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Workplaces must find better ways to help employees overcome mental health issues. (Alexander Raths/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Workplaces must find better ways to help employees overcome mental health issues. (Alexander Raths/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Workplace Health

Employers must help workers overcome mental health issues Add to ...

It’s a scenario many managers and human resources personnel understand all too well: John, a high-performing employee, experiences a life-changing event and gradually begins demonstrating behavioural and performance issues at work: outbursts of anger, an increased inability to focus, and a noticeable drop in the quality of his work.

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John’s disposition is likely linked to a mental health condition, but his manager is unsure of how to offer support. As time passes, John grows more and more distant from the workplace. Eventually, John either goes on disability leave and never returns, or moves on to a new job where the cycle of behaviour begins again at a new company.

Every day, 500,000 Canadians like John are absent from the workplace due to a mental health condition. One of the main reasons is that managers are poorly equipped to address mental health in the workplace and offer timely and confidential support.

Fortunately, organizations of all stripes and sizes are beginning to wrap their heads around the business risks associated with mental health – they are no longer willing to ignore the elephant in the room. A growing number of these organizations are starting to take stock of their own workplace policies and are calculating the financial risks they’ll bear if the mental health issues of their staff are not properly managed. These risks include a drop in productivity due to lost time and a deterioration in workplace morale when an employee is on leave and the position cannot be filled, leaving his or her co-workers to shoulder a bigger workload.

What raises the stakes even higher is the very nature of the “invisible illness” – mental health issues can go undetected for a long period of time, and often by the time employees have been properly diagnosed there has been a significant impact on their lives. And while most medical conditions have an average number of days for recovery, mental health conditions can last for years.

Although awareness is increasing, many organizations still don’t have robust systems and strategies in place to deal with mental health issues in the workplace. And employees are taking notice. A Conference Board of Canada national survey of employees and managers published several years ago revealed a major disconnect: while 82 per cent of senior executives reported that their company promotes a mentally healthy work environment, only 30 per cent of employees believed this was the case, and only 26 per cent felt that their supervisors were effectively managing mental health issues.

The good news is that a number of trends are converging to bring greater focus to the issue of mental health in the workplace. Boards are forcing companies to pay more attention to risk management. A stagnant economy is pushing organizations to hunt for additional productivity gains and cost savings. And the increased use of analytics, or “big data,” is giving management the ability to attach hard numbers to workplace issues that used to slide under the radar.

Clearly, the business case for implementing and enhancing workplace strategies is compelling. But employers need to work harder to close the gap that often exists between the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions.

Practical methods for doing so include creating a support network, helping employees better navigate the medical process, and working with employees on an effective treatment plan, one that involves greater co-ordination between corporate HR and family physicians. For example, many individuals categorized as having mental nervous disorders are often treated solely with prescription drugs. But studies have shown that a combination of prescription drugs and cognitive therapy is more effective in enabling an employee to return to a healthy and productive lifestyle.

Finally, employers need to provide better stay-at-work and return-to-work programs for employees recovering from mental health issues.

In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, mental health has a significant impact on workplace productivity. Failure to tackle mental health in the workplace will not only erode our competitiveness, it will ultimately erode our quality of life. Fortunately for Canadians, we are starting to move beyond analysis and acknowledgment. We are starting to take action.

Karen Seward is the president of Cira Medical Services and author of the recently released white paper, “Balancing Workplace Mental Health Issues and Employee Privacy Rights.”

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