© Copyright 2006 Rogers Publishing Ltd. The following article first appeared in the November 2005 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.
Benefits Trends: Depression boot camp
Senior managers are apparently aware but ill-equipped to deal with the mental illness rampant in the workplace. A new training program aims to change that.
By Anna Sharratt

DEPRESSED? ANXIOUS? TAKE HEART BECAUSE HELP IS ON the way. Your chief executive officer could soon be fully equipped to assist you with your condition.

At least that’s what Bill Wilkerson, co-founder and CEO of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, hopes will happen. He’s currently mapping out an ambitious seven-step training module with the National Quality Institute—an independent, not-for-profit organization that works with companies to develop healthy workplaces. The module will focus on giving chief executives, senior management and operating managers the training they need to effectively prevent mental health problems, identify employees’ mental illnesses, assist them in getting help and reintegrating them into the workplace.

Wilkerson says the education sessions will focus on the minutiae of the process—considerations often overlooked by managers. “Because of privacy and sensitivity, when you’re speaking to somebody in a state of some discomfort, you have to be careful not be judgmental, not to be presumptuous and to phrase questions with appropriate language. The right kind of body language is important, the setting, the time of day, making sure your cell phone is turned off—all kinds of details which will affect both the sensitivity with which such conversations can take place.”

According to Watson Wyatt Worldwide’s 2005 Staying@Work Survey, the training program is badly needed. It finds that the rise in mental health claims is considered an issue of concern to 56% of CEOs, yet only 31% plan to address the problem in the next one to two years. As well, only 35% of organizations have return-to-work practices for mental health.”

Colleen McKinnell, a senior consultant in Watson Wyatt’s group and healthcare practice in Toronto, says the stigma that surrounds mental health issues often prevents managers from addressing them. And the failure to act creates a sense of helplessness in the workplace, making it a toxic environment in the long run. “If the culture doesn’t change over time, [organizations] will inevitably fail” in combating the problem, says McKinnell. “Managers need to be held accountable.”

And part of that accountability is operational. Short-term (STD)and long-term disability(LTD)rates are being fuelled by mental health claims, meaning employers are having to pay more than ever for their failure to deal with mental health problems. The Staying@Work Survey finds that in 2005, LTD costs rose to 1.4% of payroll expenditures from 1.1% in 2002. STD claims, on the other hand, stayed constant at 1.9% during that same period.

Part of the problem is that in order to curb these rates, their contributing factors need to be measured. Unfortunately, most firms fail to do so. Twenty-six per cent do not measure the costs of STD including sick leave, 47% don’t measure other short-term absences and 8% do not factor in the costs of LTD. “Companies that don’t measure STD and LTD costs limit their ability to implement effective strategies,” says McKinnell.

Wilkerson believes that his program will be the first step towards a holistic approach to mental illness in the workplace. He says that after undertaking the training—which will likely take place at the participating company’s office—managers will be able to see the issue as part of the bigger picture. And with that new perception, the firm will be able to invest more in preventing mental health problems as well as getting back to work programs: initiatives that will lower both STD and LTD rates. “That’s where the investment must be directed,” says Wilkerson.

With some luck, Wilkerson’s depression awareness program will resonate with employers. But he warns that the dividends—the financial benefits of taking action—could be a ways down the road. For now, the seven-step program, set to launch in the second quarter of 2006, cannot come fast enough.

Anna Sharratt is managing editor of BENEFITS CANADA.