Executives unaware of impact of mental health: Survey

Organizations underestimate prevalence of mental illness at work

Mental health issues are a growing concern for HR but few senior executives are aware of the impact of mental health on an organization, according to a new survey.

A survey of 452 Canadian organizations conducted by Mercer in conjunction with The Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH) found 80 per cent of respondents (of which 85 per cent were HR professionals) stated mental health issues have increased in importance compared to three to five years ago.

Mental illness is estimated to result in 35 million workdays lost every year in Canada and low productivity related to mental illness adds significant cost to employers. However, respondents reported that only 13 per cent of senior executives have a strong awareness of the impact of mental health on the organization.

“The high ranking that mental health has on the HR priorities list combined with the lack of awareness at the top of the organization is cause for concern,” said Anne Nicoll, a principal at Mercer.

“Executive knowledge and commitment to action are critical in addressing this issue. The majority of respondents who reported strong executive awareness said the most effective means to achieving this is through a senior champion in the organization.”

The report found 54 per cent of respondents stated there is a lack of awareness of mental health issues by front-line managers and supervisors and 57 per cent said that mental health issues are not treated equally to physical health issues by front-line managers. Senior champions in the workplace are key to driving change, said Philip Upshall of CAMIMH.

One of the impediments to senior buy-in is that the impact of mental health at work is not being measured in organizations. HR needs these numbers to make a business case for action, said Nicoll.

"Only 22 per cent of respondents reported that they measure the impact of mental health issues. Of those that do, the top two measures reported were disability claim statistics and EAP usage, which means that employees who do not access these programs are not being captured at all," said Nicoll.

Two-thirds of the survey respondents also appear to be underestimating the prevalence of mental illness in the workplace. A recent study by the Public Health Agency of Canada estimated that 13 per cent of the adult population in Canada have a mental illness. However, 46 per cent of respondents reported they have five per cent or fewer employees who experience mental illness in a year and another 22 per cent estimated the prevalence to be between five per cent and 10 per cent.

A majority of respondents said not enough was being done to improve workload balance and work based social supports.

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