Home Top News Corporate Health & Wellness Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental Health in the Workplace

What is it and how can employers help?


In any given year, one in five Canadians will personally experience a mental health problem or illness and approximately eight per cent of adults will experience major depression at some point in their lives, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). And even if an individual never suffers from a mental illness themselves, mental illness indirectly affects us all at some point, whether it be through a family member, friend or colleague.

As we continue to see an increase in the frequency of mental illness, employers, consequently, will experience a variety of challenges in the workplace. And if not addressed, they will also see higher levels of absenteeism, lower productivity rates, reduced employee engagement and increased disability and drug claims resulting from mental health conditions. According to Manulife Insurance’s Workplace Solutions for Mental Health guide, “Addressing mental health in the workplace can feel overwhelming for an employer. As a simple guideline, organizational initiatives should address employee mental health no matter where they are on the health continuum – be that at work and healthy, at work and at risk of an illness, off work recovering, or transitioning back into the workplace following an absence.”

The economic cost of mental illnesses in Canada for the health-care system, according to the guide, was estimated to be at least $7.9 billion in 1998 – $4.7 billion in care and $3.2 billion in disability and early death. An additional $6.3 billion was spent on uninsured mental health services and time off work for depression and distress that was not treated by the health-care system.

Callum Ross, advocacy and policy lead for CMHA Calgary Region, says, “Mental health problems and illnesses are rated one of the top three drivers of both short-and long-term disability claims by more than 80 per cent of Canadian employers.”

Maria Fraga, head of global benefits and wellness at Manulife, says that by enhancing benefits that support the health and wealth of employees and their families, employers are investing in their greatest resource – people. “Manulife is committed to being a leader in strengthening the psychological health resiliency of Canadians by providing a fully-integrated health awareness, education and prevention, intervention and recovery maintenance support program to our clients, their employees and their families. The goal of our psychological health strategy is to help build and support psychologically-healthy and safe workplaces.”

But how does an employee’s mental health really affect the workplace and a company’s bottom line? Wayne McNeil, co-founder of Respect Group Inc., says, “One’s mental health can be the most important factor in an employee’s ability to perform. If you take this fact and apply it to the collective work group/organization, it could translate into whether an organization is successful or not.” McNeil co-founded Respect Group in 2004 alongside former NHL hockey player and advocate/spokesperson for violence and abuse prevention programs Sheldon Kennedy.

Ross points out that mental health problems and illnesses account for more than $6 billion in lost productivity costs due to absenteeism and presenteeism, meaning employees come to work despite having a sickness that justifies an absence and as a consequence, they are performing their work under suboptimal conditions.

Outside influences and issues can contribute to mental illness including, but not limited to, our attachment to the online world and, consequently, the decrease in physical activity – we have become a very sedentary society and many Canadians are physically inactive, according to Fraga. She adds, “We live in a very fast-paced world and workplaces are not exempt – not everyone enjoys or can maintain such a pace, which generates stress.”

McNeil emphasizes that stress is a major contributor to mental health. “It often comes from outside the workplace; relationships, a partner losing their job and the economic impacts of that, the constant ‘always on’ feeling as a result of technology and having to respond 24-7. This stress just gets compounded at work, if it doesn’t originate there, and results in people behaving inappropriately with one another; bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination – what we have come to call BAHD behaviours. They all lead, unfortunately, to negative mental health outcomes for those being victimized.”

Ross adds that people today lead a much more isolated existence than ever before. “In the 1950s, for example, we had six strong friendships compared to present day where we have two and a half. Loneliness has the same impact on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” He goes on to say, “We can build our resiliency to the daily demands on our life by building and investing in our social connections. Workplaces with positive cultures that focus on belonging and connection have less stress leave and sickness. Calgary is at a higher risk for loneliness and disconnection with the high number of migrants and low number of people who were born or have family roots in the city.”

Currently, 40 per cent of Canadians are financially unwell, according to Fraga, which also contributes to poor mental health. And unfortunately, employees are often reluctant to access mental health resources due to the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace. “There is fear that raising these concerns will ultimately impact the employee’s career opportunities and their job in the future.” For employees struggling with finances, there exists emotional barriers that translate into reduced productivity at work and an unwillingness to look for support and resources to support change.

So what can and should employers do to prevent and treat mental health illness in the workplace? First off, they must acknowledge that a problem exists. Then, they should contact their benefits providers to find out what mental health programs and supports are available to employees.

In January 2017, Manulife announced that under its redesigned benefits plan, employees in Canada would receive a mental health support benefit of up to $10,000 per person per year, including family members. These benefits are fully paid by Manulife and the amount represents among the highest mental health benefits offered by Canadian employers, claims Fraga.

Respect in the Workplace, an online risk management platform offered by Respect Group, emerged as a result of the national success of the Respect in Sport programs. It focuses on the prevention of BAHD and provides practical tools to deal with the issues. McNeil says their programs “empower the by-standers to ‘step up and step in’ and create a standard that all employees can adhere to thus reducing the negative impacts on an individual’s mental health, short or long term.”

Ross says workplaces with low levels of stigma around mental health and addiction issues have fewer issues with absenteeism. “The best and only way to reduce levels of stigma in the workplace is to share personal stories of recovery from mental health or addiction issues. For example, when a CEO or leader talks about their son/daughter who struggles with addiction openly, their staff are much more likely to share their own experience and potentially seek help.”

The associated costs for Canadian companies due to mental health issues, according to Manulife, can equate to nearly 14 per cent of their net annual profits and up to $16 billion annually. However, by improving the management of mental health in the workplace and creating a psychologically safe and healthy work environment, employers can help protect both their employees and their bottom line.