HR executives key to combatting workplace depression

HR executives must take a more aggressive role in dealing with employee depression, says Bill Wilkerson, one of the founders of the Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health. A new study produced by the roundtable points out that depression in the workplace costs Canadian businesses more than $8-billion a year in lost productivity and affects about 10 per cent of the workforce.

“In the past, HR executives have been centre stage in the process of downsizing and restructuring,” says Wilkerson. Now it’s time for HR leaders to assist their companies in combatting the fallout of those cost-cutting measures.

Wilkerson says HR managers must become advocates for employee health.

“HR executives have to worry less about being a spokesperson in employee groups for the CEO. The time has come for HR executives to be a voice for employees to senior management as well,” he said.

He said HR executives should be further ahead than they are on the issue of depression in the workplace. “How much research have HR executives done? They should know about workplace pressure. And they don’t.”

He said HR executives are “caught up in an administrative whirlwind — a turbulent sea of pressure” which takes away their ability to act more strategically than they do. As a result, they often become good at conveying the CEO’s message, but less effective at translating employee issues into policy. In order to combat rampant employee depression, HR executives must seek to gain greater clout at the boardroom table so they can influence policy.

Young knowledge workers affected
The most highly valued employees today, the ones driving corporate productivity, innovation and performance, tend to be young knowledge workers; precisely the category of worker most prone to depression and stress.

HR managers must work towards reducing or eliminating office politics and implement strategies to increase EAP usage by employees. In its study, the roundtable outlines 12 steps for the Canadian business community to take.

HR managers are in the best position to implement the steps, says Wilkerson. “They’re at the centre of this and I don’t think (this problem can be solved) without aggressive HR executives playing a lead role.”

“Given the community nature of the workplace for most people, it is emerging as the best venue for this purpose,” the study states.

Although many organizations have employee assistance plans (EAPs) which include treatment for stress and depression, the EAP usage rate hovers at about seven per cent in Canada. The low usage rate is largely due to the stigma mental illness has, especially among men.

Women tend to access EAPs more than men, says Lisa McCool, an EAP program director in Nipissing, Ont. “Women are balancing their work life and their home life so their day doesn’t stop when they go home. Men see work as work and home as home and the two should never mix. Traditionally men have not been educated to reach out for help.”

She said EAP programs work well for men when there are discipline issues, “when there are no other avenues and the employer will encourage the employee to access the EAP.”

EAP shake-up needed
The roundtable study calls for major changes to EAPs in order to stimulate usage.

To get around the stigma issue, Wilkerson says “move it off-site. Take the signs down from the door.”

In order to increase employees’ confidence about confidentiality, he says the program should be taken out of the HR department and run by a physician, who is bound by the rules of the medical profession not to disclose patient information.

“Employees don’t trust HR,” he says. “They think these issues are going to show up in their personnel file. Disconnect it entirely from the HR area and push it more into the realm of the medical director.”

Wilkerson says special EAPs should be created specifically targeting depression. And an executive EAP should also be created because depression is rampant in upper management.

“A lot of booze is flowing in the executive suite,” he says, and leaders often feel they have no one to talk to about their problems.

Information about the company EAP should be communicated more widely throughout the organization, says McCool. HR managers should emphasize the plan’s confidentiality, its impartiality and its accessibility.

They should use creative ways of conducting the communication, including sending brochures to employees’ homes so it can be accessed by spouses, using posters, inserting notes into people’s paycheques and posting notes in the washrooms, on the mirrors, the paper towel dispensers and on the backs of stalls. “That’s usually where people go to get away,” she said.

In addition to Bill Wilkerson, The Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health comprises Russell Joffee, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University and former federal finance minister Michael Wilson, currently vice-chairman of RBC Dominion Securities.

12 steps to end depression
The roundtable study outlines 12 steps necessary for Canadian businesses to take in order to eradicate depression and work-generated stress. They are:
1) CEO briefing — The CEO and executives should be briefed and educated about depression.
2) Financial targets — Targets should be set to reduce depression within the organization.
3) EAP and group health plan reforms — EAPs and group health plans should be redesigned. Written policies should be created which support managers in dealing with the privacy issues inherent in dealing with depression.
4) Create a healthy work climate — Organizational and employee health should go to the top of the business agenda. Employees should be surveyed in order to identify the main causes of their stress. Steps should be taken to “interrupt the treadmill practice plaguing employees with too many priorities and too much to do at once.”
5) Reduce e-mail enslavement — E-mail should be recognized as a potential source of stress and policies should be developed to alleviate the “exaggerated and random use of e-mail.” E-mail filters should be used and employees should be trained in the most efficient use of e-mail and voice mail.
6) Return-to-work strategies — Programs should be implemented to help employees re-enter the workforce following a depression-based absence.
7) Depression’s related disabilities — HR executives, health professionals and managers should be educated about heart disease, stroke and immune system problems.
8) Inventory of emotional work hazards — An inventory of emotional work hazards should be taken and a plan put in place to decrease the risks associated with them. This includes “confronting and eliminating the practice of office politics, a malignant behaviour which is a predictor of absenteeism and mental distress among those subjected to it.
9) Work-life strategies — Programs such as flex time, home-care services, workplace daycare and eldercare should be put in place.
10) The rule-out rule — Employers should implement a process to differentiate between employee performance problems stemming from depression as opposed to other problems.
11) Company-wide health index — An overall “health benchmark” for the company should be established.
12) Goals — Employers should aim to reduce disability rates by 15 to 25 per cent a year by targeting mental health issues; they should aim to dramatically increase EAP usage rates; and the top 10 sources of stress should be reduced or eliminated.

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