Identifying the risk factors

Better management practices can help reduce effects of mental illness
By Virginie Gosselin
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/21/2017
Burnt Match
Credit: AFPics (Shutterstock)

In any given week, more than half-a-million Canadians are unable to work because of mental health problems, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. 

At the same time, mental illness is one of the fastest-growing diagnostic categories, which represent one in three disability claims in the country, and it is estimated to cost the Canadian economy more than $50 billion per year.

Employers are facing a mental health crisis — one that’s having devastating impacts on individuals, families and workplaces. And the problem is only getting worse.

Against this backdrop, researchers from three Canadian universities set out to identify the risk factors that trigger major mental health disorders (psychological distress, depression and burnout) and provide answers about what employers can do to help reduce the effects of mental illness in the workplace.

For the Salveo Study (Salveo is Latin for “to be well”), researchers studied 2,162 employees with an average age of 41. Employees came from 63 organizations of all sizes. The research included interviews with 75 HR managers and looked at the impact of management practices on mental health claims.

In addition to filling out questionnaires consisting of nearly 300 questions, 401 of the study participants agreed to have their saliva tested to determine their levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone.

“The decision to include saliva testing made the study quite unique,” says Pierre Durand, co-lead on the study at the Université de Montréal.

“This is something that has never been done before in the Canadian workplace. It’s pretty common for an employee to say, ‘I’m feeling burned out’ but here, we could actually look at their cortisol levels in concert with their questionnaire responses and it provided yet another level of credibility.”

Over a period of about two years, researchers analyzed the work life, home life and individual characteristics of the employees who took part in the study. Results from the questionnaires were matched with employees’ biological indicators, including their cortisol levels.

Following five years of data analysis, the Salveo researchers identified five management practices that can help companies lower mental health and disability claim rates in their organizations.

“There are specific management practices that can positively impact mental health claim rates,” says Alain Marchand, co-leader of the study and a professor at the School of Industrial Relations at the Université de Montréal.

“These practices are proving to be particularly effective in the prevention of mental health problems in the workplace and reducing disability claim costs.”

The researchers made several findings:

• Designing jobs, employees’ direct participation and promoting autonomy has an 87 per cent probability of reducing claims.

• Enhancing work-life balance opportunities has a 77 per cent probability of reducing claims.

• Employee recognition programs have a 74 per cent probability of reducing claims.

• Promoting physical activities has a 69 per cent probability of reducing claims.

• Implementing strategies to help employees maintain a reasonable workload in particular (demands) has a 64 per cent probability of reducing claims.

“Taking these actions can make a positive impact in your workplace,” says Chris MacDonald, assistant vice-president of wellness, disability and life at Manulife in Kitchener, Ont., which participated in the study.

“It’s easy to say that some of this is intuitive. Of course, we should all treat our employees right. But this data serves to reinforce that when you implement these steps, not only are your employees better off, but your company also gets rewarded by having less people going off work and fewer disability claims.”

Variety of factors

The study revealed that psychological distress, depression and burnout are linked to both personal and workplace issues, which may have an impact on absenteeism and presenteeism.

The researchers compiled tables illustrating the key organizational and individual factors contributing to mental health disorders. Some of the prominent factors included psychological demands, abusive or aggressive behaviours and work insecurity.

Some of the prominent individual factors included marital stress, parental stress, work-family conflicts, being a woman, chronic health problems and abusive alcohol consumption.

Integrated approach has impact

Organizations that adopt an integrated approach, targeting stressful workplace conditions and individuals, are more effective than other organizations in preventing absenteeism due to mental health problems.

For example, if an organization’s management practices target both stressful workplace conditions and employees, the organization will be almost three times more likely to experience lower mental health claims and costs and prevent absenteeism due to mental health issues.

Companies of all sizes

There’s a common misconception that wellness programs and strategies are only accessible to larger organizations. However, the research validated that even if someone is working for a small or medium-sized company, there are many things the employer can do to help reduce mental health claims.

“This is a really important point,” says MacDonald.

“Companies often say, ‘We’re too small for that to be effective’ but the research has shown that’s not really the case.”

A few examples of effective management practices at small and medium-sized companies would include controlling employees’ workloads, reducing hours, increasing work autonomy, providing a clear career path, encouraging exercise in the workplace and providing flexible working hours.

Taking action on mental health

“Taking a strategic approach can have a positive impact on employees’ level of engagement and productivity, and help lower mental health and disability claim rates,” says MacDonald.

“Our hope is that the findings from this study will help encourage HR managers to raise mental health as a critical issue in boardrooms across Canada. Leadership teams need to understand that investments will pay significant dividends down the road, in terms of a healthier, more productive workforce and lower mental health and disability claim rates.”

Virginie Gosselin is a health and wellness senior consultant at Manulife in Montreal. The Salveo Study was conducted jointly by the Université de Montréal, Université Laval and Concordia University, in partnership with Manulife, and was co-led by professors Alain Marchand and Pierre Durand from the Université de Montréal. 

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