Stress and depression among Canada’s workforce costs the nation’s economy more than $50 billion a year and is responsible for hundreds of hours in absenteeism, according to researchers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
For every 1,000 Canadian employees, 145 short-term leaves are taken annually and about 20 of those are related to mental health, researchers found. They looked at the cost of mental health leaves from employers’ point of view and found that covering a mental health leave costs companies twice as much as a short-term physical disability leave.
“Only a fraction of disability leaves are due to mental illness yet it costs employers the most. It is crucial that businesses make mental health and well-being a priority to prevent disability in the first place,” said Carolyn Dewa, lead investigator in the study and CAMH’s head of work and well-being research.
Dewa’s study, which appeared in the summer issue of the Journal of Environmental Medicine, showed that the average short-term physical disability leave is about 33 days, and on average employers pay $9,000 for each case. The study found the most common reasons employees take physical disability leave include respiratory illness, muscular skeletal problems, injury and digestive disorders.
Meanwhile, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are the mental illnesses that appear most in the Canadian workforce, with each case leading to an average 65-day leave and $18,000 bill.
About 10 per cent of Canadians in the workforce between 18 and 54 years old suffer from mental health issues. Dewa centred her investigation on an Ontario company with more than 12,400 employees in various cities and rural areas. She said the project was a “mutual collaboration” and the company approached CAMH because it was interested in making sure it had a healthy workplace. The company was not identified.
Companies should invest in early intervention strategies, access to support systems to help cope with stress and offer help with medical expenses to keep employees healthy and aware of a good work/life balance, Dewa said.
Health and wellness interventions may hold the key to maintaining a healthy workforce and reducing costs. “We know that mental health triggers in the workplace can lead to disability — things like stress, casual and part-time work, and uncertain economic conditions can really take a toll on workers — especially if there is a pre-existing mental health condition,” said Dewa. “And while it is important to support workers that are on disability leave, it is crucial that businesses make mental health and wellness a priority to prevent disability in the first place.”
Dewa suggests that implementing a continuum of care and support is an effective way of reducing the likelihood that an employee has to take a disability leave. She adds that programs emphasizing a healthy work-life balance, supports to help cope with stress, and access to physical fitness make people better workers and help sustain health.
An additional survey by the Desjardins Group, a financial, group benefits and insurance provider headquartered in Levi, Quebec, found that Canadian workers are feeling more stress than they did a year ago.
Survey participants indicated an insufficient salary (30 per cent), work overload (27 per cent), a lack of recognition (22 per cent) and a negative work environment (22 per cent) were major stressors.
However, participants said they are taking proactive steps to manage their work-related stress, such as relaxing their personal need for excellence or perfection at work, adopting new working styles and being more realistic about urgent deadlines. "The good news from the survey is that employees are taking steps to improve their stress levels," said Michele Nowski, director of disability income claims and disability management with Desjardins Financial Security.
"We're seeing an expectations gap between employers and employees," said Nowski. "Employees and employers are not struggling with the same work-related issues. While it seems simple enough to suggest providing better recognition and improving the work environment, ultimately the best way to tackle this issue is through teamwork and communication."
Bill Wilkerson, co-founder and CEO, Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, believes Canadian companies have been slow to implement depression programs in their workplaces. But he feels that recent national studies on the recent social and economic impacts of mental health issues are a great way of presenting them with the financial evidence they're looking for.
"I think what we're seeing is an accumulation of anecdotal evidence which is finally infiltrating both the instinctual business judgment of the executive and secondly, there is sufficient evidence now that there is a dollar cash return for every dollar spent to promote the mental health of employees."
The only thing that hasn't been proven, he said, is "how we can do that in say, two years or three years rather than vaguely sometime: a concrete timeline that will be a manageable return on investment."
"Based upon this kind of evidence, this will encourage employers to invest in research that will advance the quality of care that will bring us closer to the day when we can find a solution to preventing the onset of these illnesses," said Wilkerson.
Jeff Morrow is a freelance writer based in Edmonton, Alberta. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org