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Understanding the impact of mental health in the workplace

Woman sitting at desk with laptop

In any given year, one in five Canadians experiences a mental illness. By the time we reach 40, half of us will have had a mental illness. Once perceived as a personal struggle, mental illness is now a globally shared health concern as the staggering costs of mental illness to individuals, society and businesses become more apparent.
The annual economic cost of mental illness in Canada is estimated at over $50 billion per year, with $20 billion stemming directly from workplace losses. On average, mental illness costs employers approximately $1,500 per employee per year.
Not surprisingly, escalating cases of mental illness and costs related to lost productivity, absenteeism and disability claims have employers seeking to understand mental health and what they can do to support their people.

Mental health is integral to overall health.

Mental health influences every aspect of our lives. It can affect our thoughts, actions and interactions. Positive mental health helps us to better navigate life’s challenges, build meaningful relationships and make informed decisions.

Dr. Matthew Chow, physician and Chief Mental Health Officer at TELUS Health, says “the pandemic highlighted what has been on the horizon for a long time – mental health is not optional. There is no health without mental health.”

“It is clear that our collective mental health has declined over the past few years with multiple indicators such as the rising number of absence and disability claims, problematic substance use, and increased mental health-related visits to healthcare practitioners all flashing red.”
Naturally, these declining mental health issues are rippling into the workplace, negatively impacting the bottom line. Chow points to costs associated with burned-out workers showing up but underperforming, increased turnover and replacing workers in a tight labour market.
“A healthy workplace culture that promotes healthy boundaries, inclusivity and psychological safety is critical to preventing costly problems. It is important to keep people in the healthier part of the mental health continuum (see diagram) so they can bring their whole selves to work, benefiting their organization and all the people around them.”

Diagram showing the 5 stages of mental health

Mental health in the workplace.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost 60% of the world’s population is at work. A safe, healthy work environment is not only a fundamental right, but will also be more likely to minimize tension and conflicts, and improve staff retention, work performance and productivity.
Conversely, an unhealthy workplace and a lack of effective structures and support can affect a person’s ability to enjoy work and do their job well.
Rob Wolf, a psychotherapist and senior consultant with TELUS Health Virtual Care, says that “while most employers are tuned into the need to protect and support employee mental health, others feel it is not their responsibility.”
“An unhealthy workplace can cause or aggravate mental illness in a number of ways,” says Wolf. “They may be understaffed, forcing employees to take on excessive workloads. Other contributing factors are long, inflexible hours, people working in isolation, bullying, harassment, authoritarian behaviour, unclear job roles, job insecurity, and inadequate pay,” he says.
“Even workers who are not on site can’t escape the pressures,” adds Wolf. “Often, the boundaries are blurred. They may be expected to be accessible at all times - remote workers can end up working 18-20 hours a day.” 

Signs of mental illness at work.

Wolf says before employers can know what to watch for, they must establish a baseline: “Get a sense of who their people are, understand their background, and how they work,” he says. “Once you know them, it’s easier to pick up on signs when employees are not themselves.”
An individual in crisis may display some of these behaviours:

  • Disengagement and isolation from others
  •  Short temper
  • Cognitive impairments - forgetfulness, decreased attention capacity, negative bias (guilt, blaming, shaming)
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Constant sadness or hypersensitivity
  • Hyperactivity or perfectionism to compensate
  • Change in work habits, frequent medical leaves or employees who stay late

What can employers do?

In any given week, 500,000 Canadians don’t go to work due to a psychological health issue. As it becomes clear that causes of poor psychological health can be directly attributed to factors in the workplace, senior leaders are asking, “What can we do to support our employees and protect their mental health?”
According to Wolf, “preventing mental health stressors at work is about managing psychosocial risks in the workplace.” Employers can implement effective actions that directly target working conditions and environments such as:

  • Flexible work arrangements
  • Frameworks to deal with violence and harassment at work
  • Return-to-work programs
  • Manager and peer training on workplace psychological health
  • Peer support programs to help employees build resilience to manage stress and reduce mental health symptoms
  • Leader accessibility, active listening and effective response to employee concerns
  • Employee involvement in developing mental health programs
  • Guidelines and training on respectful workplace behaviours
  • Policies recognizing and protecting psychological health

Employers should also weave mental health resources into their benefits programs such as TELUS Total Mental Health, which allows employees to easily and proactively fit mental health support into their day-to-day lives, on their terms.

Total Mental Health offers employees and immediate family members* access to unlimited personalized care by phone, text, video and in person. 

Care navigators are available 24/7 to build customized plans, book appointments, complete billing‌‌s and support employees through their entire journey. Employees also have access to self-directed specialty programs like grief and loss, anxiety, substance use, wellbeing content, an assessment to support their overall health, legal and financial assistance, plus family services like child and elder care.

“Total Mental Health helps to close the gap between the needs of the workforce and the provision of affordable and accessible mental health supports,” says Wolf.

What about ROI?

There is also a very strong business case to be made. “Investing in workplace mental health programs can provide a positive ROI,” says Wolf. Research shows that employers see a return of $4 for every dollar invested in mental health support.

With Total Mental Health, employers have access to easy-to-read reports that keep employee data private and confidential while providing important analytics and actionable insights about their organization’s mental health and wellbeing to help drive their people strategy and show ROI. 
ROI is only part of the bigger picture. A workplace program that protects and promotes mental health can help employees feel supported, purposeful and able to thrive at work, at home and in their communities. It’s a gain that may be hard to monetize, but one that pays off for everyone.
*Spouse and children under 26 years of age.