Bringing people back to work

Gaps in support persist for employees with mental health issues

In Canada, mental health issues contribute significantly to absenteeism, which is expensive for employers and employees. The annual cost to the economy is estimated at more than $16 billion, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

To reduce this expense, employers need to better understand the root causes of the absences and address the underlying issues.

For many employers, mental health is the leading cause of short- and long-term disability leaves. The average length of the leave is higher for mental health-related leaves — or when mental health issues co-exist with physical health issues — than for physical health issues alone.

Yet significant gaps still exist when it comes to how organizations approach mental health issues, according to a 2013 report by the Conference Board of Canada. Employers continue to place a greater emphasis on physical health and well-being than providing support for employees’ psychological health and safety.

This gap is evident in the kinds of preventive programs offered, the types of early intervention practices implemented and the supportive programs and practices in place to help employees return to the workplace as quickly and safely as possible after a leave of absence.


Canadian employers have begun to expand wellness programs to include mental health and well-being. More than one-half (53 per cent) offer programs, services or benefits that support employees’ mental health and wellness, according to the report, Disability Management: Opportunities for Employer Action. However, these programs remain less common than those that support employees’ physical well-being (61 per cent).


Almost one-quarter of employees on a health-related leave of absence from work had difficulties obtaining the right medical treatment when they first experienced their health issue, according to the study, which had 2,004 participants, including 727 individuals who supervised or managed other employees.

Employees with a mental health issue are significantly more likely to experience difficulties getting the right medical treatment than those with physical health issues.

To rectify this, employers should implement programs and practices that enable employees to receive more timely treatment to better support those with mental health issues — and help them remain in the workplace. For instance, employers could ensure benefit plans offer easy and sufficient access to treatment and other care programs.

Overall, about one-third (31 per cent) of employees believe having the right medical treatment at the start of their health condition would have prevented them from taking a leave of absence, found the 2013 study. Among employees with mental health issues, an even greater proportion (35 per cent) believed an early diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan would have enabled them to avoid a leave of absence.

Returning to work

There is a perception that employees who have been off work as a result of a mental health issue are treated differently than those with a physical health problem. For example, while more than one-half (54 per cent) of employees said accommodation measures are provided for employees with physical health issues, only one-third (32 per cent) believe this is true for employees with mental health issues, found the Conference Board of Canada.

This lack of support is likely contributing to longer durations of absence and a higher rate of relapse or recurrence among employees with mental health issues. For those with physical health problems, the return-to-work success rate is 83 per cent. However, for employees with mental health issues, return-to-work success is only 63 per cent, found the study. Only 56 per cent of employees with both a physical and a mental health issue successfully return to work.

While most employees believe their success at work would be influenced negatively if they took a health-related leave of absence from work, this is particularly true if the leave is due to a mental health issue. Overall, almost one-quarter (22 per cent) of employees who had taken a leave of absence believe this negatively affected their career success — this rises to 31 per cent among employees with a mental health issue.

The impacts on employees’ careers can include long-lasting, persistent, negative views regarding their competence, limited opportunities for promotions, fewer development opportunities, less pleasant tasks or jobs, fewer or less desirable shifts, and even the loss of their jobs (by being fired, laid off or encouraged to leave the organization).

The experiences of employees with physical and mental health issues and the support they are provided to better manage their conditions vary significantly. While this may be because of a focus on compliance with occupational health and safety legislation, Canadian organizations need to adapt to new realities.

A failure to address mental health issues directly contributes to employee absences.

Louise Chénier is senior research associate at the Conference Board of Canada. She can be reached at (613) 526-3090 ext. 305 or

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