Latimer: Impact of mental illness in the workplace can’t be ignored

I have written about mental health in the workplace in the past and highlighted the importance for employers to realize that mental health problems affect people in all areas of life including the workplace.

Mental illness hits companies hard every year in terms of lost productivity and disability days and now more than ever it is also costing employers in legal settlements.

According to a relatively recent report put out by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, financial rewards for damages caused by mental injury at work have increased 700 per cent over the last five years.

More than ever before, employers must now face their responsibilities when it comes to providing psychologically safe workplaces.

In our modern world, the workplace can be filled with pressure and excessive stress—not to mention our tendencies today to never really leave work as we bring it with us on our mobile devices everywhere we go.

All of this can lead to common mental health issues including depression, anxiety and burnout, which are increasingly being characterized as mental injury in legal settings.

According to the MHCC report, Canadian courts are increasingly intolerant of workplace factors that threaten the psychological safety of employees and the courts are ordering management to change habits while imposing financial punishments for failing to do so.

An even more recent report released by the Conference Board of Canada surveyed more than 1,000 Canadian employees and found 44 percent say they have coped with a mental health problem such as extreme stress, depression, substance abuse or schizophrenia.

Twelve per cent said they were currently experiencing a mental health issue and another 32 percent said they had dealt with this in the past.

These numbers are surprisingly high and definitely point to the need for employer awareness of mental health issues and how to prevent them in the workplace.

Another interesting point in this report was the extent to which managers and employees see things differently.

Almost half of all managers had no training in dealing with workplace mental health issues but four fifths said they felt equipped to do so.

This compared with only 30 per cent of employees who agreed their management were prepared to deal with mental health issues and many feared disclosing their problems may jeopardize employment security or success.

There are a few ways in which employers can help ensure a safe and mentally healthy workplace.

First, it would go a long way toward eliminating stigma if management were encouraged to openly discuss the importance of mental health—this would help employees feel more comfortable admitting if they are having difficulty.

Providing education to all management and employees about the dangers of excessive stress and the nature of some common mental illnesses would also be very helpful.

Employers can review disability claims to raise their awareness of mental health within their own companies and can then review their return to work policies, education programs and workplace attitudes about mental health.

When individuals are off work with a psychiatric disability, it is unrealistic to require them to return to work full time and 100 per cent better.

Often a graduated return to work is necessary to help them regain their confidence and overcome anxiety.

Finally, employers should consider implementing assistance programs for employees experiencing mental illness.

These measures can help to make the workplace more productive and more compassionate.

If companies placed a true priority on mental health in the workplace, we could vastly reduce the amount of lost productivity and personal distress caused by workplace mental health issues.



Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.



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