Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mental Health in the workplace matters

Dianne Buckner, CBC News

When it comes to the pressing priorities of an average entrepreneur, managing the mental health of staff is probably not at the top of the list. Concern about whether or not employees are feeling good about their work and their lives likely has to take a back seat to issues related to surviving this tough economy, such as improving sales or reducing expenses.But touchy-feely as emotional well-being may sound, the fact is that issues such as anxiety, depression and burnout present some very real costs — and not just to individual enterprises, but to the economy as a whole.Whether or not small business owners are feeling the heat to address these issues, the pressure is there on a number of fronts.

"For the first time in Canadian history, employers are confronted with a legal duty to maintain not only a physically safe workplace, but also a psychologically safe work environment." So says a report done for the Mental Health Commission of Canada by Dr. Martin Shain of the University of Toronto.'Mental health disability claims have been on the rise for several years in Canada. In fact, it's predicted that mental health will be the leading cause of disability claims very soon.'

—Julie Holden, Banyan Work Health SolutionsThe report, called Tracking the Perfect Legal Storm, outlines a variety of developments in Canadian courtrooms that indicate the legal system is less tolerant of workplace factors that threaten psychological "safety." Increasingly large fines are being imposed on companies that don't consider the toll their workplace policies may take on employees' mental health. And as Shain points out, many employers are unaware of this "brewing legal storm."

And there are not just legal risks connected to ignoring mental health. Even when burnt-out or psychologically damaged employees don't sue, there's the risk of lost productivity. "Mental health disability claims have been on the rise for several years in Canada," says Julie Holden of Banyan Work Health Solutions. "In fact, it's predicted that mental health will be the leading cause of disability claims very soon."

This all sounds very alarming — but it also sounds very familiar.

Eight years ago, while working at Venture, I reported on the growing awareness around "work-life balance." Researchers at Labour Canada, as well as independent private sector consultants, were warning companies that they had to do better in terms of helping employees balance the demands of their jobs and their home lives. Absenteeism was climbing, along with the cost of company health plans, as employees took advantage of subsidized prescriptions for anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills.

The most striking aspect of the report (at least to my mind) was that for years, companies had actually been trying to do something, adopting all sorts of new strategies to help employees cope. On-site daycares and gyms, work-at-home strategies, and even "mental health days" had become common.But these methods didn't seem to be working. The worrying statistics kept pouring in, and worsening.

Since then, I'd say that awareness of mental health issues has continued to rise, as has the instinct to address them. So the fact that Shain and Holden are again sounding the alarm bells isn't a surprise, but a solution doesn't appear to be any more imminent now than then.Widespread, unavoidable doses of stress seem the norm in our 21st-century lives, and it doesn't just come from our modern, hyper-competitive workplaces, but also from a wide variety of societal and cultural influences. Small business owners may be interested to know that companies with fewer than 20 employees appear to be doing better than larger firms, according to Statistics Canada. Absenteeism is lower with those employers, running around eight lost days a year in 2009. By comparison, workers in transportation and warehousing lost 14 days in 2009. It was 13 for health care and social assistance workers, and 12.6 in the public sector.But on the other hand, larger companies have more resources and flexibility when it comes to handling a mental health crisis. (There are free resources on the subject of mental health in the workplace, and entrepreneurs could look under the section aimed at "senior leaders.")"I had to get rid of an employee who'd been with us 11 years," says an entrepreneur who spoke to me off the record. "She was poisoning the atmosphere. Everything was bad, her outlook was completely negative."He spoke to the employee, and although she stayed with his company for another year, things didn't improve. "I had no choice but to fire her." I'm trying to be the quintessential liberal-minded employer," says the entrepreneur, who has just six employees. "I want to be fair, but I don't think any small business owner can afford to keep someone who isn't pulling their weight."

Of course, large companies have entire departments devoted to human resources. Stephen Fletcher works in HR at Newalta, a Canadian waste management company with 3,000 employees coast-to-coast.The company has a comprehensive mental health program, including a "flex benefit" program where employees can choose from a variety of stress-busting goodies such as fitness club memberships, counselling and even fishing or hunting licences. Even so, "stress claims are edging up," admits Fletcher, noting that anyone from top performers to less-stellar employees can fall victim to overload.

And it's hard to add up what it costs organizations."There are so many hidden costs," says Fletcher. "Absence alone doesn't reflect the effect on other workers, their productivity, on customers, and so on. There's a major ripple effect that has a lot of soft costs that are very difficult to track." Ihere are more than enough reasons for employers large and small to do their best with this particular challenge, not the least of which is human decency. And daunting as managing mental health may be, Fletcher tells me "it does make a difference to try."

I believe him.

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