The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has released a guide advising companies on how they can support employees facing mental-health challenges.
The guide, which is based on a review of existing research on mental health in the workplace, offers five recommendations for Canadian employers: create a long-term mental-health strategy for the entire organization; implement mandatory training for people leaders; create tailored mental-health supports; prioritize and improve return-to-work processes; and measure and track the performance of the mental-health strategy.
“Mental-health conditions are common, making this one of the most pressing issues facing workplaces today,” said Deborah Gillis, president and chief executive officer of the CAMH Foundation, at an event in Toronto on Thursday.
There are clear incentives for businesses to act, said Gillis. Within its review of existing research on mental health in the workplace, CAMH found the annual economic burden of mental illness in Canada is a staggering $51 billion. Looking at the workplace, at least 500,000 Canadians miss work each week due to a mental illness. As well, 30 per cent of disability claims are due to mental illness, with mental-health leaves roughly double the cost of leaves caused by physical illnesses.
The guide recommends that an employer’s mental-health strategy includes reducing employees’ work-life friction; addressing job-related stress, which contributes towards the likelihood someone will take mental-health sick leave; and introducing investments in physical health, since there are strong links between physical and mental health.
The guide also stresses that employers must root out and address discrimination in the workplace to support marginalized employees.
“For groups facing discrimination in daily life, such as visible minorities or people in the LGBTQ2S community, the workplace can be a particularly strong contributor to poor mental-health outcomes,” said Gillis. “This emotional tax carries with it negative impacts for health and well-being that extends beyond the workplace to employees’ personal lives.”
The guide refers to research that found three-quarters of working Canadians would be reluctant to talk with a boss or co-worker about their mental illness, or wouldn’t do so, due to fear of being judged or experiencing negative consequences. CAMH said this fact is why it’s critical for employers to have their managers undergo mandatory mental-health training.
“Organizations can implement all the recommended policy changes and have practices in place, but if the workplace culture is not understanding and supportive of mental wellness, employees will not reach out and prioritize asking for the help they need,” Gillis said.
She also encouraged people in leadership positions to share their own mental-health journeys.
The guide also recommends that employers tailor their mental-health supports to the realities of their workforce, by taking into consideration how and where employees work, their demographics and more.
The return-to-work process is also a critical component of a successful mental-health plan, it says, suggesting employers bring in occupational health professionals to regularly meet with employees who are on sick leave, which is a factor that helps employees return to work more quickly. Employers should also plan carefully and make accommodations so employees can work modified hours or take on fewer duties, rather than pushing themselves to exceed their capacity upon their return.
Angie Elliott, a mental-health advocate and a former CAMH patient, said during a panel discussion that her employer “did absolutely everything right” when she took six months off work to deal with a severe panic disorder. “I was devastated to go on a six-month leave of absence but . . . you can’t pour from an empty cup,” she said.
Elliott’s employer eased her back into her work as a funeral director by allowing her to work a couple of hours a week in the company’s back office. “Just filing something well gave me a [sense that], ‘OK, I’m back,'” she said. “Thankfully, filing transitioned quickly into more complex tasks and before I knew it I was back to a regular workload.”
The guide also recommends that employers ensure employees can continue to access mental-health treatment after their return to work, conduct formal capability assessments and train managers to help employees get the support they need. That training should also focus on sensitivity and preventing or addressing discrimination.
“It’s actually disheartening . . . knowing that you’ve worked so hard to get better and to take care of your own mental health and to have that just be destroyed again because people aren’t supportive,” said Donna Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at CAMH, during the panel. “You expect your supervisors and your manager to welcome you and to accommodate you.”
Once employers implement mental-health strategies, the guide recommends they track metrics such as absenteeism, presenteeism, successful return to work, short- and long-term disability utilization rates and return on investment on mental-health supports.
Mona Malone, chief human resources officer at BMO Financial Group, which provided funding to CAMH to develop the guide, told Benefits Canada that the bank has implemented manager training through its “learn from difference” program but plans to go further with it.
“We rolled it out to all managers a few years ago, with the great majority of our managers having completed that training, but that’s not enough,” she said. “[We want to make] sure that managers have the tools and support to know when they’re sitting down with an employee how to address that conversation, or where to get resources.”
The bank also plans to improve its back-to-work protocols in the next year, said Malone, by working with its insurance companies and strengthening its own internal policies.
“We have support in terms of people’s back to work, whether it’s from a short-term disability or a long-term disability, but looking at that with a critical eye based on the [guide] now, around what [are the] best practices, is something that’s really important.”