© Copyright 2006 Rogers Publishing Ltd. The following article first appeared in the July 2006 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.
Industry Q&A: Casting a safety net
Dr. Graham Lowe discusses plan sponsors’ responsibility in nurturing a mentally healthy workplace.
By Alison MacAlpine
Dr. Graham Lowe, Founder and president, Graham Lowe Group Inc., Kelowna, B.C.

BC: What challenges are there as far as mental health issues in the workplace?
GL: We’ve been very good at developing a whole system around physical injury prevention. We need to develop a similar language and approach to address the psychosocial work environment. Employers have a huge responsibility to create healthy, lowstress work environments, and at the same time to provide the support and the skills to supervisors to help them deal with individuals who are bringing health problems into the workplace.

BC: Does it help to determine where mental health issues originate?
GL: I would create three categories of mental health issues, with some overlap in the middle. The first are externally based: someone going through a midlife crisis or depression in their life, and bringing that into the workplace. At the other end is something that’s almost entirely related to a workplace problem—an extremely stressful relationship with a supervisor or a chronically stressful job. Then there’s the third category, which is where somebody brings personal issues into the workplace and then they’re exacerbated and compounded by an unhealthy work environment. People’s lives and people’s experiences are not compartmentalized; what happens in the family and in your personal life is going to flow over to work and vice versa.

BC: How can a plan sponsor stake out an appropriate role in this area?
GL: There are many players here. There’s the employee, senior management, frontline supervisors, unions, EAP providers, mental health professionals and others. Defining the plan sponsor’s role in a specific company will be a collaborative process that involves all the stakeholders. One appropriate role, because plan sponsors have access to the data, is to make that information available and useful for people so they can see to what extent there are trends with respect to mental health issues.

BC: What role should frontline supervisors play?
GL: A manager is not a social worker, a professional psychologist or any other type of mental health professional. A manager’s role, which must be clearly defined, is really as the front line of contact with the employee. Also, managers should be able to make it safe for employees to express their needs and problems, and then help them work out a reasonable course of action— getting them the help they need, informally giving them some time off, or making the referral to an EAP if there’s one available. Typically, managers are evaluated on productivity, performance and meeting the numbers. Organizations that also include people skills and support for employees, assessed through employee surveys, will be better able to help managers do this kind of work.

BC: What is the current climate in the office around this topic?
GL: If you look at the components of health benefits these days, prescription drugs are a huge cost, with upward trends for pharmaceuticals that help people deal with stress, anxiety and depression. We do not have an epidemic of depression in society. We do have, increasingly, workplaces that are putting additional pressures on people, and that is a good chunk of what’s driving those prescription drug costs in my assessment. Similarly, increasingly it’s mental health issues that are pushing people into long-term disability. Again, when you’re addressing that, you have to ask what component is directly and then indirectly related to working conditions. You have to look at it on an organization-toorganization basis, but there will be a substantial contributing factor from working conditions.

Alison MacAlpine is a freelance writer in Toronto. alison@amcommunications.ca