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How can your workplace help?

By Dr. Sam Mikail


Mental health is an invisible illness that impacts the lives of half (49 per cent) of all Canadians.

In a 2017 survey commissioned by Sun Life Financial, comprised of a random sample of 2,900 Canadians drawn from the Ipsos online panel, 49 per cent of Canadians responded by saying that they’ve experienced challenges with mental health at some point in their lives. Mood and anxiety disorders are among the most prevalent mental disorders experienced by Canadians with 37 per cent dealing with anxiety and 30 per cent having lived through depression at some point in their life.

Millennials (those ages 20 to 34) reported the highest incidence of mental health concerns; a finding that is not particularly surprising. Early adulthood is a time of rapid change and increasing life demands. Millennials are just entering the workforce and trying to establish their career path. They may be carrying significant student debt, seeking a life partner or facing the pressure of saving for a home. Although these are normal challenges, they can have a significant impact on mental well-being.

Stigma surrounding mental health continues to be an area of concern. The Sun Life survey also found that a mere 28 per cent of working Canadians impacted by a mental health issue told their employer what they were going through. Once again, Millennials led the pack with 33 per cent of those living with mental health concerns stating they had not even spoken to a health professional. These figures suggest that despite some progress, stigma remains a significant hurdle when individuals are faced with mental disorders.

These findings are especially relevant to employers. People spend a large part of their day at work and simply can’t put aside their mental health challenges while on the job. Mental disorders can directly contribute to decreased productivity and if allowed to progress without treatment, can result in prolonged absence and disability leave. Employers have an opportunity to take an active role in creating a mental health strategy that reinforces the need for open dialogue and reduced stigma at work. Although a mental health strategy should reflect the unique needs of a given workplace, any successful strategy is based on three foundational goals:

Creating and strengthening a workplace culture that is respectful of mental well-being. This can include initiatives such as training managers to recognize signs of mental health issues in employees, employee training on respecting professional boundaries and workplace civility or instituting the standards for psychological health and safety in the workplace developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Developing tools and resources that promote mental well-being, such as providing Employee and Family Assistance Programs, legitimizing mental health days as part of an employee’s sick-day allotment or posting information on mental health issues in the workplace.

Measuring the impact of the strategy in order to guide its ongoing development by comparing data on total work absences and productivity pre-post implementation of the strategy.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada the top three actions taken by employers in their efforts to create a psychologically healthy workplace were:

Implementing respectful workplace policies. All too often mental disorders are triggered by workplace harassment or bullying, managerial practices that place unreasonable expectations on workers and ignore the importance of a healthy lifestyle balance or fail to affirm and adequately reward worker’s efforts.

Providing employee and family assistance programs and extended health benefits that offer meaningful coverage for mental health services. Early access to services that don’t place a financial burden on workers and their families can have a preventative impact.

Building and enhancing awareness of mental health among employees. For example, providing a lunch and learn session focused on self-care and mental health, performing annual mental health checkups or building promotional activities throughout the year.

Mental health crosses all boundaries and touches people at every stage of life and despite how common mental illnesses are amongst Canadians, some continue to suffer in silence. It’s clear that social stigma still surrounds mental health across Canada and employers have the opportunity to make a difference on this national issue by creating a safe and supportive workplace for their employees.

Dr. Sam Mikail is a clinical psychologist at Sun Life Financial Canada.




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