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Employees welcome the efforts of organizations that are dedicated to advancing mental health and well-being in the workplace.

iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Imagine standing by a river and you see someone adrift in the current. You jump in and bring her to safety. Shortly after, another person appears in the water, struggling to stay afloat, then another. While it’s important to rescue these individuals, it is just as crucial to go upstream and investigate how they ended up in the water and prevent more people from falling in.

Fardous Hosseiny, national director, Research and Public Policy, Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), uses this metaphor to illustrate the need for a proactive national mental health strategy. “Rather than treating our way out of the mental health crisis, we have to get ahead of it,” he explains. “We know the stats: in any given year, one in five Canadians will have a mental health problem or illness. The burden of mental illness on people and the health-care system is already high, and it is predicted to keep growing.”

Mental Health Week presents a chance to raise awareness about the need to ensure that everyone’s mental health is protected. “A national strategy for mental health needs to include all Canadians, not only the one in five struggling with mental illness,” says Hosseiny. “Upstream intervention can help prevent people from getting to the point of crisis.

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“This proactive approach is already evident in physical health promotion, with advocates encouraging people to go to the gym, watch their diet or take other preventative measures. Mental health promotion is just as important.”

A policy paper, titled Cohesive, Collaborative, Collective: Advancing Mental Health Promotion in Canada and released today by CMHA, advocates for an approach that invests in improving the mental health literacy, skills and knowledge of the whole population in places like schools, workplaces and communities, with the aim to improve quality of life for all and stave off mental illness and associated health-care costs.

We are excited about the possibility that a paradigm shift can turn the tide on mental illness, but we need a sustained and co-ordinated approach.

— Fardous Hosseiny, national director, Research and Public Policy, Canadian Mental Health Association

“There is a huge cost associated with not addressing mental health challenges,” says Hosseiny. “We know that 30 per cent of short- or long-term disability claims come as the result of mental health problems and illnesses, with mental health problems accounting for almost $20-billion in lost productivity.”

Since 60 per cent of Canadians participate in the workforce, the workplace is an obvious choice for focusing efforts, says Jordan Friesen, national director, Workplace Mental Health, CMHA. “We know that most adults spend more of their waking hours in the workplace than anywhere else. This means workplaces can make a substantial contribution to mental well-being and help people attain their full potential.”

Since there is strong evidence supporting the effectiveness of workplace-based interventions related to physical health and well-being, workplaces are also appropriate settings for mental health promotion, says Friesen. “In recent years, organizations have increasingly come to recognize the importance of maximizing employee mental and physical health in order to improve productivity, reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, meet legislative changes and reduce health-care costs.”

Emerging evidence proves that workplace mental health promotion is effective and generates a return of investment of two to four times the investment, says Friesen.

Leading organizations are embracing change towards creating a culture that actively promotes mental health and well-being throughout the entire organization. And this shift in workplace culture can create a “spillover effect,” says Friesen. “If we have enough organizations incorporating this into the way they do business, we will see a significant impact going beyond the workplace – to affect families, communities and society as well.”

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Hosseiny agrees that when mental health awareness programs are implemented effectively and over the long term, results can be substantial. “We are excited about the possibility that a paradigm shift can turn the tide on mental illness, but we need a sustained and co-ordinated approach,” he says.

A national strategy and a funding increase are required, believes Hosseiny, with part of the budget going to mental health promotion. “Canada currently spends about 7.2 per cent of its health-care budget on mental health, which is among the lowest of all G7 countries,” he says. “Together with other mental health organizations, CHMA is asking to increase this number to nine per cent.”

May 6 to 12 is Mental Health Week

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) has been celebrating this week for 68 years. It presents a chance to highlight what mental health really is:

“Mental health is a state of well-being, and we all have it. We might have a mental illness and we might not. Either way, we can all feel well. We can all have good mental health. It is about having a sense of purpose, strong relationships, feeling connected to our communities, knowing who we are, coping with stress and enjoying life. And it’s never too early or too late to get there. But it’s not just about what you do for yourself, by yourself – everyone needs healthy and supportive places to work, live and learn.”

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.

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