Employers in best position to fight depression

Support from CEO, management training, employee education among solutions: Report
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/26/2012

In January, the City of Calgary launched a three-year mental health strategy. One aspect of the strategy is to improve depression care — provided by the employee assistance program (EAP) — from short-term to long-term counselling, with a maximum of 20 sessions, said Cindy Munn, the city’s HR business partner for employee wellness.

When the organization launched a six-month pilot program around this in 2011, it expected 10 participants — but ended up with 16.

“When the actual utilization rate is higher than what we originally anticipated, it proves depression is on the rise in the workplace,” said Munn. “It speaks to employees’ willingness to seek help.”

More corporations should tackle depression in the workplace, according to a report by the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health.

“(About one-half) of the world’s largest economic entities are global corporations,” said Brain Health + Brain Skills = Brain Capital. “This implies, very strongly, that a workplace-based, international initiative to find a cure for depression and to save lives from heart attack and other conditions by treating depression more effectively is logically led by corporations.”

Employers are in a good position to fight depression because they have the incentive to do so, said Bill Wilkerson, a co-author of the report, CEO of the roundtable and mental health advisor for the RCMP.

With between 18 per cent and 25 per cent of the American and Canadian workforce suffering from depression, employers are losing billions of dollars from lost productivity and reduced capacity to compete, he said.

“There was a time when people worked with their backs and the biggest issue for employers related to disability was back injury,” said Mary Ann Baynton, program director at the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, a virtual resource for employers. “But now employees work primarily with their brains and so the issue in terms of disability and productivity is more related to mental health, with depression being one of the largest.”

Depression not only impacts the suffering employee but co-workers, management and the organization as a whole, she said.

Depression also increases the risk of suicide, heart disease and stroke, and causes further complications in individuals with diabetes, some cancers and obesity, said the roundtable report.

Another reason employers have a logical role to play in combatting depression is because unhealthy workplaces contribute to the risk factors that can produce depressive symptoms, said Wilkerson, who is based in Port Hope, Ont.

“Chronic job stress is as big an occupational health and safety issue today as unhealthy air environments or asbestosis was in the ’70s and ’80s and that is within the control of managers and companies.”

People spend more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else so when there is a change in someone’s demeanour due to mental health issues, it is most noticeable at work, said Baynton, who is based in Waterdown, Ont.

“People at work have power and influence over people that sometimes even family members don’t have,” she said. “If my spouse says to me, ‘You seem in a bad mood today,’ I probably won’t think much of his comment. But if my boss told me that, I’m going to pay attention in a different way.”

A final reason employers are best suited to combat depression is because governments are maxed out on their ability to provide adequate research dollars and adequate health-care resources, said Wilkerson.

The report calls for a $10-billion workplace-based, decade-long research, education and prevention campaign to “fund and find a cure for depression” in the United Kingdom, United States and Canada. The initiative will begin with a pilot project of 30 workplaces across the three countries, to be announced in early 2012, said Wilkerson.

One major component of the campaign is to get CEOs and executives behind the importance of mental health in the workplace. No amount of science will change the way workplaces function without executive leadership and a willingness to adapt, said the report.

“It doesn’t mean the CEO has to be a touchy-feely kind of person, it just means they must value a psychologically healthy and safe workplace, state it publicly and then walk the talk themselves,” said Baynton. “That does carry a huge weight.”

The City of Calgary’s city manager sends out various articles to employees about mental health and includes messaging around psychologically healthy workplaces within employee communications, such as total rewards statements and newsletters, said Munn.

Managers must be comfortable and capable of managing the emotions and feelings of employees, said Wilkerson.

“In my day, if you told a manager, ‘You have to be sensitive to feelings and perceptions,’ I’d go, ‘Are you crazy? That has nothing to do with management.’ Well, it has everything to do with management today,” he said.

Managers should be trained to make sure they are providing clarity around role expectations, eliminating sources of frustration in the workplace and matching resources and skills with work and expected results because, if ignored, these can all be risk factors for depression, said Wilkerson.

The City of Calgary’s leadership program includes a module on mental health that is specifically targeted at HR professionals, supervisors and foremen, said Munn.

Employees who have participated in this half-day event reported an overall positive change in their awareness and attitude toward workplace mental health issues, she said.

Employee education is another very important piece in creating a mentally healthy work environment, found the report. Employees should receive training on mental health in general, how to handle their emotions and how to react to others who may be experiencing mental health issues, said Baynton.

The City of Calgary has many initiatives around employee education including a 90-minute stress and resiliency awareness session; specific mental health web pages and videos on the company intranet; a 20-minute mental health presentation for field employees; and an on-site psychologist (by request) to help supervisors with complex mental health issues, said Munn.

“We certainly feel we need to be a key player with any initiatives that are focusing on both education and early detection,” she said. “It’s very much about increasing awareness and understanding through the education and trying to take the stigma out of what people define as mental health.”

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