There are scores of Canadians who experience a significant mental health issue and who are struggling daily to find work, keep work, or return to work with existing employers. They’re part of what’s known as the “aspiring workforce” —  people who, due to mental illness, have been unable to enter the workforce, are in and out of the workforce due to episodic illness, or who wish to return to work after a lengthy period of illness. 

"The issues faced by the ‘aspiring workforce’ are complex and all Canadians need to consider ways to support them, telling those to simply “get a job” is not an effective solution."

Under-employment in the workforce

There is overwhelming evidence that most people with serious mental health problems have skills and expertise to offer the labour market. They can work and want to work.  We also know that people with a job are healthier, have higher self-esteem, and have higher standards of living. 

So why is the ‘aspiring workforce’ woefully under-employed? According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada:

  • Up to 90 percent of Canadians with serious mental illness are unemployed.
  • The skills and talents of people with serious mental illness are often not recognized and their potential contribution to economic and civic life is wasted.
  • The barriers to employment for people with serious mental illness include stigma and discrimination, income security policies that penalize earned income, and inadequate sustained support for people in getting and keeping a job.

So what are the answers?

  • Get the right employment supports: Not all employment supports are equal and the onus should be placed on innovative models that work. For example, evidence tells us that rapid job placement models with long-term help to maintain employment are more successful and cost-effective than pre-vocational activities.
  • Alternative employment options: Social enterprise has a track record of creating meaningful employment for people with mental illness. These businesses are often owned and operated by those who have received mental health services.
  • The right incentives: Well-designed government programs can promote independence. People receiving social assistance and disability supports who work should not be subject to punishing disincentives. Working should make economic sense.
  • The right information: Giving people with mental illness who want to work information about the rights and supports they can access in the workplace leads to greater chance of success.

The issues faced by the ‘aspiring workforce’ are complex and all Canadians need to consider ways to support them, telling those to simply “get a job” is not an effective solution.