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Is your senior leadership concerned about the number of employees who may be coming to work each day with a mental health issue or mental illness?

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It’s estimated that one in five people in the work force are experiencing some degree of a mental health issue. In any week, 500,000 Canadians call in sick due to mental health problems or illness. Mental illness affects the workplace by increasing costs of sick time, short- and long-term disability and workers’ compensation claims. It also affects productivity through presenteeism – when people come to work but are not productive – and lost opportunity due to downtime.

Based on 2017 statistics, around 20 million Canadians fall between the ages of 25 and 64, the typical time span of an employee’s 30-year career. Within this population, 16 million to 17 million work full or part time, suggesting that on any day about 3.4 million workers could be experiencing a mental health issue.

It’s worth pausing for a moment and thinking about this number, rather than passing it off as just another statistic. It’s more than double the total population of Nova Scotia (where I was born) and Prince Edward Island (where I grew up), so it’s difficult for me to process the size of this problem and its impact on the workplace.

It’s clear that on any day in Canada millions of people are in the workplace with a mental health issue or illness. This leads to two questions:

· What is the experience of the average person who is experiencing or has experienced a mental health issue or illness in the workplace?

· What can we learn from their experience that we can share with employers to improve or better support employees experiencing a mental health issue or illness?

These two questions framed the development of a study in partnership with The Globe and Mail in March, 2017. The survey asked people who had or were currently experiencing a mental health issue or illness in the workplace to respond. We wanted to create a safe way for employees to be honest and to share their experience in a confidential manner.

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What we learned

The Mental Health Experience in Canada’s Workplaces study collected rich insights. It collected 1,575 responses in a six-month period. The findings were compelling and made it clear that there’s much more work to be done to better support employees who are experiencing a mental health issue or illness in today’s workplace.

The survey found that workplace stress (34 per cent) was a top cause of mental health problems or illnesses, with depression and anxiety as the other top issues at 37 per cent and 32 per cent, respectively.

Another key finding for workplaces is that the majority of respondents (72 per cent) felt that their mental health problem had or would hurt their careers. On the productivity side, 68 per cent of employees reported that they could only maintain their optimal performance for less than 70 per cent of their workday.

Mental health issues also was a main reason for missing work with 78 per cent of respondents missing work due to mental health concerns – with 34 per cent missing work for two months or more.

Research findings were shared with the Mental Health Commission of Canada for their review. Out of this process came a collaborative white paper, Understanding Mental Health, Mental Illness, and their Impacts in the Workplace, that was published by Morneau Shepell and the Commission. (For the French version of the white paper, click on this link.) (For the French version of the press release, click on this link.)

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The first part of this white paper provides a summary of the key findings of the study. These findings can be used as a benchmark for employers who are surveying their employees to evaluate how their mental health strategy and programs are working.

The second part of the white paper explains how a psychological health and safety management system can help an organization promote continuous improvement by measuring and monitoring the impact and value of its mental health strategy and programs. The white paper introduces a total health, five-step framework that provides a two-way accountability model for employers to drive change and achieve results.

Since all employees can be impacted by mental health in the workplace, the white paper provides a rationale as to why it may be more effective to keep the focus on all workers. Any employee exposed to a life-altering event, or who experiences frequent and long periods of bad and unwanted stress could develop a mental health issue. No one is immune to this risk.

That is why this white paper suggests employers shift the conversation from focusing on just the one in five Canadians with a mental health issue to all employees – as their mental health is important too. Not only do employers need to look at services for those experiencing a mental health issue but to consider the other four employees and the degree of support they’re getting.

Among the biggest barriers to getting help for a mental health issue are stigma and lack of education. The white paper concludes with some specific actions organizations can take to reduce the risk for employees with a mental health issue having a negative experience in the workplace.

You can read the white paper by clicking on this link.

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Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.