-billion yearly economic cost attributed to mental illness in Canada, a staggering $20-billion stems from workplace losses. It’s clear that we have to change the culture there.
But it’s not just the potential costs that should spur us, as employers, to change our attitudes toward mental health. We have a lot to gain by creating open and supportive workplaces. More and more, young people are beginning to value an organization’s culture over compensation. A progressive approach will become a recruiting differentiator for businesses to attract the best and the brightest young people to contribute to their success. And to keep them.
I choose to celebrate the transformation that’s under way among young Canadians. They are forcing us to change the way we think about mental health. Gone are the days of “top-down” office culture and engagement. Young employees are setting the example for how we should be responding to mental health.
Are you ready to follow their lead?