What Is The Issue?
The workplace can be a strong contributor to mental wellbeing, giving people the opportunity to feel productive and achieve their potential. Yet it can also be a stressful environment that contributes to the rise of mental health problems and illnesses such as depression and anxiety. With most adults spending more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else—and with many youth holding at least part-time jobs—addressing issues of mental health at work is vitally important for Canadians.
A massive impact
In any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness. Nearly a quarter of the country’s working population is currently affected by mental health problems or illnesses leading to absenteeism, ‘presenteeism’ (coming to work but being less than fully productive) and turnover. Adults in their early and prime working years are among the hardest hit.
Approximately 30 per cent of short- and long-term disability claims in Canada are attributed to mental health problems and illnesses. Of the total economic burden caused by mental illness in Canada—about $51 billion per year—a staggering $20 billion stems from workplace losses.
The need to take action
No workplace is immune from the risk of mental health problems, regardless of size, sector or specialization. Yet a 2008 Canadian Medical Association study cited in the Mental Health Strategy for Canada found that only 23 per cent of Canadians would feel comfortable talking to their employer about a mental illness. This suggests that the number of people affected by mental health issues is likely even higher than official tallies show due to a significant proportion of silent suffering. Creating mentally healthy workplaces in large part includes comprehensive, well-informed approaches to prevention, promotion and anti-stigma initiatives.
Helping ensure that people can enjoy good mental health at work is beneficial to all Canadians: workers, their families and their employers—and contributes to the country’s economic prosperity overall.
What Are We Doing?
The Mental Health Strategy for Canada proposed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) notes that workplaces need more capacity to support people experiencing mental health problems on the job. Mental health promotion, illness prevention and anti-stigma initiatives as well as management training and employee assistance programs all contribute to mentally healthy workplaces. The MHCC is currently engaged in a number of activities to advance workplace mental health.
Addressing mental health at work differently
The MHCC is helping employers improve how they protect employee mental health in their workplaces to better prevent mental health problems and illnesses. The MHCC has led the development of a voluntary National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace and developed recommendations to support increased employment among people living with a mental health problem and illness. It released an action guide to help employers improve the psychological health of their organization and provided guidelines that encourage executive leadership to commit to making mental health in their workplace a priority.
Providing mental health first aid training
Mental Health First Aid Canada is an evidence-based program that teaches people how to help someone developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. It aims to improve mental health literacy, reduce stigma, and equip people with the skills and knowledge to respond when others experience mental health issues. By early 2012, more than 72,000 Canadians had received Mental Health First Aid Canada training.
Reducing stigma in the workplace
Opening Minds is the largest systematic effort in Canadian history focused on reducing stigma related to mental illness. Established by the MHCC in 2009, it seeks to change behaviours and attitudes toward people living with mental illness in all corners of society—including the workplace. The ultimate goal of Opening Minds is to create an environment where those with mental illnesses feel comfortable seeking help, treatment and support for recovery.
Dealing with workplace psychological health and safety
A Leadership Framework for Advancing Workplace Mental Health was published in 2010 in partnership with the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace. It is an online resource for business leaders which lays out the business case for sustaining a mentally healthy workplace.
The Shain Reports on mental health in the workplace
The MHCC commissioned and disseminated a series of four reports by Martin Shain, S.J.D. that focused on the provision and maintenance of a psychologically safe workplace. This has been recognized as a legal duty, similar to the duty to provide a physically safe workplace. In both realms, the employer must take every reasonable precaution to protect employee safety and show that they have done so.
Addressing stigma and discrimination in workplaces
The Commission launched Opening Minds to address the underlying issue of stigma and discrimination. Opening Minds is working with partners across Canada to identify and evaluate existing anti-stigma programs to determine their effectiveness and potential to be rolled out nationally. One of the target groups is the workplace.
Assisting the aspiring workforce
Canadians with mental health challenges who are trying to enter the workforce or to retain their employment are considered “the aspiring workforce”. MHCC is working with three research institutions to develop a report focusing on:
- promising and best practices/approaches to provide services to people who want to work;
- identifying what systemic incentives and disincentives exist related to returning to work;
- how to develop social enterprises that as part of their mission provide jobs to people with mental illness;
- how to provide disability supports that also focus on a person’s capacities and ability to work;
- and the key things people need to know about succeeding at work.
What We've Learned
Mental health problems related to the workplace include anxiety, depression and burnout. All of these take a significant toll on workers—and have a deep economic impact as well. Over the next 30 years, the cost of lost productivity due to absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover is estimated to reach $198 billion in current dollars.
Addressing stigma is key
Today, stigma—the negative attitudes and behaviours that surround mental illness—prevents many employers from understanding how to deal with mental health issues in the workplace. It can cause coworkers to isolate someone with a problem, and cause those living with mental illnesses to hide their condition. Breaking the silence around mental illness is an essential step we have to take as a country.
Awareness of mental health needs to increase
Canadian employers acknowledge workplace health and safety as one of their top priorities. The task now is to embed mental health within that ‘health and safety’ mix—putting physical and psychological health on an equal footing. Building the capacity of Canadian organizations to respond to mental health emergencies is critical, and so is building their capacity to respond to non-emergency situations. Welcoming a colleague back to work after a mental health-related absence can be a challenge in many workplaces—in contrast, for example, to welcoming back someone who has received treatment for cancer.
Employers need the right tools
A mentally healthy workplace is one where all employees enjoy work-life balance, clearly understand their roles, and have the opportunity to contribute to decisions about how work gets done. The MHCC has developed several resources to help employers cultivate these kinds of workplaces and respond to mental health issues, including: Minds@Work, CEO Leadership Guidelines, the Shain reports on Psychological Safety and the Law in the Canadian Workplace, the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, Psychological Health and Safety: An Action Guide for Employers and the Mental Health First Aid Canada program.