Work to improve mental health

Many of those with mental illness suffer in silence, particularly on the job.

Many of those with mental illness suffer in silence, particularly on the job. They are afraid or ashamed to speak out about an illness that takes them on a nightmarish ride that, among other things, greatly diminishes their work performance.

Some of those suffering from mental illness are even disciplined by employers who don’t recognize the problem or its roots, a recent study shows.

Mental illness is largely misunderstood by employers who lack training in dealing with an illness that costs companies billions of dollars a year in sick leave and lost production, according to an eye-opening report by the Conference Board of Canada that was released this week.

The board says it’s time for employers to clue in.

Mental illness in the workplace is a huge issue hiding in plain site, said the report Building Mentally Heathy Workplaces.

“When it comes to mental health, misinformation, fear and prejudice remain far too prevalent (on the job). It’s time for a change,” it asserts.

To that end, the Mental Health Commission of Canada proposes a collaborative project to create national voluntary standards, encouraging employer understanding of an illness far too often hidden in the closet.

Canadian workers and businesses should expect the same kind of standards and safeguards for psychological health as they do for the physical well-being of workers, says the commission.

Health commission chair Senator Michael Kirby says Canadian businesses are losing almost $20 billion a year to mentally-related illnesses. That could be substantially reduced if employers had better understanding about mental illness.

The conference board says that 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.”

Education is the key.

A national survey by the conference board of more than 1,000 employees — including almost 500 front-line managers — found “a significant disconnect” between the perceptions of executives and employees about how well their workplaces deal with mental illness, The Canadian Press reported.

Four-fifths of executives believed their companies promoted mentally healthy work environments. However, 70 per cent of the employees surveyed disagreed.

Further, almost half the managers questioned — 44 per cent — had no training in dealing with mental-health issues.

Dealing with mental illnesses is not a priority in Canadian businesses, the board suggests, and changing the corporate culture will be a challenge.

“Like any successful venture within an organization, the full support and involvement of senior leaders is required for change to occur. It is still relatively uncommon in organizations for senior management to openly discuss the importance of mental health,” it says.

The survey also addresses co-workers and unions, which are also apparently in need of an education on mental health.

Some employees returning to the workplace after treatment for a mental illness “felt isolated, ignored or shunned by colleagues,” adding to their burdens.

“Somewhat surprising,” continued the study, employees are no more comfortable discussing mental-health issues with a union rep than they are with the boss.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada will consult with the Canadian Standards Association and its Quebec counterpart in its proposed guidelines. The federal government has allocated $325,000 for a study to determine those standards, and Bell Canada is kicking in $150,000.

All those involved in the workplace must recognize the need for such standards.

“You can make an overwhelming business case for it,” said Kirby.

As The Canadian Press added, “It has potential to reduce absenteeism, long-term disability and drug plans costs, while improving productivity.”

No more suffering in silence, for everyone’s sake.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.