Why Canadian companies can’t ignore the cost of mental illness


Special to The Globe and Mail

With public figures such as Clara Hughes leading the way to greater awareness and increased discussion around mental health, it’s still a largely overlooked issue in many workplaces.

Each year one in five Canadians will experience a mental health or addiction problem, and in some areas, such as Ontario, this number is as high as one in four. More worrying, these figures reflect only people who have visited a doctor for a diagnosis. The actual number is likely much higher.

Considering 20 to 25 per cent of a company’s workforce could be dealing with mental health issues, either personally or with a family member, it’s important for employers to establish programs that offer support and encourage open, judgement-free dialogue.

Major trends in workplace mental health

Workplace discussions about mental health are trailing behind the conversation in the general public, and organizations need to get moving on understanding trends, financial costs, managing stigmas and setting up resources to support workplace mental health.

The burden of mental health issues has been increasing since the late ’90s and includes a marked increase in depression and anxiety diagnoses, causing a notable rise in disability insurance claims and absence due to these conditions.

A recent survey revealed that two-thirds (66 per cent) of employees who took time off work for a mental health issue did not report it. The survey also found that one-third (31 per cent) of employers said support for mental wellness in their organization has improved over the last two to three years, compared to 62 per cent who said it had stayed the same. What this means is that organizations have not yet developed a consistent culture of acceptance around workplace mental health, but there is a growing need to do so.

Employers are likely still underestimating the impact of mental illness to their organizations. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), in any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems. This includes approximately 355,000 disability cases plus approximately 175,000 full-time workers absent from work due to mental illness.

The cost of mental health

Disability claims for mental illnesses accounted for approximately 30 per cent of short and long-term claims in 2014 – in fact, it’s the fastest growing disability claim type in Canada. Given these numbers, the cost to the Canadian economy is estimated at over $50 billion annually and a shocking $20 billion of that stems from workplace losses.

To break it down, mental health issues cost businesses almost $1,500 per employee per year, which can add up pretty quickly in larger organizations. There is a clear business case for organizations large and small to invest in understanding and managing mental wellness in their organizations, yet traditional stigmas keep this important issue off the agenda in many companies.

Stigmas surrounding mental health

In 2015, more than half of Canadians (57 per cent) believed that the stigma associated with mental illness had been reduced compared to five years ago, and a large majority (81 per cent) are more aware of mental health issues compared to five years ago.

While this is promising progress, the fact remains that stigmas still permeate the workplace. In fact, CAMH reports that more than two-thirds of Ontario employees (64 per cent) would be concerned about how work would be affected if a colleague had a mental illness and more than one-third (39 per cent) of Ontario employees indicate they would not tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental health problem.

Finding and training strong talent is challenging enough for many organizations, and employers need to take action make sure their people are healthy, happy contributors. This means encouraging employees to ask for help with mental health issues, arming managers with the knowledge to support workers who are dealing with their own or a loved one’s mental illness, and creating a culture that supports employees during and after their treatment.

A framework to enable change

Every organization’s culture and structure is unique, but a general framework to enable change is essential.

The first step is to identify an executive champion: this senior leader can ensure workplace mental wellness is a priority, can help other leaders walk the talk and be the face of communication with employees. The next step is to assess and benchmark where the organization is currently. This includes analyzing absence and claims data, as well as surveying employees and managers to look for trends, such as locations that seem to be over-indexing for mental health issues.

Armed with solid data, it’s a good idea to build a team, or use existing workplace health and safety teams, with representation from across the business to develop a mental wellness plan that identifies the resources, education and programs required to support the organization. Next, establish the communication strategy to keep the initiative top-of-mind within the organization, raise awareness of resources and programs and make the organization’s position clear. There are many facets to mental wellness, and as with any occupational health and safety issue, it’s key to stay on top of it all. That means regularly revisiting your benchmarks, maintaining continued communications and always raising the bar.

To bolster the framework above, some employers may have access to other tools that can help them implement a mental health program. Employee Assistance Programs and group benefits providers can offer access to expert diagnostic and treatment resources, along with tools to build mental wellness programs. External and internal training resources can also help with the ongoing work of helping managers and employees understand and talk about mental health. The Mental Health Commission of Canada provides a variety of resources for businesses of all sizes to help promote mental health care in the workplace. HR professionals would also do well to seek out guidance from specialized suppliers on software that can track and analyze company and industry data to help create strategic plans with a focus on workplace mental health.

This is a real issue. It’s costly, it’s hidden and it’s chronically unmanaged in the workplace. But, forward-thinking organizations can do their part to protect their businesses and watch out for the talent in the workforce. Successful workplace mental health programs are a blend of preventive wellness, expert support for employees and managers, clear leadership and a culture that encourages open and thoughtful discussion.

Sooky Lee is general manager of HR outsourcing services at ADP Canada.


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