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Matters of mind

As the leading cause of short- and long-term disability in Canadian workplaces, mental illness is becoming a real issue for employers. Absenteeism and what they call presenteeism — when employees are at work but are distracted and unable to function effectively for various reasons — are issues that many organizations are now having to deal with.

When you’ve got a Statistics Canada survey that tells you more than 33 per cent of workers — or nearly 11 million working adults — say they are either “extremely” or “a bit” stressed, you know that you have a perfect storm waiting to happen. Clearly, mental illness has evolved from just a “personal” issue to a more complex problem that not only needs to be sorted out at home, but in the workplace as well.

There’s a stigma that comes with mental illness and this is probably what is hindering the issue from getting the mainstream attention it deserves today. Workers who suffer some form of mental illness don’t usually go around telling people about it, much less their employer. But the problem is here and the challenge is real.

In a recent conversation I had with our editorial advisory board, David Johnston, EHS manager for Toronto Hydro, said mental illness is where the issue of safety was 50 years ago. We’ve crossed this road before, only the symptoms may be less visual and easier to conceal; but the consequences are equally grave. Nevertheless, it is an issue that can no longer be put on the backburner.

The development of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, which will help organizations address mental health at work, is a big step in the right direction. Public consultations for this new standard began in November.

According to reports, this new standard is expected to be launched in late 2012.

Organizations — if they haven’t already done so — need to start contemplating the role they would play in addressing the issue of mental health. Industry observers believe mental health in the workplace is the next big wave in occupational health and safety. It may not be at the top of many organizations’ to-do list right now, but at the rate it’s currently going, mental illness will be a significant issue for companies in the very near future.

Mari-Len De Guzman

Mari-Len De Guzman is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and
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