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Life Workplaces have responsibility to promote mental well-being of employees

This is part of a series on improving mental health research, diagnosis and treatment. Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #OpenMinds

I often imagine a world where businesses could be persuaded to address the mental wellness of employees based purely on the compelling moral argument. Happily, I believe we are making crucial traction in the right direction.

This is critical for the one in five Canadians who are living with a mental-health problem or illness in any given year. If you are reading this, it's very likely that you know someone who is faced with the double diagnosis of symptoms and stigma.

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We know that the onset of mental-health problems usually begins in childhood, yet the sad truth is that fewer than one in four children receives treatment, according to a Canadian Journal of Psychiatry study. Even more alarming, 40 per cent of parents admit they wouldn't confide in anyone if their child had a mental illness – not even their family doctor.

Add to this challenge the roughly 560,000 Canadians who are charged with caring for a family member living with a mental-health problem or illness, many of whom endure an emotional toll and financial suffering.

And while workplaces aren't necessarily compelled to engage in the battle against stigma or the promotion of mental wellness, we're seeing a trend of compassionate capitalism across sectors.

Make no mistake: When I'm asked to speak to business leaders about the case for employer investment in mental health, I marshal my statistics and come to the table with an unimpeachable economic case. But I do so heartened by the knowledge that workplaces are directly engaging in employee mental wellness like never before. Mental health is finally being acknowledged as a central part of our "whole health," and bringing workplaces to the table is a huge win for the mental wellness of all Canadians.

The moral argument is, of course, augmented by the financial reality that mental illness, in its current form, comes with a hefty price tag. The $51-billion annual cost incurred by the Canadian economy is borne out across society. Obviously, it's reflected in our health system, but the cascading effect touches on everything from education to justice. While the public sector shoulders a significant burden, so do Canadian businesses.

As the 21st century progresses, so does our understanding of how mental-health problems can be exacerbated in the workplace. For example, we now recognize the effect of posttraumatic stress disorder among our first responders, or the compassion fatigue plaguing health-care workers. To mitigate such risks, the Mental Health Commission of Canada has led the creation of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, known as the Standard.

The Standard is a made-in-Canada solution to the global challenge of promoting the psychological health of employees, and preventing psychological harm due to workplace factors. It's a free tool kit composed of guidelines and resources. To date, it's been downloaded more than 25,000 times.

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We've seen its application across sectors. The government of Nova Scotia, Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital and Enbridge Gas Distribution Inc. are some of the more than 40 participants in a case-study project under way to determine the Standard's effectiveness. We are evaluating how well the Standard enhances productivity, boosts recruitment and improves risk management and financial performance. I was somewhat surprised, and entirely delighted, that preliminary findings are suggesting that employers are primarily motivated by a desire to protect employees' health and safety and to "do the right thing."

Crucially, the Standard helps to create a workplace environment where the topic of mental health is open for discussion. If workers fear that admission of a mental-health challenge may limit their career, they are more likely to stay silent. This is an outcome we simply cannot afford.

In 2011, mental illness cost Canadian employers more than $6-billion. Mental illness is the No. 1 cause for short- and long-term disability in Canada. This helps to explain why the business community has welcomed the development of the Standard with such enthusiasm.

While the feedback has been very positive, we have also listened to those organizations that want to move forward with implementation of the Standard, but just don't know where, or how, to start. Of course, that isn't too surprising. Undertaking organizational change isn't easy.

I can attest to this, personally, as the CEO of an organization that is on the road to implementation. Any worthwhile journey is bound to present both rewards and challenges.

So, in response to concerns we were hearing, we partnered with the Canadian Standards Association Group, to produce an easy-to-use, plainly written guide. The aim of this resource, titled Assembling the Pieces, is to give employers clear direction on how to get started.

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It's hard to understate the ripple effect of creating healthy workplaces. By reducing stigma and increasing knowledge, employees are more likely to get help. Seeking help earlier is a recipe for increased productivity or an earlier return to work. This, in turn, results in a positive impact on the organization's bottom line.

The Working Mind initiative is another key MHCC program targeting stigma reduction in the workplace. It uses the mental-health continuum model to help people understand the state of their own mental well-being through a simple four-colour continuum. In concert with recognizing a mental-health problem, employees are also equipped with evidence-based coping skills.

As we succeed in our efforts to combat the pervasive and deleterious effects of stigma – in no small measure due to the ongoing commitment of Canadian workplaces – our mental-health care infrastructure must grow to accommodate that need. Yet our most recent research is telling us that more than 26 per cent of Canadians are coping with an unmet need for mental-health care.

So while we must continue to wage a battle against stigma, our efforts must be carried out in concert with an unabated effort to promote accessibility and encourage innovation. We must strive to ensure that help is available when people find the courage to seek it.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has purchased advertisements to accompany this series. The organization had no involvement in the creation or production of this, or any other, story in the series.

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