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Mental Health in the Workplace: do corporations take it seriously?

Mental Health in the Workplace: do corporations take it seriously?
Written by Seth Fletcher on October 17, 2019
Last update: February 9, 2023

Mental health issues have a huge impact on our society. The implications can affect our social services, health care system and even the economy. People who suffer from mental illness in the workplace are often less productive and have a hard time focusing on the task at hand. This can cause mistakes to happen, which in turn can be harmful to the entire organization. Often, people who suffer from mental health conditions have a high absentee rate, and could be subject to scrutiny by superiors. Though there have been a lot of improvements in how corporations treat those with mental health conditions, stigma is still attached to those who suffer. It can be hard to know how to balance productivity with the provision of help to those who need it, and business owners are often left on their own when dealing with these issues. Mental health issues can often mean that workers and employers are in a battle over how to handle said issues, which is not good for either party.

Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health encompasses a large variety of conditions which affect how one sees and interacts with the world around them. It can include anything from Schizophrenia to General Anxiety Disorder, and can impact every aspect of a person’s life. When looking at how much time the average worker spends at their job, it should be no wonder as to why a person’s mental health can affect their job performance. For example, if a person has General Anxiety Disorder, they might have extreme anxiety about things like making presentations. But if they get a job opportunity in which presentations are a regular occurrence, they are stuck with a dilemma- take the job and try to figure out how to suppress their anxiety, or simply keep looking for a different job. This type of dilemma might be a good one to have- at least the person has the ability to look for a different job opportunity- but what happens when a person is asked to do a presentation when that was not one of the stated job requirements? The worker might have a very strong negative reaction to this request, and they would have the added pressure of pleasing the boss.

In this example, we can see how mental health can impact people’s work lives. There is a lot of pressure on workers to perform at their optimal level, and if a mental health condition takes that ability away, it can mean the employee may not be able live up to the demands of the job. There are many possible consequences to lower job performance, which can include job loss, or an inability to gain promotion. In the above example, we can see how not being able to live up to the employer's expectations might cause the worker to be looked over when going up for a promotion, something that not only can impact the employee’s household income, but can also have a negative impact on their self-worth. One minor issue at work (being too anxious to make a presentation) can then snowball into other mental health issues, and the worker is punished for something they cannot control.

Statistics on Mental Health in Canada

Now that we have looked at what a mental health issue can look like in the workplace, it is important to take a look at some of the numbers behind mental health to understand how prevalent it might be in the workplace. According to The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the numbers around mental illness in Canada are as follows:

  • 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental health condition
  • By age 40, 50% of the population will have or have had a mental illness
  • 8% of adults will experience depression
  • 5% of adults suffer from an anxiety disorder
  • 1% of the population suffers from bipolar disorder

When looking at these statistics, it can be easy to see why the workforce would be affected. It should also be noted that in a survey done in 2016, 40% of respondents said that they have suffered from depression and anxiety without getting it treated. This is important when thinking about the stigma that is still associated with mental illness. A lot of people choose not to get help for their issues, which means that many people are suffering in silence. Having a mental health issue is still looked down upon in our society, a fact that can be illustrated by a survey result from 2015, that showed that 64% of Ontario workers would feel uneasy working with someone with a mental illness. This statistic shows why it can be so hard for people to ask for help from their employers. Workers worry that if they let their co-workers know that they are suffering from a mental health issue, then they will be ostracized and perhaps not treated fairly while at work. In the same survey, CAMH found that 39% of Ontario workers would not tell their managers that they suffer a mental health issue.

These numbers also point to the lack of support workers have when struggling with mental health issues. There is no real standard of care when it comes to how corporations deal with mental illness, and the amount of support offered to workers varies greatly. Most corporations have policies around sick days, parental leave and vacation, but if mental illness strikes, employees are often forced to take sick days, or simply to grin and bear it. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, half a million Canadians call in sick to work each week due to mental health issues. This means that there is a staggering need for corporations to take mental health more seriously, as it is affecting workers regardless of whether or not the business acknowledges it.

