By now, most employers are well aware that mental health problems present serious issues for the workplace.

Statistics reported by The Conference Board of Canada are staggering: one in five Canadians experiences a mental health condition every year, and brain illnesses such as depression and anxiety are top drivers for both short-term disability (STD) and long-term disability (LTD). The six most common mental health conditions afflicting the working-age populations cost the economy about $20.7 billion in lost labour in 2012.

But even with greater awareness, employers are still challenged by what to do about it. Speakers at the 2013 Mental Health Summit held recently in Vancouver presented a host of ideas for improving how employers deal with mental health in the workplace. The bottom line? Train managers to have the conversation, be prepared to offer guidance and resources leading to treatment, and provide support once people return to work.

“Mental health problems are management problems,” said Jennifer Dimoff, an occupational health and safety consultant and co-founder of Dimoff & Kelloway Consulting Ltd. She noted that training workplace leaders to recognize mental health symptoms, to know what to say to employees who may have mental health problems and to know what guidance and resources they can provide makes a huge difference.

Dimoff and a colleague developed a customizable training program designed to improve an organization’s leaders’ mental health knowledge, attitudes and skills. Evaluation of the Mental Health Awareness Training (MHAT) program found that the three-hour sessions for managers had positive results in terms of improvement in leaders’ ability to have conversations about mental health with employees and in the number of referrals to health and wellness resources.

While short-term results showed that employee assistance program usage went up, there was a significant reduction in associated costs with STD and LTD six months later. Dimoff concluded that mental health training for managers resulted in less stigma in the workplace, healthier employees and better work relationships, and, ultimately, led to lower disability costs.

Louise Chénier, a senior research associate, workplace health and wellness research, with The Conference Board of Canada, commented on how research can be used to help supervisors and senior leaders who don’t have medical training to better support their employees who are experiencing a depressive episode.

“With 4% of the working population suffering from depression at any given time, the illness has a huge impact on productivity in the workplace,” said Chénier, adding that as well as being the fastest growing category of disability costs, a major depressive episode can lead to an 11% fall in an employee’s productivity. She noted that 23% of individuals with mental illness are unable to work, 20% switch to part-time work, and 40% who remain in full-time employment are not productive.

“It is common to manage someone with depression in the workplace, but supervisors may not have the knowledge they need without training,” she said. Training for supervisors is important to help them understand that people off work with depression may come back with cognitive difficulties such as memory problems and fatigue related to their medical condition.

“Managers without training don’t know what they don’t know, and this presents an opportunity for action for employers,” Chénier said, adding that employers need to pay more attention to accommodations in the workplace. Although accommodations may look simple to put in place, it’s also important to maintain the accommodation and re-evaluate regularly since the person may get better and no longer need it, or it may not be effective.

While mental illness is known to have high co-morbidity with diabetes, stroke, cancer and heart disease, there is also a common co-morbidity between mood and anxiety disorders and ADHD. Dr. Diane McIntosh, a psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor with the University of British Columbia, described ADHD’s symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity as ones that can lead to problems “everywhere”: at school, at home and at work.

“People with ADHD often go from job to job, miss time from work or don’t get anything done at work,” she said. “It has nothing to do with intelligence but is more about difficulties with concentration and organizational ability. This disorder is vastly undertreated, although people who take medication tend to perform better and have a better sense of job security.”

She advises employers to help employees with ADHD by introducing time management strategies, encouraging more communications with supervisors, assigning work in “little bites” and allowing private space to work. “It’s also important to recognize the need to treat co-morbidities such as ADHD and depression or substance abuse at the same time.”

Karen Seward, president of Cira Medical Services, spoke about the need to find ways to identify people who need help, getting them into treatment and providing support. “The focus is no longer on prevalence—we all get that—but on figuring out how to deal with the issues. How do we find co-morbidity issues and ensure that people are actually getting the right treatment? How do we have the conversation in the workplace about getting help?”

Noting that there are many issues hampering timely diagnosis, treatment and recovery from mental illness, Seward stressed that having a “coach” to co-ordinate treatment can improve the chance of returning to functionality. “We need to create a new norm for talking about mental health,” she added, explaining that people are now starting to discuss the “resiliency factor,” which determines a person’s ability to cope with different situations, and a shift in the nomenclature away from mental illness to healthy brain.

Going Social
With knowledge and communication of such important factors in helping manage mental illness, it’s not surprising that harnessing the power of social media is a huge opportunity for employers. Dr. Scott Wallace, creative and social media director at Homewood Human Solutions, described how social media offers two important concepts: reach (the ability to connect with another person) and empowerment (allowing individuals to take control of their health and well-being).

“Employers may wonder where to start with social media,” he said, explaining that sites such as Facebook, Pinterest, Slideshare and blogs offer incredible opportunities to share information on mental health issues. But achieving an effective social media strategy takes planning. Wallace advises employers to first scope out privacy issues and to develop policies on how to deal with comments and criticism on their sites. “Organizations may worry about opening themselves up to criticism, but it is important to realize that criticism is par for the course,” he said. “You can only avoid that if you are not involved in the conversation—but it is time to become involved.”

Sonya Felix is a freelance writer based in Qualicum Beach, B.C.

Click here to view photos from the event.

Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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