I’ve worn many hats throughout my career. However, regardless of my role, whether in finance, public service or elected office, there has been a common thread. You might be surprised to learn that in each position I’ve held, mental health and wellness has cropped up as a priority.  

As a parliamentarian, I was a trusted confidant for many constituents who shared their lived experience with mental health problems. Of course, at that time, conversations were held behind closed doors. The stigma that prevented people from speaking openly also stunted efforts to raise funds and find volunteers to help effect change. 

This vicious cycle of stigma and silence can prove deadly. In Canada, 4,000 people tragically die by suicide each year.   I know, first hand, the devastation left in the wake of suicide. My son Cameron battled depression for many years and, in 1999, at the age of 29, he took his life.

From that point forward, I redoubled my efforts to champion mental health and wellness. Today, as Chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), I can say with fair certainty that we’ve made great progress as a nation. 

This work to improve the mental health landscape has many facets.  As a senior executive, and a former Canadian Minister of Finance, one of the areas I am excited to see Canadian employers make the mental health and wellness of their employees a priority.

This shift speaks to a growing recognition that mental health and wellness isn’t solely an issue of concern for governments and non-profits. It’s a very real — and expensive – challenge facing corporate Canada.   In any given week, 500,000 people in this country are unable to do their jobs due to mental health problems and illnesses.  If things don’t change, it’s estimated that lost productivity could cost Canadian businesses close to $200 billion over the next 30 years.

While we can’t rewrite the past, we do have an opportunity to paint a brighter future.  Hundreds of businesses, government bodies and non-governmental organizations are subscribing to the view that addressing mental health in the workplace is a means to normalize the mental health conversation, and inspire workers to speak up or seek help earlier.

Organizations may be surprised to learn that they don’t have to embark on the journey to create mentally healthy workplaces without a compass. There is, in fact, a very useful tool that is proving effective across sectors, regardless of an organization’s size or scope.

The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is a set of guidelines, tools and resources that help prevent psychological harm and promote good mental health for every employee.  The MHCC is currently conducting a Case Study that is demonstrating very positive early results. 

I have yet to meet a senior leader who isn’t interested in reducing days absent, decreasing disability costs, increasing productivity and bolstering staff engagement.  Believe it or not, implementing the Standard is proving to do all this, and more.

Look no farther than Toronto East General Hospital, for example, where the average days absent have been reduced from more than 10 in 2007, to less than seven in 2014. They have also enjoyed a seven per cent decrease in health care costs, and significantly higher patient engagement scores.

It’s my belief, that common sense, as much as dollars and cents, tells us that mental wellness is going to be at the heart of every future successful enterprise.  Some years ago, I was on the board of a mining company, and our first order of business at each meeting was the physical accident report. In today’s knowledge-based economy, organizations have a corporate — and social — responsibility to take equal stock of the mental well-being of their workers.