Call to action in war against mental illness

At Ontario Power Generation, mental illness accounts for about 25 per cent of reported absences due to illness. At Canada Post, 30 per cent of all long-term disability claims are attributed to stress or depression and the story is the same at most organizations in the country.

More than 20 per cent of the Canadian workforce suffers from some form of mental illness, it costs organizations as much as $30 billion a year and in most cases the problem goes largely unchecked, said Bill Wilkerson, CEO and co-founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health.

For three years the roundtable, which includes former federal minister of finance Michael Wilson, has been gathering research and information. Now — working in conjunction with the University of Toronto-affiliated Centre for Addiction and Mental Health — they’re moving forward with a plan for action, Wilkerson said.

Next week (Nov. 14) a group of several dozen leading Canadian business executives and health experts will gather in a Toronto boardroom to, Wilkerson hopes, launch a new movement to tackle mental illness in the workplace. The objective is not to cure mental illness but to open a new front in the battle to treat it and reduce the harm, he said.

The plan is to get 40 organizations — 20 from North America and 20 from Europe — to commit, in writing, to a 12-step Charter for Mental Health in the Knowledge Economy.

Don Tapscott, author, president of New Paradigm Learning Corporation and member of the roundtable, said just as the economy has fundamentally changed, so too must attitudes about health and safety. “In the old economy people created value by brawn, but now we live in a knowledge economy and the health and agility of employees’ brains has never been more important and brains behave very differently than brawn,” he says.

“You can render a brain dysfunctional for days with a single sentence.”

The charter provides a plan for how companies can design business and HR policies and practices to create a healthier, safer workplace that reduces the harm of mental health disorders — in particular depression, anxiety disorders and addictions. On top of that, signatory organizations will share experiences, stories and data, the starting point for the marshalling of best practices already emerging in the management of mental disability.

There is definitely a need to start sharing information and increase understanding of what mental illness does and how it affects the workplace, said John Murphy, executive vice-president of HR at Ontario Power Generation (OPG).

“I think there is a stigma around mental illness that pervades our society and creeps into the work environment as well,” he said. “It is okay if you have a heart attack but it is not okay if you have a mental breakdown. That drives a lot of mental illness underground.”

The utility began to tackle the issue of mental illness disability two years ago.

“One of the areas we are keenly focused on is improving our attendance at OPG, and in that context, drilling down, we became increasingly aware that the whole issue of mental illness plays a significant role,” said Murphy.

One of the biggest problems is that the disability is not properly diagnosed, said Madeleine Meilleur, director of health services at Canada Post, which also began a campaign to raise awareness about stress and depression in the workplace two years ago.

If people understand the symptoms and the organization can intervene early to get the employee the right treatment, hopefully the number will start to go down and those who do need time off won’t be away as long, she said.

Ignorance about mental illness, particularly in the workplace is pervasive which means symptoms are often ignored or misunderstood, said Wilkerson. Suddenly people start missing deadlines or struggle to get work done, they become more irritable with co-workers and feel like others are working against them. People don’t respond well to these kinds of behaviours so those suffering from the illness are penalized rather than helped, he said.

Importantly, business leaders are being asked to sign the charter not for the sake of their employees or the good of society but for the benefit of their own organizations.

Business leaders need to change attitudes and workplace policies because better treatment and harm reduction practices would improve corporate performance and maximize productivity. “We’re making the business case nose to nose, not heart to heart,” said Wilkerson. “In a knowledge economy, mental health is the ultimate productivity weapon.”

Mental health disorders account for more than 30 per cent of all disability costs, he said. One study found employees suffering from undetected depression are away from work as much as three days a month more than healthy co-workers. Appropriate diagnosis and treatment can neutralize this problem in 30 days, he said.

One of the steps in the charter is to train managers and supervisors to become better observers of employee behaviour. Managers will not be expected to make a diagnosis, but observe symptoms so that they can take the person aside and talk about problems rather than assuming the person is simply a bad performer.

The charter describes this as the rule out rule: eliminate depression and mental health problems as a cause for poor performance before concluding the person is simply doing a bad job.

“The very visible health and safety issues like repetitive stress injuries are well understood and the programs to address them are fairly mature. The whole aspect of mental illness is not as understood as it could be or should be and from an HR perspective there is more that can be done, said Murphy.”

He will be attending the meeting to discuss the charter, but could not say for certain if OPG would be signing. They do want to better understand the issues and hopefully learn best practices from others. In that respect, the charter looks fine, he said. But he cannot commit his organization to getting involved without more involvement and discussion with the rest of the executive team.

Wilkerson said he doesn’t know how many organizations will sign on at the meeting but he considers it a success just to be bringing together so many senior business leaders together in one room to discuss actions to reduce the negative effects of mental illness on economic performance (CEOs of major banks, retail and communications companies are all expected, as well as several executive vice-presidents of HR).

People have to start talking about it, to understand the scope of the problem, to start sharing concrete ideas and best practices for action, said Wilkerson. The roundtable will work to gather and disseminate the information and work to convince more CEOs to make the changes that will reduce mental disability in their workplace.

Ultimately it needs CEOs to come on board to start the ball rolling and hopefully get other CEOs to join in, said Wilkerson. “Yes managers are critical. Yes HR people are critical but without CEO leadership the tank is empty.”

This may not win them an award at their chamber of commerce but they will see dramatic performance improvements in as little as 24 or 36 months, said Wilkerson.

“We are not asking them to do something because it is the right thing to do — that’s good, we can do that too — but we are asking them to do it because it is smart,” he said.

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