Mental illness a national disgrace

Valuable staff at risk if employers do nothing

Mental illness is massing among men and women in their prime working years. Yet only a fraction will seek or receive the treatment they need. This is a national disgrace which, for business, has strategic importance.

Mental health has a tangible, functional value to business. Employees at every level are routinely asked to be innovative and creative. And innovation and creativity is becoming more important, as the vast majority of new jobs created in North America require cerebral, not manual, skills.

Depression is the leading cause of disability. And, as most organizations know, disability is an economic issue that is no longer on the fringe of business affairs. Despair costs companies more each year than work stoppages or product recalls.

Yet, Canada has become hardened to emotional distress for growing numbers of people — even in good times — and all-too-accustomed to workplace stress that is pervasive, widespread and toxic. Canadians are accustomed to mass layoffs and downsizing as the first, not last, alternative for firms in pursuit of shareholder value.

Ironically, companies that use downsizing to achieve bottom-line goals do less well than competitors that grow through revenue and sound management. Still, a “cuts culture” prevails and millions of Canadians live their daily lives hurried, worried and rattled by the risks of sudden change.

Irrationality in the financial markets is commonplace and, according to United States federal reserve chair Alan Greenspan, it has become a major economic challenge. Firms are trapped in what productivity pioneer Michael Porter at Harvard University calls a destructive netherland of “hyper-competition” where financial engineering takes over running the business.

The result is a work environment inhospitable to the everyday health of the workforce. But out of this arises an opportunity. The workplace, driven by need, is now a natural setting in which to educate individuals about mental illness and to promote good mental health practices.

A stigma that comes with business costs

Myth and misinformation are barriers to treatment of, and recovery from, mental illness in the workforce. For generations, compassion and common sense have been frozen stiff by the cold stare of stigma. The mythology of mental illness holds that people living with serious mental illness cannot recover, are unable to work and are helpless — all spectacularly untrue.

Business has no choice but to step up and meet the mental health crisis in the labour force as a matter of self-defence. In the U.S., the United Kingdom, Quebec and via a body of law emerging in every province across the country, the courts and government are writing new rules to fight stress at work and protect the legal rights of those living with mental illness.

Mental health is quietly emerging as a significant human rights issue and, in a society more conservative than Canada, Americans are moving toward new and significant human rights protections governing the access to health care for the mentally ill.

The time has come for mental health disability management

There’s a lot of talk in Canada about two-tier health care. But when it comes to mental health, Canada has no-tier health care. Mental health is expressly excluded from the “comprehensiveness” clause of the Canada Health Act.

In this light, employers should re-examine their approach to the management of mental disabilities. The return to work from weeks or months of disability leave due to mental illness — usually from depression or anxiety — can be a punishing experience. Among many companies the process is unorganized and prejudicial.

Managers are inexperienced and untrained in handling mental health issues at work. No one taught them what to do. And society hasn’t taught itself. There are no villains in this drama and solving the problem is a joint venture.

Part of the challenge is sorting out the differences between garden variety job performance problems and behavioural symptoms of a serious medical condition. The crossover between unrecognized symptoms of a mental disease and emerging performance and relationship problems on the job is one of the most complicated features of mental disability management.

Symptoms of mental conditions can be mistaken for a negative attitude. This never happens when an employee has a physical injury such as a broken arm. In that case, it becomes self-evident the worker cannot function 100 per cent. But with depression and anxiety, nothing is self-evident to managers or co-workers.

Nonetheless, like other injuries and illnesses, depression affects the performance of the individual employee but the reasons usually go undetected and unrecognized. Researchers have found that employees with depression tend to “play through their injury” and trudge to work each day not recognizing they have a medical condition. Downtime ensues and part of the workday gets lost.

Depression and anxiety are not a function of character, weakness or old age. By and large they are conditions of the young, productive, caring, responsible, brave and strong. Decorated war heroes and rescue pilots suffer traumatic stress injury and depression. Major league baseball players, and other powerful athletes, use depression screening services made available to them by their teams.

In that light, Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Godfrey says, simply: “Business must have a mental health agenda.”

Bill Wilkerson is co-founder and chief executive officer of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health. He can be reached at (416) 343-5337 or [email protected].

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