In the October 2013 issue of Benefits Canada our own Judith Plotkin provides commentary on the critical role employers play in de-stigmatizing mental illness.
From the article, Judith notes:
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), stigma is a result of negative stereotypes around mental illness that continue to be reinforced in the media, which often depict the mentally ill as violent and unpredictable. In the workplace, employees view colleagues living with mental health conditions with suspicion and question their capabilities, which can result in these employees being overlooked for promotions.
A 2007 Ipsos Reid study found that 79% of North American workers think people would hide the fact that they had a mental illness from their employers to avoid hurting potential career opportunities. Almost 50% believe that if an employee is absent as a result of his or her mental illness, he or she is likely to “get into trouble and maybe even fired.” And a survey conducted in the United States found that more than half of employers would be hesitant to hire a person who is mentally ill, while one-quarter would dismiss an employee who had not disclosed the illness. It’s not surprising, then, that the majority of people with a mental health condition keep quiet and don’t divulge their health status to their employers.
Depression is the most prevalent mental illness. In fact, the World Health Organization has indicated that depression is one of the world’s leading causes of disability, with more than 350 million people of all ages currently living with the illness worldwide. Fortunately, depression is extremely responsive to treatment—usually medication, counselling or both. Once help is sought, 80% of people make positive improvements allowing them to return to their regular activities, according to the CMHA. Yet many people do not seek help: they think they will simply “snap out of it” or, because of the stigma, they are too embarrassed to ask for it.
The longer depression goes untreated, the harder it becomes to treat.
Depression is also striking younger and younger people: 3.2 million Canadians ages 12 to 19 are at risk for developing depression, according to the CMHA. In today’s increasingly competitive global economy, Canadian businesses cannot afford to lose skilled employees in their prime working years.
What the Numbers Say
Judith quotes some distressing numbers in her commentary. Specifically:
The 2011 Conference Board of Canada study Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces reveals the extent and prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace. Of the more than 1,000 Canadians surveyed, 44% reported that they were currently experiencing (12%) or had previously experienced (32%) a mental health issue. (This was based on a broad definition that included excessive stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, addiction and substance abuse, mania, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, among others.)
That surprising figure is behind escalating benefits costs and disability claims. In the 2011 Conference Board study, 78% of short-term disability claims and 67% of long-term disability claims in Canada were related to mental health issues. Canadian government figures show that more hospital days are used by people with mental illnesses than are used by people with cancer and heart disease combined. A report by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health stated that “depression will be the single most expensive cause of lost workplace productivity due to disability by 2020.” That’s just seven years away.
Erasing the Stigma
Judith notes “It’s not easy to change deeply entrenched attitudes toward mental illness, but employers can certainly make inroads with their workforce. Doing so requires a corporate-wide strategy involving leadership, managerial skills, workplace culture, and education and communication.”
Four areas of focus in erasing stigma are, all of which need to be reviewed, sustained and regularly refined over time.according to maintain the effectiveness of ongoing mental health initiatives in erasing stigma and promoting good mental health. Judith identifies these areas as follows:
Change begins at the top; therefore, endorsement and support from senior leaders is essential. Top management must demonstrate leadership not only in promoting good mental health but also in supporting employees who are experiencing mental health challenges. Active endorsement and support from unions and other employee associations also helps transform ideas into action.
Managers are on the front lines of organizational health and well-being. Not only are they able to identify productivity and behavioural issues early, they’re also instrumental in supporting and accommodating team members with physical and mental illnesses and challenges. Managers often set the tone for their team and directly influence levels of stigma. While some managers are well informed about mental health issues, they often feel ill-equipped to discuss these issues with employees. Providing appropriate and ongoing training for managers at all levels to help them deal with mental health issues and understand how they can guide employees to the appropriate resources is one of the most important initiatives that an organization can undertake. Most employee and family assistance programs (EFAPs) offer this training.
Creating an organizational culture that is truly inclusive and supportive of all employees takes time but begins simply by asking a few questions. Is there a company-wide policy in place to promote good mental and physical health in the workplace? In addition to preventive measures, there should be policies and protocols in place that support an employee with a mental illness to return to work or stay at work. The workplace offers many positive opportunities and resources that can help employees recover or cope better: a supportive social network, feelings of self-worth, and access to EFAPs, return-to-work support and other health and wellness programs.
Education and communication.
Education is perhaps the most powerful weapon in fighting stereotypes or misinformation. Employers can increase mental health literacy through workshops, seminars, and lunch and learns, as well as through printed and web-based articles and personal stories. Managers need to encourage team members to participate in education and training sessions and can further show their commitment by attending these sessions with their direct reports. The company’s EFAP—as well as organizations such as the CMHA, the Mood Disorders Society of Canada and the Canadian Health Network—can also provide a wealth of materials and support.
The importance of mental health benefits
Finally, Judith notes:
“In Canada’s healthcare system, individuals who seek care for mental health issues typically rely on an often-confusing array of providers, and navigating these providers to find appropriate care is a challenge. While mental illness is an increasing cost driver for employers, programs have not kept up with the spiralling needs of today’s employees.”
The importance of robust mental health benefits as part of an organization’s overall approach to health will become increasingly important. Many employees find that getting help is just too hard, and some aren’t aware of the resources available to them. Employees need to know the benefits and services that their employer offers. This communication should be an ongoing part of an organization’s overall mental health benefits strategy. EFAPs, psychological and psychiatric consultations, mental health assessments, complex claims support from mental health professionals, and workplace facilitation and mediation programs are all elements of a comprehensive approach.
Judith Plotkin is vice-president, strategic operations, with Homewood Human Solutions.
For a PDF from Benefits Canada, click here.
Original source article here.
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