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A businessman with head in hands.Ariel Duhon/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Employers will soon have a new tool to help them combat mental illness in the workplace, a devastating and costly disorder that, according to a new survey, affects more than 22 per cent of Canadian workers.

A new voluntary Canada-wide standard for the psychological health and safety of the workplace will spell out requirements for the mental well being of the work force, just as there are measures for its physical welfare.

"The standard will give a framework for assessing the psychological health and safety of the organization, how it's structured and, if there is a risk, how to consider alternatives," said Mary Ann Bayton, program director for the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace.

"It will help a company assess the hazards and set up a measurable, continuous improvement program," she said.

To be unveiled next month, the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace was developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, in collaboration with CSA Standards and the Bureau de normalisation du Québec.

The economic burden in Canada of mental health disorders is estimated at $51-billion a year, with about $20-billion of that coming from lost productivity in the workplace.

Results from an online survey conducted by Ipsos Reid for the centre indicate that more than one fifth of Canadian employees say they currently suffer from depression, with an additional 16 per cent of respondents reporting they have experienced depression previously.

More managers and supervisors are getting training in how to deal with an employee showing signs of depression, says the national survey, conducted between July 18 and July 24 and drawn from the Ipsos Reid Household Panel.

Progress is being made in erasing the stigma of mental illness in the workplace but much work still needs to be done, Ms. Bayton said.

For example, the survey results show that seven out of 10 respondents said there needs to be a way to verify that someone is actually suffering from depression before getting special treatment at work.

Almost two-thirds of managers are still seeking better training to deal with this issue and they're asking for greater support from senior management and human resources, Ms. Bayton said.

"It's improving, but slowly," she said.

"People are becoming more aware that employees suffering depression can be supported and fully recover. People are also beginning to see that this is a good business decision."

Mentally healthy or safe workplaces result in improved employee engagement and performance and higher productivity, Ms. Bayton said.

The survey results indicate that employers are still perceived to be more responsive to physical health issues than to mental health concerns, Mike Schwartz, senior vice-president of Group Benefits for Great-West Life and a centre director, said in a news release.

Among the encouraging signs in the survey:

In 2012, 14 per cent of employees surveyed said they have been diagnosed as suffering from depression. That's down from 18 per cent in 2007.

In 2012, 31 per cent of managers or supervisors said they have received training to help them identify and help employees with signs of depression, up from 18 per cent in 2007.

The results are based on 6,624 online surveys, 4,307 among employees and 2,317 among managers and supervisors.

Ipsos Reid said the survey has a "credibility interval," a measure of accuracy, of plus or minus 1.7 percentage points for employees and 2.3 for managers and supervisors. The greater the sample size, the lower the credibility interval.