Will 2019 Be the Year We Finally Address Mental Health in the Workplace?

Mental health in the workplace matters more than ever.

Whether you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders as a successful manager, or are maxed out in the multitasking department in your agency job, work is a massive source of stress for many of us.

If you’re not careful, the daily stress of the grind can take a serious toll, manifesting in everything from depression and anxiety, to substance abuse.

On January 30, Bell Canada’s hugely successful “Let’s Talk” campaign raised the most dollars – over $7.2 million – of any year since its inception in September 2010. The widespread campaign can be largely attributed to breaking down the long-held stigma toward mental health, as a growing number of people use the day to take to social media to “come out” about their experiences and struggles with mental illness.

While the stigma is undeniably eroding at an exponential rate each year, in my opinion, employers could do more to make mental health a priority. For Canadians, workplace stress is actually on the rise. According to new research by Morneau Shepell Ltd., employees across the country are feeling the pressure of the workplace. A survey revealed that more than one third of employees said that they are more stressed now from work (35 per cent) and personal issues (36 per cent) than they were five years ago. When it comes to the daily grind, 27 per cent of employees classified their work-related stress as high to extreme over the past six months. For managers, this figure was 34 per cent.

These numbers aren’t entirely surprising given that one in five Canadians will experience some sort of mental illness in their lifetime. The fact that technology has made us more accessible work-wise than ever, the 9-5 work hours are a thing of the past, and competition is at an all time high doesn’t help anyone’s mental health cause. Add Toronto’s sky-high living costs, and the struggle is all too real for some.

According to the survey – and a finding that’s increasingly relevant in our shift to more of a freelance economy – one of the biggest contributors to workplace stress is an increased feeling of workplace isolation. Also up there as a big contributor is not feeling valued in the workplace – something that comes as no surprise to anyone who knows the feeling. While the survey revealed that the stigma was indeed diminishing, 67 per cent of respondents were concerned that their career opinions would be limited if their workplace was aware of their mental health issues. On the bright side, this figure has dropped from 77 per cent in 2014, and it should be noted that 68 per cent of employees reported that their job has a positive impact on their mental health.

What are workplaces doing to help those struggling, or to prevent the onset of things like work-related stress, anxiety, and depression? For some, still nothing. Others have been quicker to adapt. Many are now offering things like shorter workdays or greater flexibility when it comes to time clocked in the office. Employee perks of working at Toronto start-up League include yoga classes and wellness workshops. The fact that League employees have unlimited vacation days likely helps when it comes to taking sometimes needed mental health days to sleep, reset, or – frankly – cry your eyes out.

Some companies now offer meditation sessions and hire therapists to offer half-day mental health workshops a few times a year. On the topic of therapy, employers should support their staff in their efforts to seek help, not punishing them for things like midday therapy sessions or the need to get out of the office to clear their head with a walk.

The problem for many, of course, is that therapy isn’t cheap. In 2017, Manulife made headlines when it announced it would increase its employee’s mental health benefits by a tenfold. Under Manulife’s redesigned benefits plan, the company’s employees receive a mental health support benefit of up to $10,000 per person per year, including family members. The move was a pretty big deal, as it represents among the highest mental health benefits offered by Canadian employers

“By enhancing benefits that support the health and wealth of our employees and their families, we are investing in our greatest resource – our people,” said Stephani Kingsmill, Executive Vice President, Human Resources, Manulife at the time. It wouldn’t hurt for more companies to follow suit.

As a culture, we’re often too focused with keeping ahead of the competition – whether that means pulling all-nighters or praising employees for clocking endless hours – than on nurturing the people who build and grow our businesses. It should be a top priority for business owners and managers to facilitate a workplace environment that promotes mental health by creating certain boundaries and protocols that encourage a healthy work/life balance to avoid burnout. The tech industry, for example, is notorious for burnout. A survey of tech workers found that close to 60 per cent of tech workers are burnt out. Burn out can lead to everything from depression and substance abuse, to negative impacts on your physical health.

A recent study let by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $ 1-trillion USD annually in lost productivity. Unhealthy employees – either physically or mentally – aren’t productive for anybody.