How Mentally Healthy is Your Workforce?

Studies show that Canadian workers are increasingly battling anxiety, stress, depression and other mental problems. Is your company equipped to help?

Written by Alyssa Hodder for Benefits Canada

Employers need to focus on the relationship between mental health and productivity moving forward, explained Bill Morneau, executive chairman of Morneau Shepell, at the company’s annual Employers Connect event.

“The stigmas and stereotypes associated with mental health—and the barriers to action in this regard—really have no place in business,” he noted. “Not only is it the right thing to do morally, to focus on how you get rid of these stigmas, but it’s absolutely critical if we want a productive workforce going forward in Canada.”

Read: Could Brain Training Boost Your Bottom Line?

According to a 2013 Morneau study conducted in conjunction with Queen’s University, workplace stress levels in Canada have doubled since 2009, and financial stress has tripled. Furthermore, mental health issues accounted for one out of the four inquiries to the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) services. “There really is opportunity for organizations to get better,” Morneau added.

Read: The Invisible Disease 1 in 4 Employees Have

Paula Allen, vice-president, research and integrative solutions, with Morneau Shepell, added that employers need to support and train people managers to help avoid undue costs relating to mental health and disability. “Mental health cannot be taken for granted.”

Stress test

But while employees’ stress levels may be on the rise, stress isn’t inherently unhealthy, explained Dr. Saul Marks, a sports psychiatrist. In fact, it’s an essential part of business that can optimize performance.

It’s important for employers to understand the difference between overworking and overreaching

It’s important for employers to understand the difference between overworking and overreaching, Marks explained. Employees who are overworked have an excessive workload, inadequate rest and inadequate time for recovery. They may experience a decline in physical performance, fatigue, insomnia, a change in appetite, irritability, restlessness, anxiousness, a decline in concentration and, ultimately, depression.

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By contrast, employees who are overreaching are also overloaded with work, but the increased workload is temporary, their symptoms are mild and they have sufficient time to recover, he added.

Marks explained the need for healthy coping mechanisms (e.g., relaxation techniques or enjoyable activities outside of work), consistent messaging around mental health, empathic listening and having “real” conversations with employees who are struggling.

He also emphasized the importance of early intervention in mental health issues. “The more we know the people we work around, the more likely we are to notice subtle changes.”

Case study: Bell Canada

Every day, 500,000 Canadians are off work due to mental illness, said Lucie Dutil, vice-president, HR, with Bell Canada. But because it’s hard to see the direct outcome of a mental health initiative, she added, it’s hard for organizations to make it a priority.

Yet Bell Canada did just that. The company established a mental health program with four main facets:

  1. provide better access to information;
  2. equip team leaders with resources to support employees;
  3. adopt best practices at work; and
  4. establish strong return-to-work programs.

In particular, Bell Canada centralized all information relating to mental health on one website, produced a user guide for team members, established an escalation process for mental health cases and promoted the company’s EAP to employees.

The results were significant. Over the three years since implementing the program, EAP utilization has increased to 20%, up from 7%; the relapse rate has decreased to 9%, down from 18%, and employees say they feel more confident about dealing with mental health issues.

Read: One Man’s Struggle with the Heavy Mental Toll of Entrepreneurship

“Assess your own program, your process,” Dutil advised. “Look at your contract with your provider. You may surprised at what’s in there, what you can leverage€¦ Organize and centralize information that you already have.”

Developing a mental health program is a process, she added. “Change in culture takes time, and not everything needs to be done at once.” Allen echoed that sentiment. “Ultimately, we want to make sure that we start somewhere.

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How do you monitor the mental health of your staff? Do you feel you’re equipped to help and support those in need? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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