The Impact of Mental Health Issues

There are both social and economic side effects to mental health issues in the workplace. People who suffer from mental illnesses are twice as likely to also have substance abuse issues, which has huge societal implications. When one person in a family has substance abuse issues it affects all family members, as the sufferer will often use some of the family income to support their addiction. There is also a correlation between substance use disorders and anger issues which can directly affect how the addict interacts with the people around them. Many addicts are unable to control their emotions (hence the substance abuse), and when this happens they can behave very erratically. Within the family unit, the addict can pass on their behaviour to their children, and the trickle-down effect of having an untreated mental illness can perpetuate more issues. If people who suffer from mental health issues felt more comfortable seeking treatment and had support from their employers, there might be less prevalence of substance abuse, as the employees would not need to turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. When employers are able to see the value in seeking treatment, they are able to help more than just their employee, but also the employee’s family.

The other serious social impact serious mental illness can have is that of the death rate. In Canada, suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths of people between the ages of 15-24 and 16% of people between the ages of 25-44. When mental health issues such as depression go untreated, it can lead to these severe consequences. This points to the fact that mental health in this country must be taken seriously. By ignoring workers' mental health, corporations are at risk of contributing to these statistics, which is a horrible cross to bear.

If that is not enough of a reason for corporations to take mental health issues seriously, one they might be able to get behind is the simple economic impact. In Canada, we spend over $50 billion per year on mental health, and there is approximately $6 billion per year in lost productivity due to absenteeism and turnover. Since Canadian workers have little support for mental health issues, they are forced to take sick days or a leave of absence, which not only causes loss of productivity but also costs the employer money. When people need to take a leave of absence due to mental illness, the company has two main choices: they can spread the work of that employee to others in similar positions, or they can hire a temp while the employee is on leave. Neither of these options are ideal, as one creates more stress for workers, which might in turn create more mental health issues, while the other causes the employer to spend money on recruitment and training. In Canada, 30% of short- or long-term disability claims are due to mental illness, which means the above example is more common than one might think. By creating a supportive environment for workers, corporations could avoid the economic pitfalls of untreated mental health issues in the workplace.

How Corporations Can Help Employees with Mental Health Issues

There is a lot that can be done to help employees with mental health issues. One of the most important things to do is to create an environment in which people feel comfortable talking with managers/supervisors. Though the employee does not have to disclose any condition they might suffer from to their boss, it could be helpful when trying to deal with issues relating to mental health. When corporations are able to create a supportive environment and provide reasonable accommodations, employees are more likely to seek the proper help they might need to deal with the issues at hand. Workers should feel they are able to talk about their mental health issues without being stigmatized or it affecting their job security. Corporations should be willing to work with their employees when dealing with mental health issues, as this would create a workplace in which absenteeism and turnover are low. Studies have shown that the happier the worker, the more productive they are, so the more corporations are able to take the initiative in creating a safe environment, the better their business will run.

Another way in which corporations can help workers who may suffer from mental health issues is by creating policies that support the worker getting help. For example, many Canadian corporations have private health insurance for their employees that cover anything that is not covered by provincial health plans. The problem, though, is that mental healthcare can be costly, so employers should ensure that any group health plan has an extensive psychiatry/psychology coverage. In the United States, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires most group health plans to include some coverage for substance abuse and mental health conditions, but in general, corporations and their employees could benefit from extensive coverage for these issues.

Employers can also create a less stressful environment for workers by including mandatory paid breaks during the day, that allow the workers to step away from their desks without worrying about being penalized. Small changes in the way people conduct business can help tremendously when tackling mental health in the workplace.

Final thoughts on Mental Health in the Workplace

When dealing with mental health issues in the workplace, a lot of improvement needs to be seen. In general, in our society, we tend to look down upon those who have mental illnesses. It can be seen as a weakness or even as something scary, since erratic behaviour is a symptom of some mental illnesses. With these thoughts in our heads, we feel stigmatized when admitting that we have a mental illness or a substance use disorder, and that stigmatization can lead to people hiding their problems. When this happens, it can affect how efficient we are at work, and it can lead to absenteeism and high rates of turnover. When corporations are able to deal with these issues by creating a safe environment for their workers, everyone benefits: the businesses thrive with more productivity, and the worker is able to get the help they need.

Photo credit: Free Images. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.


Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

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