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Fighting the mental health stigma in the workplace


The occurrence of mental and/or emotional health issues affectingCanadians, and really everyone worldwide, is on the rise. The WorldHealth Organization estimates that by 2020, depression will rank secondas a leading cause of disability in the world. And, according to theGlobal Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health, some 35million work says are lost in Canada due to mental illness each year. AWatson Wyatt Worldwide survey found that 82 per cent of employersindicated that psychological conditions were the leading cause ofshort-term disability and 72 per cent of long-term disability claims. What can employers do to address the issue  – and resulting stigma – of mental health in their workplaces?

Post-traumatic and everyday stress

The early morning quiet of a Toronto neighbourhood was shattered on August 10, 2008, when a series of explosions rocked through the Sunrise Propane facility. Located in the heart of north-west Toronto, the explosion not only decimated the facility itself, but damaged surrounding houses and businesses. It took days for the area to re-open, and weeks before many residents could return to their homes. Some structures were so badly damaged that occupants still cannot return and the buildings will have to be rebuilt.

But property damage was not the only casualty as residents were forced to bunk with family and friends, putting their personal lives – and working lives – on hold. And, those who were there for the blast not only have the stress of getting their lives back in order, but many find themselves dealing with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and other emotional issues.

Yet, it’s not only catastrophic events that lead many of us to feel anxious, depressed, or emotionally and mentally vulnerable. I don’t know about you, but I’ve all but stopped reading the newspapers and listening

to news reports as the world economic situation worsens and more and more people I know lose their savings, and their jobs.

The occurrence of mental and/or emotional health issues affecting Canadians, and really everyone worldwide, is on the rise. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, depression will rank second as a leading cause of disability in the world. And, according to the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health, some 35 million work says are lost in Canada due to mental illness each year. A Watson Wyatt Worldwide survey found that 82 per cent of employers indicated that psychological conditions were the leading cause of short-term disability and 72 per cent of long-term disability claims.

It’s no wonder that a Mercer/Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health survey this summer found that concern over mental health issues was a top priority for human resources professionals across the country.

“Mental health, mental illness, depression, anxiety, stress, mental and nervous disorders, no matter what you call it, mental illness is having a dramatic impact on Canadian businesses,” says Anne Nicoll, Mercer principal.

Still, most of us are reluctant to even discuss mental health, let alone acknowledge that it might be a problem negatively impacting our family and work lives. The same Mercer survey found that while HR recognizes the growing impact of mental health on the workplace, few executives have the same awareness. A recent study by the Public Health Agency of Canada estimated that 13 per cent of the adult population of Canada suffers from a mental health issue, and yet the Mercer survey found that almost half of the respondents estimated only five per cent or fewer of their employees have experienced a mental illness.

Nicoll notes that there are many risk factors related to mental illness, many of which do not involve the workplace. However, she also points out that there are certain factors that do have workplace components,


  • Lack of social supports at work;
  • Increasing job demands; and
  • Being treated unfairly by supervisors, co-workers, etc.

So, how can an HR professional tackle mental health challenges within his or her organization? Anne Nicoll offers the following suggestions:

1. Educate yourself, management, and employees – deal with the stigma associated with mental illness. Everyone needs to understand the breadth and impact of mental illness in the workplace.

2. Determine how best to support and accommodate those with mental health issues at work. If they have been absent from work, manage helping them to reintegrate with return-to-work and other supports. Ask questions to determine their needs and design a process to support their return (see below for a specific

program that helps with this).

3. Take steps to prevent situations that can lead to or exacerbate mental illness. These could include:

• Ensuring supervisors/managers and co-workers have the knowledge and right tools to support the workers.

• Better managing increased employee workloads.

• Knowing the flags or signs to look for to determine if someone is experiencing depression, anxiety, etc.

• Making sure the performance evaluation system allows supervisors and employees to recognize that some performance issues could be linked to mental illness.

• Encouraging open communication so that employees feel comfortable initiating a dialogue about their mental health issues.

• Being aware of tense workplace situations, such as harassment or violence, and having procedures in place to deal with them.

4. Providing EAP and other formal supports that are easily accessible to those who need them.

Getting them back to work

In the claims management business, it’s accepted practice that the best outcomes in rehabilitation from physical injury are generally achieved through programs stressing early, safe return to work. The same  appears to hold true for those suffering from mental illness.

“Meaningful work has vitamin effects on workers’ mental health and encourages their commitment towards and organization,” according to recent study funded by the Institute de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en securité du travail (IRSST), on the meaning of work, mental health, and organizational commitment. (At the same time, it should be noted that the same study found that work without meaning promotes the onset of symptoms of stress, and even distress.)

“Depression, anxiety and other mental health-related conditions can create some very real symptoms for employees which employers, and even many insurers/rehabilitation professionals, mistake for medical conditions,” said Maria Vandenhurk, president Banyan Work Health Solutions, a Toronto-based health management company.

Once recognized, it’s often a long process to regain complete mental health, notes Sue Pilchuk, Banyon’s vice-president. “And during that time, employees lose their structures. They may not pay attention to their personal hygiene, diet, and sleep patterns. Social relationships deteriorate and they can become physically de-conditioned.”

Employees off on leave for mental health issues need support and assistance to return to work in a timely, if not early, fashion. Banyan’s Reactivation Program is geared to those off of work primarily for mental illness disability. It’s designed to encourage them, through a series of small, planned steps and goals, to reintegrate themselves back into mainstream life and, eventually, work. The program is voluntary and participants have to be in either neutral frame of mind, or actively wanting to get better for the program to be successful.

A reactivation consultant visits the worker to get a baseline from which to measure progress. Participants keep a journal of activities and are involved in tracking achievements. The program operates on two main levels: positive reinforcement from the reactivation consultants and providing a focus by providing “homework” for the disabled worker. Progress is incremental with both short- and long term-goals.

The program sets up tasks with the worker, such as physical activity – walking or housework, for example – and health teachings with handouts on nutrition, changing negative thinking, etc.

The overall goal of the program is to turn off the negative mindset and focus on the positive. Pilchuk says the program has an over 80 per cent measurable success rate – success is different in each case and can mean a return to work, or getting into a position of returning to work.

“The sooner an employer can catch the problem of mental illness itself and faster the worker can be started on rehabilitation, the higher the success rate,” she concludes.


  • Banyan Work Health Solutions, Toronto, ON –
  • Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health –
  • Mental Health Works – an initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association that assists employers in managing productivity and workplace relations issues associated with employees experiencing mental health problems such as trauma, depression or anxiety –

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