Dealing with stigma of returning to work after mental-health leave

Depression is pervasive and creates problems within individual relationships, but also within workplace relationships. Looking at how to have more affective conversations about depression is important to ensure people have better access to the skill-based care they need at work.

But how can employers create an environment where people get help before they need to take time off work? Carmen Bellows, senior consultant for mental health, group disability for Sun Life Financial Inc.’s western region, posed this question to attendees at the 2018 Mental Health Summit Vancouver on Dec. 11.

Mental health is a global concern, she said, and it’s growing significantly, especially in Canada. “It’s affecting the bottom line of every industry. It affects our ability to be productive . . . our casual absence rate.”

Read: Conference Coverage: 2018 Mental Health Summit Toronto

Sun Life recognizes that claims volumes for mental health are increasing. “We’ve not been immune to the fact of rising mental-health rates,” said Bellows. “Monthly long-term disability health claims have increased by 40 per cent compared to five per cent in other diagnostic categories. This is significant and requires a more effective strategy to address this.”

When an employee is living with a mental-health condition, everyone who comes into contact with that individual is affected, which is why the issue is systemic and requires a systemic response, she said. “The more we think about the prevention side, the more we can reduce the stigma . . . and provide access to quality base care. The announcement this morning [from EY Canada] about the increase to $5,000 for mental health is paramount. This allows people to engage in targeted, skill-based treatment for whatever their illness might be.”

Read: EY Canada raises mental-health benefits to $5,000 for all staff

Mental-health education is another important step in keeping people at work, said Bellows, as well as having integration plans in place to help employees who’ve been off with a mental illness return to work and having business continuity plans as part of a mental-health strategy.

“But we can’t just have someone off work and be supporting them, and the people left picking up the pieces are then destroyed in the process. It needs to be equitable,” she said. “And equitable doesn’t always mean equal. It often means looking at the challenges and changes for those individuals to ensure the whole organization isn’t damaging everyone, but is also continuing to support one another.”

The best way to do this, said Bellows, is to collaborate and work with other people to facilitate the development of a mental-health strategy. “This is not something that’s going to magically happen. We’re required to bring all of these parts together as leaders to create that framework in order to better and more effectively support other people.”

Read more coverage from the 2018 Mental Health Summit Vancouver