Mental health should be treated as business issue: Conference Board

But many managers clueless as to how to respond to troubled employees
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/16/2011

Forty-four per cent of employees and front-line managers have experienced a mental health issue, including excessive stress, substance abuse and schizophrenia, according to a report by the Conference Board of Canada.

“When you look at the 44 per cent, you realize the person that sits next to you in the workplace or the person you’re passing in the hall or your boss or the CEO are all people who today, tomorrow or in the past have had an issue,” said Karen Seward, executive vice-president of business development and marketing at Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

Of the 44 per cent, 12 per cent are currently experiencing a mental health issue while 32 per cent have previously experienced one, found Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces: Perspectives of Canadian Workers and Front-line Managers after a survey of 1,010 Canadians (including 479 front-line managers).

The report defines mental health issues to include excessive stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, addictions, substance abuse, mania, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

“The onset of many of these mental health conditions is gradual, detectable but, importantly, also treatable and many individuals can continue to function very productively not only in society and in their relationships but also in the workplace,” said Karla Thorpe, associate director of leadership and human resources research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.

Mental health issues in the workplace can be very costly to employers. In 2009-2010, 78 per cent of short-term disability (STD) claims and 67 per cent of long-term disability (LTD) claims in Canada were related to mental health issues, according to the Conference Board.

“Mental health is a business issue,” said Seward. “If it was any of our expenses — courier cost, postage cost, travel and entertainment costs — that were escalating each year, we would sit and actually create an action plan to either control them, accept them or improve them — mental health should not be different.”

Many employees with a mental health issue are uncomfortable approaching their managers about it, found the report.

Emplyees fear repercussions

Employees said they fear disclosure will jeopardize their chances for promotion (54 per cent) and future success (38 per cent) at their organization.

“There’s a perception that once you’ve disclosed a mental health issue, it can alter an employer’s perception about your skills and abilities and the degree to which you can handle stress,” said Thorpe. “It may influence the opportunities people are given.”

To help employees be more comfortable disclosing a mental health issue, managers should strive to be friendly, supportive, understanding, approachable, patient, empathetic, accommodating and co-operative, she said.

While 81 per cent of managers said they would feel comfortable having a discussion with a staff member about mental health in general, only 10 per cent said they would know what to do if an employee disclosed a mental health issue to them, found the report.

And 44 per cent said they have not received any training on how to effectively manage employees with a mental health issue.

“It’s a scary topic for managers and going to a program to figure out how to have a difficult conversation around mental health isn’t the thing people are going to sign up for first,” said Seward. “It’s not how they’re measured, it’s not what their objectives are.”

At Bell Canada, managers undergo mandatory mental health training, said Mary Deacon, chair of Bell’s mental health initiative. It’s a three-hour face-to-face session where they discuss mental health facts and myths, how to have difficult conversations, where to get help and what to do and say, she said.

“We chose the route of mandatory because we believe a) a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know and b) stigma,” said Deacon. “I’m the manager and I’m going to a mental health course — does that say there is something wrong with me or I’m not a good manager? So this creates an even playing field.”

Non-managers have access to an online course that provides them with tools and information about mental health and teaches them what it means to be mentally healthy, said Deacon.

Bell also has a dedicated mental health website for employees that is a “single point of reference for programs, supports, tools and communication” surrounding mental health, she said.

While employees have many tools at their disposal, only 22 per cent of employees said they have received information on mental health from their employer, found the report.

“A lot of people don’t know where to go and that’s concerning,” said Seward who contributed to the report. “We have a real opportunity here where we can help people understand where they’re at and where they’re going. It starts with education and information.”

Focusing on educating the workforce can help reduce the fear and stigma surrounding mental health issues and encourage those with issues to come forward, found the report.

Organizational culture plays an important role in creating a mentally healthy environment. How work is organized, how much control employees have over their work, how they are rewarded and how the organization deals with bullying, harassment and discrimination are key influencers of employees’ mental health, found the report.

The work environment should be a place where people can discuss issues openly and seek support when needed.

“This notion that mental health issues are personal and have nothing to do with the workplace is changing,” said Thorpe. “I think as we recognize the work environment has such a profound effect on employees, employees are seeing it’s time for their employer to take those things into consideration.”

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