After a traumatic event in 2012, “Nancy,” a government worker in the Nova Scotia transport department, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety and depression.
But it didn’t stop her from being successful in her job — in fact, it had the opposite effect.
“I am constantly thinking of every possible outcome of every possible situation, so... when a crisis comes up or a deadline, I handle that stuff like a breeze because I am so mentally prepared for any possible outcome,” said Nancy, who requested her real name not be used.
“I’m feeling my best and my happiest and healthiest when I’m busy. The way that translates in the workplace is that (from) when I show up until the minute I leave, I am working my butt off and I am crazy productive.”
When an employer makes the decision to hire a worker living with a mental illness, it’s not only the right thing to do, it makes economic sense, according to a study.
A Clear Business Case for Hiring Aspiring Workers by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) provides a cost-benefit analysis that shows a potential five-year net savings of $56,000 to $204,000 can accrue to companies that hire these people.
These savings materialize due to decreased absenteeism, lower turnover and increased output, according to the study.
“It’s things like improved organizational climate and culture,” said Sapna Mahajan, director of mental health prevention and promotion, workplace initiatives, at the MHCC in Ottawa.
“Sometimes that actually increases the reputation for the organization that can lead to better recruitment and retention, and also just job satisfaction for those who are being accommodated.”
There are also benefits around productivity, retention and absenteeism, said Rebecca Gewurtz, assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, and lead researcher for the study.
“Those were the three areas that we could actually calculate dollar figures to,” she said.
Workers also benefit monetarily, found the study.
“The projected five-year benefit-to-cost ratio of being accommodated was approximately four to 12, so the net benefits (to employees) range from $31,000 to as high as $67,000 over five years,” said Mahajan.
A lot of employers want the dollar figures attached to hiring workers suffering from mental illnesses, she said.
“The two things we hear from workplaces is ‘We want the evidence, the business case, but we also want clear tools and recommendations on how to do that. We want to be better-equipped.’ And so our focus now is building more evidence and data and actually helping workplaces.”
The research looked at five employers.
“We did a really deep dive into some Canadian organizations to understand what was currently happening from the perspective of accommodated workers, co-workers, managers, HR professionals and other workplace stakeholders,” said Gewurtz.
“We looked at multiple perspectives: It wasn’t just the accommodated worker impacted, but the whole workplace context.”
The study found significant intangible benefits reported by nearly all stakeholders, according to Gewurtz.
“Those were things like increased work-life balance, increased employment opportunities, better relationships among co-workers, better job satisfaction,” she said.
“Those were benefits to the actual worker, and then organizations also told us that some of those benefits trickle down, and so we saw increased job satisfaction for all workers, improved organizational culture — the way people interacted, and improved organizational reputation.”
For employers, there’s a huge market of potential new workers waiting to be tapped, according to the study, because unemployment rates for people living with mental illness are high.
“Among those with the most severe and complex mental health problem and illnesses, there’s about 70 to 90 per cent of them that are unemployed, which is astounding,” said Mahajan. “We know — and research has shown — that individuals living with a disability can be just as qualified, reliable, faithful, loyal and high-performing as their counterparts who do not have a disability.”
The MHCC refers to these workers as the “aspiring workforce,” she said.
“That’s really the people who I’m talking about who haven’t been able to enter the workforce, or are in and out of the workforce, due to various reasons and illnesses. But they want to work and we know that work is really linked to recovery and it’s one of those kinds of social determinants so important in anybody’s recovery journey.”
Good HR practice
Many of the recommendations in the report are really about good, innovative HR practices, said Gewurtz.
“Organizations that implement good HR practices that embrace diversity and inclusion within the organization, and look at good universal benefits for all employees, are probably going to find that the accommodations, the additional accommodations that people with mental illness might need, they are already leveraging what exists.”
“People living with mental illness can be productive workers, but they might work differently or need to work at different times, different places so they might have some slightly different needs that can be accommodated. And then when you do that, you’re creating a better environment,” she said.
“Organizations can step back and think, ‘How do we enable flexibility, as much as we can, within our organization?’ and they will actually find that’s how you create an inclusive environment because different people can work in different ways.”
Employers need to create cultures that value diversity, embrace open communication and worker engagement — making sure mental health is part of the overall health and safety framework, said Mahajan.
“You kind of expand your notion of health and safety.”
Looking ahead, MHCC is developing a guide and toolkit for employers to help them make their own internal cost-benefit calculations, she said.
“We’re trying to really break down those barriers as much as we can and enable employers to take action and be explicit about it.”
Creating accessible, sustainable employment
A Clear Business Case for Hiring Aspiring Workers by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) also profiled a non-profit organization in Toronto that only hires people with mental illness.
“As a social enterprise, we see creating accessible and sustainable employment as a beneficial end in and of itself regardless of financial profits. Money, time, and resources invested in that effort are never lost,” said Joyce Brown, executive director of Working for Change. “Furthermore, investing in people who otherwise have barriers to the workforce results in loyal and dedicated staff, with less sick days and staff turnover.”
“The benefits for us are a fairly dedicated workforce: People are very motivated to work, it makes a huge difference in their lives if they’ve been unemployed for some period or on a disability income, so it makes a huge economic difference as well as just increasing their social connections and their community,” she said.
The organization employs workers for differing time periods.
“For some people who are going through a bit of a crisis, they may need a period where they’re just looking for some part-time work,” said Brown. “It might be three four-hour shifts a week or something like that; it puts some structure back in their lives and a bit of a sense of a routine and normalcy, and then over time people may, and often do, want to work more and more hours until they’re close to full time.”
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