Jun 20, 2011

Mental health stigma still pervades workplace: Study

Employees fear disclosure could jeopardize promotion, success

When it comes to mental health issues in Canadian workplaces, misinformation, fear and prejudice remain far too prevalent. While organizations have taken steps to remove stigmas associated with mental health issues, employees remain concerned about disclosing a mental health issue to their employer, according to a Conference Board study.

Most people said they would feel uncomfortable speaking to their manager, union representative or a colleague if they experienced a mental health issue, found the survey of 1,010 Canadians (including 479 front line managers). Respondents fear making such a disclosure would jeopardize their chances for promotion (54 per cent) and future success (38 per cent) at work.

“Mental health is a significant business issue that requires the attention of organizations. People who experience mental health issues face incredible challenges in the workplace. Many are misunderstood, shunned and underutilized,” said Karla Thorpe, associate director of compensation and industrial relations at the Conference Board. “In a world where shortages of critical skills are top of mind for many organizations, employers cannot afford to allow this situation to continue.”

Forty-four per cent of the employees surveyed reported they were either currently experiencing (12 per cent) or had previously (32 per cent) experienced a mental health issue (such as excessive stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, addictions and substance abuse, mania, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia).

There is also a major disconnect between the perceptions of executives and non-management employees about the degree to which their workplaces promote mental health, found the Conference Board. While 82 per cent of senior executives stated their company promotes a mentally healthy work environment, only 30 per cent of employees who work in such occupations as service, labour, and production agree. Just 36 per cent of employees report senior management openly discusses the importance of mental health.

Managers play a critical role in supporting employees and a majority of the managers surveyed said they are informed about mental health issues, found the survey. Yet, many are ill-equipped to help employees — only 26 per cent of employees feel their supervisor “effectively manages mental health issues.” And 44 per cent of managers have had no training on how to manage employees with mental health issues.

There are also the financial costs. In 2009-2010, 78 per cent of short-term disability claims and 67 per cent of long-term disability claims in Canada were related to mental health issues, found the report Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces: Perspectives of Canadian Workers and Front-Line Managers.

The study identifies four areas where organizations can take action:

• Focus on education and communication to reduce fear, stigma and discrimination in the workplace.

• Ensure the organizational culture is conducive to supporting employees’ mental health.

• Encourage senior executives to show demonstrable leadership around mental health.

• Build managers’ capacity to support employees by providing the tools and training required in their role.

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