Recession takes a mental toll

As the recession takes its toll on jobs, it will also take a toll on the mental health and productivity of the nation, says the head of federal non-profit corporation that is trying to put mental health issues on the business agenda of workplaces.

WATERLOO, Ont. — As the recession takes its toll on jobs, it will also take a toll on the mental health and productivity of the nation, says the head of federal non-profit corporation that is trying to put mental health issues on the business agenda of workplaces.

“The advent of depression is in part a function of the uncertainty and job insecurity in our lives,” Bill Wilkerson, co-founder and chief executive of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, said in an interview after speaking at a recent forum on work-related stress in Waterloo.

“The absence of work, loss of work and uncertainty about work is a major factor in the mental health status of the whole population,” he said.

Wilkerson was speaking at the forum organized by the Waterloo Region Suicide Prevention Council.

He said he was disconcerted by the trend of “emptying the workplace,” even before the recession hit, and added that “it is tragic and harmful to the country’s economic growth.”

Wilkerson said the lost work time productivity because of depression and substance abuse in Canada is now estimated at $51 billion a year. Stress also increases the risks and costs associated with heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, he added.

He said companies also have immediate commercial reasons to care about mental health because everything from sales to customer service and customer loyalty are affected by the employer’s relationship with the workers.

Wilkerson added that although some people mistake depression as a sign of weakness, it is actually a “disease of the brave and the hard-working.” Soldiers suffer post-traumatic stress after witnessing horrific scenes precisely because they care about the victims, and likewise, people suffer from depression because they care about what they do, he said.

He said the politics and culture of a workplace typically play a bigger role in stress than the work itself because people become anxious and depressed if they feel they are not treated fairly or are prevented from contributing their skills.

Wilkerson, who was sworn in as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police because he was helping that organization develop strategies for dealing with workplace stress, added that even in a high-stress job like policing, “the policing itself is not the major source of stress … the source of stress is usually what is going on in the office.”

Macleans magazine found that one in eight Canadian Mounties is off on a medical leave, mostly for stress or other mental health reasons.

Wilkerson also said companies need to promote work-life balance and discourage taking work home. He added that since Waterloo Region is the home of the BlackBerry, a symbol of the “hurried world we live in,” it also should take a leadership role in researching ways to help people achieve a work-life balance and promote better mental health.

Wilkerson said insurance companies that provide disability benefits also have a responsibility. “You could never get insurance to operate in a building that did not have a fire protection system. So what if insurance companies were to say to a company, ‘because of your disability rates and work-time losses, there is something amiss in the kind of management you have?”’

Wilkerson added that reducing the toll of depression “requires social innovation, not just medical science.”

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