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The topic of mental health and the workplace is increasingly becoming the focus of conversation in the corner offices of Canada's businesses.

Why? Because ignoring employees' mental health and well-being is costly – in lost productivity, higher benefit and disability costs, and increased retention expenses. And employers face the potential of higher legal costs if employees' physical and psychological work environment causes their health to suffer.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada states that about 30 per cent of short- and long-term disability claims in the country are attributed to mental health problems and illnesses. The overall economic burden caused by mental illness in Canada totals about $51-billion each year, and a staggering $20-billion of that stems from workplace losses.

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A study by the MHCC estimated that the cumulative cost of mental health over the next 30 years is expected to be more than $2.3-trillion.

These statistics have led to an awakening at the executive levels. "They realize they really have to do something," said Claudine Ducharme, partner at Morneau Shepell in Montreal, and co-lead of the firm's national health consulting division.

Mental health is the top reason for workers to be on short-term disability leave, and the cost of chronic illnesses are also rising. "Now senior leaders are concerned about the negative impact of health on their bottom line," Ms. Ducharme said.

The impact of this issue on the Canadian economy is one of the reasons the MHCC worked to create the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

"It's a guide an organization can use to develop and continuously improve their work environment," explained Ms. Ducharme, who was on the committee that created the voluntary standard that was released in January, 2013, the world's first such standard.

Included in the standard are 13 psychological health and safety (PHS) factors, which outline key areas where organizations can improve their workplace environment and their policies in order to reduce stress on workers and help keep them healthier.

The 13 factors deal with typical workplace and company culture issues, ranging from psychological support, competencies and protection; leadership; respect; employee development; recognition and rewards; influence and inclusion; workload; engagement; work-life balance; and physical safety.

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Many companies are not fully aware of how much the mental health issues of their work force are costing them, said Charles Bruce, chief executive of the Nova Scotia Public Service Long-Term Disability Plan Trust Fund, who also helped create the MHCC standard.

"Organizations that do not pay attention to [the mental health of their employees] will have triggers" such as higher absenteeism, lower employee engagement scores, lower productivity and higher rates of accidents, he said. "The argument I have again and again is, what happens if you don't do it?"

But addressing gaps in your workplace culture and policies can be a daunting task for some companies. "It is such a mammoth issue," he said "Organizations feel they don't have the time, money, or resources" to tackle this challenge.

There are legal as well as financial reasons that should encourage companies to improve their workplace environment and policies by following the MHCC standard, said Kelly VanBuskirk, an employment lawyer with Lawson Creamer in St. John, N.B.

Employers who don't foster a psychologically safe workplace, or ignore the mental health of their employees, or fail to accommodate those with a mental health issue such as depression, risk potential lawsuits, he said.

"We all know that depression can be extremely debilitating for an employee," he said, and human rights tribunals are awarding higher damages against companies who don't fully accommodate employees with mental health issues. "That's a pretty clear risk."

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"Employers who inflict or are negligent in allowing the infliction of mental distress or some type of mental disability caused by harassment or bullying, those employees are now finding more creative claims to make in the courts – distinct and apart from human rights legislation," he said.

By following the standard, employers will be more cognizant of the psychological impact of their workplace and can take steps to improve it, and that "does provide you at least with a stronger defence against liability," said Mr. VanBuskirk.

The Globe and Mail and Howatt HR's Your Life at Work Survey, and related articles focus on stress in the workplace and how it is a contributing factor that is negatively impacting employees' quality of life at work. The survey has found that employees with strong coping skills are more able to manage their stress, and that improves their productivity and health.

Included in the series is a tool, created by Howatt HR, to lead a company through the 13 factors of the mental health standard, and show how employers can better support and justify the effort, time and resources required to slow down the current trends of mental health risk in Canadian workplaces.

This tool can help an organization establish a benchmark as to how the company is progressing with each of the 13 factors. While it does not replace the input and value of gathering information from employees, it does help introduce the kinds of behaviours and expectations that will help decision-makers examine opportunities and gaps and ask the questions that will assist its successful implementation.

The 13 factors can be thought of as a set of best practices. One of the national leaders on 13 factors is Guarding Minds at Work, which provides a free set of comprehensive tools to help employers. The developers have been deeply involved in the research and collaboration that went in to framing the 13 factors.

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Other tools as part of the Your Life at Work Survey include the Cost of Doing Nothing Calculator that gives decision-makers a benchmark on the tangible and intangible costs their company is facing due to high employee stress. There's also a tool for employers to self-evaluate their current organizational effectiveness and help them find ways to improve employees' quality of work life.

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