Mental illness – reducing the toll

Bell’s workplace program a model for boosting awareness, taking action
By Mary Deacon
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/13/2011

The numbers are startling — mental illness is one of the leading causes of disability in the country, resulting in millions of Canadians being absent from work every day. Total cost to the economy? A staggering $51 billion each year, according to a 2003 study released by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

But big picture statistics like these only tell part of the story. Looking closer at how organizations address mental health issues, it becomes clear many are unprepared or not as well-equipped as they should be.

Nearly one-half of managers have no training on how to manage employees with mental health issues, according to a recent Conference Board of Canada survey. And while the vast majority of senior executives believe their workplaces promote mentally healthy work environments, less than one-third of employees agree.

The downside of these disconnects is huge and they are a big reason why Bell is moving forward with a campaign to increase awareness of mental health issues, both publicly and within the company.

Let’s talk

One-fifth of Canadians experience some form of mental illness at some point in their lives, according to Health Canada. And, at one time or another, we have all seen and felt its impacts, either directly or indirectly.

Despite this, our understanding of mental health remains very low. And the stigma associated with it, including a general unwillingness to talk about mental illness and broad acceptance of many stereotypes, often interferes with or even prevents those who need help from getting it.

In support of improvements to mental health care overall, Bell is contributing $50 million toward mental health research, community care and access, workplace health and anti-stigma initiatives.

This means more funding for mental health-care services and the search for new ways to help those in need. The company is supporting a public campaign to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health — called Bell Let’s Talk — as well as taking steps to improve Bell’s ability to address mental health issues for the benefit of all employees.

While mental health in the workplace has gained more attention over the last decade, there’s a tendency for it to be boxed in with general health and wellness programs.

The unfortunate result is employees with treatable and even curable mental illnesses and injuries — such as adjustment and anxiety disorders or major depression — are often categorized as having “emotional problems” and, as a result, do not receive the more focused attention they deserve.

This is changing at Bell thanks to a progressive and effective program designed to break down barriers to good mental health and create a more responsive and productive workplace.

Fundamental to Bell’s approach is a focus on improving the ability of managers to deal with mental health and better support its team members. Studies such as that by the Conference Board of Canada tell us most employees who are experiencing a mental health issue feel uncomfortable speaking about it with their managers.

And while this might not come as a surprise, it doesn’t mean reluctance and even fear to disclose should prevail. We can do something about it.

Bell’s approach is to boost overall knowledge related to mental health. The company is providing ongoing training to human resources staff, senior leaders and all managers so they can be more proactive and involved.

This includes identifying appropriate resources to more effectively manage a
return-to-work program for employees affected by mental illness — during the treatment phase and the reintegration
period. Early intervention as well as ongoing communications and accommodation are key.

The company is also making more information and resources available to the entire Bell team through online resources, an ongoing special speakers series, lunch and learns and other events co-ordinated by HR staff in co-operation with each business group.

To ensure the program works as effectively as possible, Bell is working closely with external experts such as management firm Morneau Shepell on many of the core elements, including the development of websites to:

• provide a single point of reference for programs, support tools and community resources

• promote the company’s employee assistance program (EAP), providing access to various consulting services and tools and resources that promote healthy lifestyle habits.

A new standard

While not every organization has the ability to roll out extensive mental health programs, there is much that can be learned from the Bell model as well as other resources that are becoming available.

Work is underway on the development of a new and voluntary national standard for employers that specifically addresses the psychological health and safety of employees.

Led by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and funded by Bell and federal public health agencies, this new standard will provide organizations with many of the tools and resources they need to improve the mental health and well-being of employees. An extensive public review process is being conducted this fall and the new standard is scheduled to be released in 2012.

Poor mental health in the workplace increases financial, legal and human costs so, in this context alone, accommodating mental health issues at work makes great sense.

Canada has made tremendous progress over the years with respect to physical health and safety issues, for many of the same reasons. It’s time to take similar steps with psychological health and safety.

Mary Deacon is chair of the Bell Mental Health Initiative. For more information about Bell’s workplace program and other aspects of the initiative, please visit

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