Monitoring employee mental health is good for business

Mental health is on the radar of Canadian organizations. Numerous studies have been conducted on the occurrence of and costs associated with mental health issues. The unfortunate reality is that people are often not provided with the care they need, even though early intervention is a key factor in helping people address and treat mental illness. Often, those suffering from mental illness are provided with medication to help them cope, but we fail to address the underlying issues that drive the condition. As such, opportunity exists for benefits plan sponsors to identify and support members coping with mental health issues, and to guide them in getting help for their mental illness.

Breaking the taboo
In a recent study by the Conference Board of Canada, 44% of people surveyed said they have experienced a mental health issue. This number is larger than in previous studies.

At issue is the fact that we are comfortable discussing a variety of illnesses such as cancer, heart, stroke or diabetes, but become less so when it is related to mental health. Family members, friends and colleagues are less likely to reach out for support for mental health. Often, we misread mental health problems and attribute them to someone simply being emotional, “out of sorts,” confrontational, etc. However, more organizations are now training their leaders to identify and support employees with mental health issues.

Life changes and stress
Life events can have a significant impact on our health. Take the recent financial crisis, for example, during which people became particularly concerned about their finances. In 2010, people who accessed employee assistance programs (EAPs) for support regarding financial issues were doing so for debt and/or credit counselling. This is in contrast to previous years, where EAP access was primarily for investment planning and retirement advice. We know that debt and credit can cause anxiety and stress, which, if not addressed, can negatively impact mental health.

Early intervention
Life is more complex and our workloads are more demanding. People are doing more with less, creating additional stress. It becomes apparent to me that we should be supporting others and regularly looking for signs of poor mental health. A helping hand offered early on from a manager or colleague can go a long way. Organizations across Canada are investing in mental health training for managers and it is this type of training that is helping with early identification and management of mental health issues.

Return to work
Many of those who suffer from a decreased mental health are absent from work. Reports have shown that between 30% and 60% of short-term disability cases are related to mental health. Managing these cases is difficult and requires a focus on providing support to the employee. Navigating the system to ensure the right support and care is provided is critical for early return to work. At Morneau Shepell, we have experienced that when a case manager can refer additional support through an EAP, this results in a 31% reduction in absence duration. In addition, a focus on integrating an employee back into the workplace is important. Maintaining the privacy of the employee while helping him or her integrate back into the workplace and accommodating his or her illness requires also educating managers and colleagues. It has been demonstrated that integrating an employee and providing necessary support results in higher engagement, productivity and sustainable results.

Mental health is a business issue and employers are spending more time understanding the resources and support systems available to help employees. The focus is on experts who are able to ensure programs are properly integrated and can provide the right support, at the right time.