Learning curve: Mental health [from the May-June 2012 print edition]

by Tracy Clayson
From the MM&D MAY/JUNE print edition

Between May 7 and 13, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), ran the Mental Health Awareness program to inform the public about mental disorders and showcase those living successfully with mental illnesses, but CMHA is not the only body promoting good mental health.

In Toronto, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) recently held an event called Transforming Lives, which also gave people opportunities to tell their own stories about living with mental illness. I attended to support a friend who wrote a column in one of Toronto’s newspapers about having survived a period in her life of psychotic episodes requiring hospitalization. Her story of hope includes juggling a happy marriage, raising a teenaged daughter and undergoing a career transition.

In our day-to-day lives, mental illness confronts us in our homes, in our communities and in our workplaces. While mental illness affects both men and women, men seem to have a more difficult time reaching out and discussing mental problems due to the expectation that men must be strong and any sign of mental illness might be seen as weakness.

According to the organization, Partners for Mental Health, stress is the leading cause of mental illness at 23.5 percent, followed by 12 percent due to anxiety and eight percent due to depression.

When we are confronted with employees who struggle with mental health, we need to understand how to navigate through this situation from human resources, leadership and legal compliance standpoints. Striking a balance between performance expectations and accommodating employees with mental illnesses requires employment law knowledge and, even more importantly, sensitivity training on the part of managers and coworkers.

Understanding and recognizing mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia and addictions may not be what employers are trained to do. But having an awareness of how to address employees with mental conditions should be part of human resource training.

There are significant mental health conditions brought on by loss of a loved one, marital breakup, personal or family illness, parenting and care-giving pressures, and financial challenges. Providing resources to address those concerns through an employee assistance program is a great start. Promoting mental health as a key objective for all staff and ensuring company culture prevents burnout and pressure are all steps to creating and maintaining a healthy work environment.

Even with work-based assistance programs, some individuals can’t handle their problems and resort to unhealthy habits including working excessive hours, engaging in addictive behavior, and displaying acts of anger leading to violence. With new laws to protect the workplace, it is now the responsibility of the employer to protect staff members from violent and harassing behavior by other employees. Should there be cases of violence—be it bullying, teasing, threats or aggressive behavior—employers under Ontario’s Bill 168 and Canada’s Occupational Health and Safety Violence Prevention in the Workplace regulations are required to respond to incidents and report and document events.

Being responsible for the actions of employees also falls under the duties and responsibilities of those in charge of leadership and management conduct, and providing guidelines to preventing undue and excessive pressure on employees is key to avoiding attrition, work-related stress-leave, and (in some cases) legal action. Employee morale may not seem to be priority number one when companies are in survival or growth mode, but keeping a check on disruptive conduct by managers and providing supportive leadership really needs to be a key priority, and sometimes it can be accomplished simply. Many companies, for example, use newsletters and communication boards to boost morale, inspire healthy lifestyle choices and create awareness of the importance of diet, recreation, and participation in sports and activities as ways to manage the stress.

At no time should an employer make an accusation, or attempt to diagnose or probe into an employee’s health, but pointing out employee assistance programs is advisable. Improper handling of cases of mental health could land an employer before the court in a human rights case.

It’s critical to understand that mental illness, like any medical illness is a legitimate condition which entitles employees the same allowance as one would need for medical treatments. Absence from work, short-term modified working hours, and working from home are all options to allow for recovery and rehabilitation so your employees can return to active employment.

Ignoring mental health concerns comes at a high price. According to Quick Facts: Mental Health and Addictions in Canada, 2009:
Mental illness is the leading cause of workplace disability.
Employers who offer treatment save between $5,000 and $10,000 in wage replacement and prescriptions.
Court-awarded settlement cases due to workplace mental injury were up by 700 percent in the previous five years.
Workplace mental illnesses cost the Canadian economy $51 billion each year.
You can learn more about the mental health and the workplace by visiting the CMHA website. www.mentalhealthworks.ca/employers/faqs.
For treatments related to substance or mood disorders see www.bellwood.ca or http://homewood.org/ or www.camh.net/.

Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel. tracy@in-transit.com