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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 experience 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 part of the human health journey. 

The topic of mental health is finding its way into the spotlight. Dr. Dominik Nowak, family physician and chief medical advisor at TELUS, says “it is part of the movement to shift our thinking from mental health as being a personal issue to thinking of it as a shared part of the human health journey, just like physical health.” 

“In fact, there is no health without mental health,” says Dr. Nowak. “Poor mental health can lead to chronic stress and social isolation, which is linked to chronic disease.” To emphasize the point, “social isolation is like smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of health impact.”

“The signs are easy to ignore, particularly when we feel we can get through things by ourselves or don’t believe we are at risk,” says Dr. Nowak. “But mental health is a continuum that is experienced differently from one person to the next.” 

“As we move along the continuum, we can go from feeling joyful and energetic to feeling worried, distressed, irritable or distracted. Mental health impacts our work, school, home life, and relationships.” People may have different experiences depending on where they are in the mental health continuum (see diagram). Dr. Nowak says the best time to proactively seek help is well before reaching the dark purple zone, which is when people are in crisis. 

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, including tools to monitor progress and surveys to measure engagement. They can enable on-demand, 24/7 access to health and wellness services, and financial and legal assistance programs with tools such as TELUS Health Virtual Care, Specialized Digital Therapy, and an enhanced employee assistance program (EAP) that allow employees to easily and proactively fit mental health support into their day-to-day lives.

“TELUS Health Virtual Care 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.

ROI is only part of the bigger picture. A workplace program that protects and promotes mental health can help employees to 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.