Among the ways employers can encourage better employee mental health is to focus on prevention by raising awareness, reduce structural barriers and provide mental-health education, said Manulife’s Gillian Wells during Benefits Canada‘s 2019 Mental Health Summit on Nov. 29 in Toronto.
People often hide how they’re really feeling behind curtains of non-disclosure, which leaves them trying to get through and showing up to work at all costs. “We know what happens when an individual shows up at work when they’re not well, and that’s presenteeism,” said Wells, the insurer’s mental-health specialist for national disability best practices.
“Presenteeism costs five to 10 times more than absenteeism. While organizations may want to reduce absenteeism, it’s important to be aware of the cost. When your workers show up, and they really shouldn’t be there because they should be getting better, they show up with poor concentration and focus, do slower work and have an overall decrease in productivity.”
So what steps can organizations take? Employers can’t prevent an employee from going off on disability leave for a mental-health condition, said Wells, but they can reduce the duration of that leave by focusing on prevention, education and the removal of barriers within the workplace.
Prevention often starts with addressing stigma, an overarching, pervasive attitude related to mental-health conditions — and it’s prevalent, she noted. “It’s what people think about themselves and what people think others are thinking about them. So what are the consequences of stigma? Well, look at the impact on help-seeking behaviour. We know already that roughly 40 per cent of individuals with severe depression do not seek treatment. . . . You start to see this really big gap between what people are experiencing and when they eventually do seek treatment. So without appropriate treatment, it can prolong the severity of the condition.”
Other consequences of stigma include fear of disclosure, especially in the workplace, and particularly as it relates to promotions or opportunities within an organization, said Wells. “There’s a remarkable gap between employees willing to disclose mental-health conditions, even though managers are saying, ‘I’m there to hear you.’ So what do we do? You look at raised awareness, provide education, reduce structural barriers.
“But I think, at the end of the day, whether it’s policy development, more formal structure or discussions, it’s about normalization, having the conversation. Talking about mental health in the workplace needs to be interwoven into corporate organizational culture.”
Employers have to be doing everything possible to get people closer to the help they need, said Wells. In terms of disability management and supporting the return-to-work process, evidence points to a number of actions. One is ensuring employees know what resources are available, such as an employee assistance program. “I review somewhere between 600 to 800 mental-health claims a year. And repeatedly, people do not know the resources they have access to.”
Communication is also essential when an employee takes a leave with a mental-health issue. And as they get closer to returning to work, it’s important to have a discussion about that process. “It’s really important because there’s so much anxiety related to return to work,” said Wells. “Expectation is critical for someone who’s been on leave to try and figure out what is it going to be like when [going] back to [the] workplace.”
Return-to-work accommodations are essential, she added. “When I think about return-to-work accommodation, say someone who was in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t even hesitate to wonder what they would need. In fact, building codes are wrapped around this idea, . . . to make sure doors and desks are accessible. So anybody could return to work. Same thing if somebody has surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome — you have all your ergonomic stuff, all that wonderful stuff. The question remains, how do you accommodate somebody who’s returning to work from a mental-health leave?”
Conversations about what’s working and what isn’t, as well as working collaboratively with the person who’s returning back to work, are essential, noted Wells.