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Mental Illness Awareness Week runs from Oct. 1-7.

Every week in Canada, half a million people call in sick because of a mental health problem or illness. Even more concerning, unemployment rates for people living with a mental illness can be as high as 70 to 90 per cent. This reality doesn’t just disadvantage “aspiring workers” – those people who have been sidelined from the work force due to episodic or persistent mental illness. It also puts employers behind the eight ball.

Consider that the Canadian Chamber of Commerce estimates a work force shortage of 2.1 million people is looming by 2031 – with an attendant price tag of billions of dollars in lost gross domestic product (GDP). Currently, Canada spends about $9.6-billion on disability support for people living with a mental illness who are not working.

Fortunately, a recently completed Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) study explores an elegant solution. Namely, those employers who hire people living with a mental illness and invest in reasonable accommodations, stand to reap tremendous benefit. And these advantages extend to the employee.


In April 2018, the MHCC released the report, A Clear Business Case for Hiring Aspiring Workers, which outlines the results of a small but in-depth study. In looking at five Canadian businesses, researchers examined the costs and benefits – both tangible and intangible – of accommodating the mental health needs of 11 aspiring workers.

Informed by 30 detailed interviews with accommodated workers, co-workers, managers and human resources professionals, researchers gathered data to analyze the return on investment enjoyed by both employers and employees through accommodation. Each case study was built around the experience of one accommodated employee, and the organizations operated in diverse sectors, including hospitality and finance.

Accommodations are often simple and universally available, but not generally accessed. They include things like flexible work hours, compressed work weeks, extended lunch hours, daily and/or supplemental check-ins with management and the discretionary use of sick days/mental health days. Accommodation, at its core, is tailored to the needs of the individual worker and is arrived at through two-way communication between employer and employee, ensuring the needs of both parties are met.

The study’s economic analysis projected that employers who accommodated aspiring workers would realize a net savings of between $56,000 – $204,000 after five years, in other words, a two-to-seven-fold return on investment. These savings are mainly from decreased absenteeism and presenteeism, lower staff turnover and increased productivity.

Workers, on the other hand, were estimated to be four to 12 times better off financially because of accommodation, a net savings of between $31,000 and $67,000 after five years. This was mainly due to higher income from sustained employment versus tapping into disability supports or being underemployed.


Employers are pivotal to creating mentally healthy, inclusive work places, where employees are comfortable disclosing a mental health problem and accommodation is accepted – a benefit to every employee.

Successful accommodation also requires buy-in from the employee. Workers need to let employers know when they require accommodation and to explain the type of accommodation involved. While the employer needs enough information to help, divulging the specific nature of a disability isn’t necessary.

Mental Health Works, a national social enterprise of the Canadian Mental Health Association, lays out the rights and responsibilities of employers, employees and unions with respect to accommodation.


Supports for aspiring workers are ideally embedded within an organization’s overall mental health plan. For instance, offering as much flexibility as possible in terms of how, where and when people work is good for all employees but key to aspiring workers.

Within an overarching psychological health and safety framework like the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, employers can adopt targeted polices and hiring practices. For example, routinely advertising for aspiring workers through services like Magnet, an online job service that matches individuals facing barriers to employment, including those living with mental illness, with interested employers.

Mental Health Works offers employers advice on how to hire and onboard workers with mental illness. It also provides resources for employees who are seeking accommodation.

Employees can also equip themselves with the tools to improve the psychological health and safety of their workplace.

For example, the MHCC’s Being a Mindful Employee: An Orientation to Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, is a free online training program that helps employees understand the 13 factors that contribute to a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.

In addition, The Working Mind training, helps employees by giving them a common language with which to discuss and identify mental health problems, and Mental Health First Aid courses, teach how to appropriately intervene when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis.

Louise Bradley is President and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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

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