TORONTO – Mental health issues in the workplace are among the top concerns for organizations of all sizes. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), one in five Canadians experience a mental health problem or illness each year, equating to 500,000 employees unable to work every week due to mental health problems or illnesses.
Seeking to understand how the daily experience of employees impacts the workplace, Morneau Shepell partnered with the Globe and Mail to create the “mental health experience in Canada’s workplaces” survey. Today, Morneau Shepell and the MHCC released a new white paper detailing the survey’s findings.
Understanding mental health, mental illness and their impacts in the workplace, outlines a key finding that Canadian employees report workplace stress as the primary cause of their mental health problems or illness, with depression and anxiety noted as the top two issues. The joint white paper explains the impact of mental health issues on job performance, core coping strategies being used by employees and the actions that organizations can take to better support employees.
Respondents were driven to the survey through a series of articles published in the Globe and Mail by Dr. Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer, workforce productivity, Morneau Shepell, and various guest co-authors, such as Louise Bradley, president and chief executive officer, MHCC.
The mental health spectrum
Mental health concerns can impact anyone at any time. In their workplace lifecycle, employees move back and forth along a mental health spectrum through seven categories, including “healthy in work” and “in work struggling.” The white paper explains that there has been a shift in how workplaces understand mental health problems and illnesses, which extend beyond affecting only those under distress to affecting everyone across the organization.
“Mental health is not binary – in that people either have issues or not; it lies along a continuum and can change depending on the challenges we face,” said Dr. Howatt.
“It’s critical that employers consider the mental health of the entire workforce and develop a strategy that addresses all levels of mental health programming, including preventative measures to keep employees healthy, early intervention to navigate through challenges, and supportive policies to aid in effective transition back into the workplace.”
Workplace stress has become cyclical – it is a major contributor to mental health issues, which can subsequently impact workplace productivity. In today’s organizations, the survey found that Canadians reported high levels of concern regarding the impact of their mental health issues on their career and job performance. Close to three-quarters (70 per cent) of respondents stated that their work experience impacted their mental health, while a higher number (78 per cent) reported mental health as the primary reason for missing work.
Learning to cope
The white paper outlines that despite the prevalence of mental health issues, employees are confident in their ability to cope with stressful situations. The majority of survey respondents reported a neutral (59 per cent) or positive (26 per cent) outlook on mental health, which closely mirrors the reported coping strategies.
More than half (54 per cent) of respondents indicated they have high/optimal coping skills. Employees identify the use of positive coping mechanisms such as seeking professional support, and negative coping strategies such as drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco.
Without effective coping strategies, employees are at risk of further harm to themselves. The white paper explains that suicide remains a top concern, with more than half (58 per cent) of survey respondents reporting they had considered taking their lives to cope with mental illness.
“The effectiveness of a mental health strategy predicts how well an organization curbs issues in the workplace and supports at-risk employees,” continued Dr. Howatt. “We’re proud to see a trend towards more Canadian workplaces normalizing mental health in discussions but we recognize that significant work remains, as most organizations don’t have policies in place. We found that this is not because organizations aren’t willing to implement policies, but because they were unsure of where to start.”
Shifting the conversation
Effective policies to curb mental health issues are embedded across all stages of employment, from hiring to retirement or turnover. The white paper explains that organizations should follow two models: 1) a continual improvement or plan-do-check-act model, such as Morneau Shepell’s total health framework, which focuses on continual improvement, adjustment and evaluation to positively change work environments, and 2) a joint responsibility model, which puts onus on both the employee and employer to foster a healthy work environment through awareness, accountability and action.
“Implementing a successful, comprehensive mental health strategy takes time but is integral to the overall health of the organization,” said Bradley. “We’re confident that this white paper will bring to light some of the challenges that organizations have faced and offer actions that employers can introduce and begin taking the next step towards a mentally healthy workplace.”