Workers have higher rates of mental health issues: Report

As stigma recedes, employees more likely to self-identify

The prevalence rates of mental health disorders are more than 60 per cent higher among working Canadians than the general population, according to a Conference Board of Canada report.

It found about 4.2 million employed Canadians are living with mental health disorders. Of these individuals, about 279,000 have a mental or psychological disability that limits their daily activities.

The report — Healthy Brains at Work: The Footprint of Mental Health Conditions — examined mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder as well as generalized anxiety. Data used in the report was self-reported by employees and provided by Statistics Canada.

While these statistics seem troubling, they actually point to significant improvements in workplace culture, according to Louise Chenier, manager of workplace health and wellness research for the Conference Board of Canada.

Working Canadians are more likely to self-identify as living with mental health issues because they are more likely to have access to the necessary benefits, she said.

“In the workforce, a lot of employees have access to benefits so that if they require treatment, they’re more likely to be able to get it and, therefore, they’re going to go see their doctor, get a diagnosis and get treatment,” Chenier said.

Similarly, women are more likely to seek help for mental health issues than men and this contributes to their increased prevalence rates.

Despite increasing awareness of mental health in the workplace and associated benefits, stigma still exists and acts as a significant roadblock to improved mental health.

“There’s a lot of stigma related around mental health conditions and, because of that, people are much less likely to even notice they have an issue,” Chenier said. “Or, if they notice, people are much less likely to allow themselves to go see a doctor.”

This stigma can be external — from colleagues, family and friends — or internal. Chenier called the latter “self-stigma,” explaining many individuals feel they are too strong to suffer from mental health issues or fear they will lose their sense of self if they are diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

The more mental health is integrated into an organization’s culture, Chenier said, the more secure employees will feel accessing the necessary resources.

“It’s OK to talk about mental health. In the workplace, there’s still a lot of hush about that. If your culture has a foundation, if you talk about mental health, targeted programs are found to be very effective.”

Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety can be exacerbated by the workplace. Industries that produce goods, offer services and generally involve higher levels of customer interfacing have higher prevalence rates of mental health issues, said Chenier.

Mental health programs should be constructed with an understanding of an organization’s specific risk factors, she said. The more targeted an organization’s programs are to its specific environment, the more successful it is likely to be.

Business case

Karla Thorpe, director of prevention and promotion initiatives for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said the business case for creating this type of comprehensive mental health program is undeniable.

More than 500,000 Canadians are absent from work on any given week due to mental health issues, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. And about $51 billion is lost each year as a result of mental health issues.

“There is a strong business case for employers to invest in ensuring their workplaces are more mentally healthy,” Thorpe said.

“Mental health issues are often the leading cause of disability claims within organizations and can account for as much as 70 per cent of disability costs.”

In addition, presenteeism is a growing concern for employers, said Thorpe. Workers who lack access to the necessary benefits are often faced with the decision to stay home, without pay, or to attend work with limited productivity as a result of mental health issues.

“They may be coming into work but they’re not able to contribute in the same way that they normally could,” Thorpe said.

“Certainly it would be a best practice to provide training for employees and managers, as well, to increase their awareness and their readiness to assist a colleague who might be in crisis.”

It is also crucial to support personal accountability, Chenier said. Employees must recognize their own triggers and take responsibility for self-care.

“We all have an excess of roles in our lives, and some of them are not optional. Work is not optional. Family is not optional. But there are other roles we take on that add to our lives and enrich our lives but, in times of stress, might be too much,” she said.

“It’s important to reduce those risk factors for yourself.”

By integrating all of these factors in a mental health program or strategy, they will have the most impact, said Chenier.

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