Kathy Jurgens 
National Program Manager, 
Mental Health Works
Canadian Mental Health Association

But while many organizations should be commended for protecting our physical health, there is still an unfortunate disconnect when it comes to our mental health. There is a need to examine mental health in the workplace like we do physical health conditions yet employers and employees alike often struggle in viewing both in a similar way. 

The cost of mental health

What is clear is that doing nothing is not an option. Consider a recent study that suggests 44 per cent of workers say they have or have had a mental health issue at work. That's stark on its own but the case for addressing mental health becomes more compelling when you also consider:

▣ On any given week, more than a half million Canadians will not go to work due to mental illness

▣ The economic cost of mental illness in Canada is about $51 billion annually

▣ More than 30 per cent of disability claims and 70 per cent of disability costs are attributed to mental illness

Stigma and descrimination

Why then is it difficult to view mental and physical health in the same way? The role of stigma and discrimination cannot be underestimated.  Many workplaces actively discriminate by way of systemic barriers, such as hiring practices, or attitudinal barriers based on negative beliefs and perceptions. What is  disheartening is that many employers or employees don't realize they are discriminating. They may be genuinely good people trying to do their jobs the best they can but with a limited understanding about mental health.  

The presence of stigma and discrimination, intended or otherwise, erodes the sense of psychological safety an employee needs to feel safe enough to speak up. It's critical to build awareness and understanding of how  attitudes and systemic barriers can contribute to heightened tensions in the workplace with relation to mental health issues. 

One prevention and promotion tool now available to help Canadian companies is the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.  The Standard is a voluntary set of guidelines, tools and resources focused on promoting an employee's psychological health and preventing psychological harm due to workplace factors. Get to know the Standard and incorporate it into your workplace.

Training is a key part of any strategy and there are several management-training options out there that are cost effective and can be used no matter the size of the company.

What can you do if you're struggling

Creating a culture of safety can take time and effort, so what can you do if you find yourself struggling  with a mental health issue at work?  If you feel safe to do so, speak up and talk with your manager, your human resources representative or a trusted colleague.  Work collaboratively to find solutions to the workplace challenges and ensure you seek medical attention if required.  Finding support during these difficult periods are critical for regaining health and finding effective solutions. 

Working Through It is a free online tool that offers hope and guidance to employees struggling with mental health issues at work. This is a great resource for employers as well. It helps them gain insight as to what an employee who is struggling with a mental health issue may be experiencing  

What can employers do

Workplaces must work strategically and collaboratively with all employees to foster a work environment that is supportive and where workplace mental health issues can be discussed and addressed. As an employer, manager or supervisor, it's not your job to diagnose mental illnesses. However you can educate yourself. Mental Health Works, a program of the Canadian Mental Health Association, is a good place to start. It offers Workplace Employer Fundamentals 101, a free resource that helps employers:

▣ Understand legal rights and responsibilities

▣ Recognize if someone is experiencing a problem

▣ Find appropriate mental health resources

▣ Learn about reasonable accommodation and hiring practices.

Furthermore, training is a key part of any strategy and there are several management-training options out there that are cost effective and can be used no matter the size of the company.

What it boils down to is that each person in an organization has a role and responsibility when it comes to building supportive workplaces.  With increased knowledge and a cultural shift in norms we can one day support mental health issues in the workplace as we do other physical conditions. 

Kathy Jurgens
National  Program Manager, Mental Health Works, Canadian Mental Health Association