With mental illness associated with more lost work days than any other chronic condition and costing $17.7 billion annually in lost productivity, understanding its underpinnings is increasingly important to the Canadian economy. Now new research from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) indicates that the strongest predictor for work disability leaves is a person's past history of occurrences.
A team led by Principal Investigator Dr. Carolyn Dewa, head of CAMH's Work and Well-being Research and Evaluation Program, evaluated the employment data of over 10,000 workers from a large Canadian employer and compared several variables to analyze patterns of disability.
In general, workers who have had a disability leave are more at risk of having another one. Comparing patterns of leave taken due to physical disability with those for mental health disability, data showed that the likelihood of reoccurrence for those with a physical illness doubled while those with mental illness were seven times more likely to reoccur. There are several possibilities for this disparity. First, mental illness is chronic in nature and relapse is common. Even when symptoms improve there are often persistent effects. Another contributor may be that there are not adequate resources offered to workers to address their mental health needs.
"Often the support and services available to employees when they return to work does not address the chronic nature of mental illness," says Dr. Dewa. "It's important that employers implement a continuum of care and support – both to help prevent a person from needing to go on leave, as well as to help maintain their mental wellness upon their return to work."
The treatment of mental illness can often be complex and may involve more than just the patient and their doctor or therapist," according to Dr. David Goldbloom, CAMH's senior medical advisor. "Successful management of mental illness involves proper follow-up care and medication, counselling, social support both from loved ones and the workplace, as well as ongoing access to meaningful employment," he says. "All these may need to come together in order to get better and stay better."
Robin is a former teacher who knows first-hand how wellness initiatives and education can help someone successfully integrate back into the workplace. After a biking accident led to a bout of severe depression, Robin found that her employer was unaware of how to appropriately support her return to work. "During my leave of absence, there was constant pressure to return to work I felt that my employer was not fully aware of what supports needed to be in place to help my transition, which made it difficult for me to return."
Now an education specialist at CAMH, Robin works openly with her managers and uses workplace supports when they are needed. "My managers understand that staying healthy is an ongoing, dynamic and collaborative process. With the proper resources and supports in place, I am able to manage my condition and still be productive."
Dewa stresses the need for employers to educate themselves and their employees about creating a workplace that promotes mental health. This includes addressing the needs of those with mental health issues in the workplace and encouraging the development of effective interventions for promoting mental health in the working population.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, as well as one of the world's leading research centres in this field. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to transform the lives of people affected by mental health and addiction issues. CAMH is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, and is a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Centre. To learn more, visit