The Canadian Mental Health Commission is being charged with raising awareness of mental health in the workplace. Is it up to the task?

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s most recent budget speech announcing the creation of the new Canadian Mental Health Commission marks a significant initiative that will prove to be an important step in improving the state of mental health in Canada. Former Senator Michael Kirby, the chair of the new Commission, is no stranger to this topic—having published his Senate Committee report entitled “Out of the Shadows at Last” in 2006. But what will the new Commission do and how will this impact mental health in the workplace?

According to Kirby’s most recent report, one in eight employees has a diagnosable mental illness. The associated productivity loss is also 60% greater amongst those who suffer from mental illness than that of other employees, and up to 40% of disability cases are caused by mental health issues.

The very nature of work today, with its deadlines and demands, has made the workplace one of the principal battlegrounds in the war on mental illness.

Employee Assistance Programs(EAPs)can provided a support for workplace mental health issues. Employers who wish to reduce the mental illness costs in their organizations are increasingly focusing on prevention-based solutions targeted to the specific needs of their workforce.


A key step is helping managers recognize the early signs of mental illness, then educating them on how to ensure that available help and support are easily accessible.

In today’s environment, organizations recognize the importance of having employees address physical ailments. Mental disorders also need that same attention, and employers are beginning to recognize that physical and mental health issues have a high co-morbidity rate. Addressing only the physical issue in isolation may not make the person “whole” and fully productive.


One of the five priorities for the Commission is to improve workplace mental health. They will help set standards and provide nationally based policy advice in an area that is largely driven by provincial healthcare, social service sectors and group benefits programs.

The Commission will help to raise awareness of how important it is to address mental health issues inside and outside the workplace, and provide guidelines for businesses on how to put an effective plan in place.

Aside from putting a spotlight on the issue of mental illness, the Commission’s most important contribution would be to establish business-relevant standards and measurements for workplace mental health.

It is essential that the Commission provide business operators with clear, practical, unbiased guidance regarding what to do and how to measure progress in order to achieve sustainable improvement in this area.


It will be interesting to observe what the spillover effect will be on the workplace and employee health as the Commission tackles its other priorities— addressing mental health issues amongst the Aboriginal people and children, reducing stigma and establishing a knowledge exchange on best practices.

It is hoped that this level of attention and openness on the topic will lead to mental health solutions becoming an expected component within group health and benefits plans with more employers looking for innovative solutions to help them contain the costs of mental illness and to ensure continued employee productivity.

Kirby and the Canadian Mental Health Commission face a formidable challenge tackling the scourge of mental illness in Canadian workplaces. We should all wish them well and look forward to the progress and improvement in the health and productivity of Canadian employees.

Rod Phillips is president and CEO of Shepell·fgi in Toronto.

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© Copyright 2007 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the May 2007 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.