500,000 Canadians Miss Work Every Week Due to Mental IllnessSep 27, 2023
Mental illness is an invisible battle that millions of people around the world fight every day. While physical health issues are often readily apparent, mental health concerns are often hidden beneath the surface, leading to stigma, misunderstanding, and isolation. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), one in five Canadians will have a diagnosed mental health problem at some point in their lives.1 Furthermore, approximately 500,000 Canadians miss work every week due to mental illness, according to a report from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).2 Mental illness/mental health disorders can have devastating impacts on the workplace, the economy, and the personal lives of employees.
Mental Health vs. Mental Illness
Mental illness is oftentimes referred to as the “invisible impairment.” It’s nearly impossible to tell when someone is suffering from mental illness, but its effects are real and shouldn’t be overlooked. Mental illness is different from mental health. While everyone has mental health, not everyone has a mental illness. Mental health encompasses emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It involves the ability to manage stress, maintain healthy relationships, work productively, and make sound decisions. Good mental health contributes to overall well-being and enhances one's quality of life. We all exist on a mental health continuum, and we can move into the injured or illness stage if we do not look after our mental well-being.
Mental illness refers to a range of diagnosable conditions that affect a person's thinking, mood, or behaviour. Examples include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Mental illnesses can disrupt daily functioning and require professional treatment. Mental illness does not have a single, definitive cause. It often arises from a combination of factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, life experiences, and family history. Traumatic events, such as abuse, loss, or violence, can trigger mental health issues, as can chronic stress, substance abuse, and certain medical conditions.
Two of the most common mental health disorders are major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders, which are estimated to be associated with at least 12 billion days of lost productivity a year globally.3 A report from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans revealed that 24% to 25% of Canadian employers report the prevalence of depression and anxiety in their workplace, respectively. Additionally, 8% of employers reported sleep disorders, ADD/ADHD, and alcohol addiction in their workplace.4
The Cost of Mental Illness
According to research from the Global Burden of Disease project, mental disorders have accounted for at least 14% of years of life lost due to disability since 1990.3 In Canada alone, the economic cost of mental illness in 2021 was projected to be $79.9 billion; upwards of $2.5 trillion is estimated to accumulate by 2041.2 These costs include direct costs such as healthcare costs, accommodation costs, and staff replacement costs, and indirect costs such as absenteeism and presenteeism, training time, and customer relationships.
The human cost of mental illness can also not be overlooked. Mental illness is serious, real, and can be debilitating to those who experience it. Those who feel stigmatized or discriminated against because of their illness are less likely to speak up about their illness, which can prevent them from getting the help they need. Without preventative mental health action for these individuals, the costs of mental illness, both personally and financially, exponentially rise.
The Effects of Mental Illness in the Workplace
When an employee’s mental health is not well, they are not able to do their best work. Some of the most common effects mental illness has on work performance include the following:
- Decreased ability to plan and execute a process without structure or guidance
- Short-term memory impairments
- Auditory processing impairments
- Decreased attention, problem solving and sequencing
- Working memory impairments
- Increased anxiety over work-performance
In some instances, an employee may need an accommodation for their mental health in the workplace. Employers have a duty to accommodate employees with disabilities – mental and physical – which means modifying the work, work process, or work environment to allow a worker with a disability to achieve the outcome of the job.
Breaking the Stigma
One of the biggest barriers to addressing mental illness is the pervasive stigma surrounding it. Stigma perpetuates shame and silence, preventing people from seeking help and support. Here are some ways to break the stigma in the workplace:
- Education: Provide training to employees and managers on recognizing the signs of mental illness. Equip them with the skills to offer support, and train managers to handle mental health-related concerns with empathy and confidentiality.
- Have Open Conversations: Encourage open conversations about mental health in the workplace. Make it clear that discussing mental health is not only accepted but also encouraged. This can be facilitated through workshops, seminars, regular team meetings, or other internal communication where employees can share their experiences and insights.
- Language Matters: Be mindful of the language you use. Avoid derogatory terms or jokes about mental illness, and instead, use respectful and non-stigmatizing language.
- Allow Time Off: Recognize mental health days as valid reasons for taking time off. Encourage employees to prioritize their mental well-being by allowing them to request such days without fear of judgment.
- Get Feedback from Employees: Create channels for employees to provide feedback on mental health initiatives and policies. Use this feedback to continually improve and adjust programs to better meet employee needs.
What Can Employers Do?
The best way to maintain mental health and prevent illness in the workplace is to take preventative action. Here are some tips to be proactive in preventing the negative impact of mental illness:
- Create an organization-wide mental health strategy. This strategy should include policies, programs, and resources aimed at promoting mental health, preventing mental illness, reducing stigma, and supporting employees experiencing mental challenges.
- Institute mandatory mental health leadership training. Leaders within an organization play a pivotal role in shaping workplace culture. Providing training to managers and supervisors on recognizing signs of mental illness, offering support, and creating a safe and trusting atmosphere can create a more empathetic and understanding workplace. This fosters an environment where employees can turn to leadership in their time of need.
- Develop tailored mental health supports. Recognize that employees have unique needs when it comes to mental health. Develop a range of supports, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), counseling services, and mental health resources, to accommodate varying needs and preferences.
- Accommodate employees. Ensure you are following your duty to accommodate in situations where it is necessary. Hire an Occupational Therapist to complete assessments that will inform you on the customized resources the employee can benefit from to improve their mental well-being. You can begin the referral process here.
- Prioritize the return to work process. When an employee takes time off due to mental illness, the return to work process should be thoughtful and compassionate. Maintain open communication, offer gradual reintegration, and ensure that employees feel supported during their transition back to the workplace.
- Measure outcomes and build accountability. Implement metrics and assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of your mental health initiatives. Regularly gather feedback from employees to gauge the impact of these programs. Accountability is crucial, as it ensures that mental health support remains a top priority within the organization.
- Provide resources to your employees. This could include Occupational Therapy intervention, crisis lines, counselors, what your health benefits plan includes in terms of mental health coverage, etc.
 “Fast Facts about Mental Health and Mental Illness,” Canadian Mental Health Association, July 19, 2021, https://cmha.ca/brochure/fast-facts-about-mental-illness/
 “Workplace Mental Health – A Review and Recommendations,” Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, January 6, 2020, https://www.camh.ca/-/media/files/workplace-mental-health/workplacementalhealth-a-review-and-recommendations-pdf.pdf?la=en&hash=5B04D442283C004D0FF4A05E3662F39022268149#:~:text=1%20Every%20week%20at%20least,billion%20resulting%20from%20lost%20productivity.
 “Trends in the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders among working-age Canadian adults between 2000 and 2016,” Statistics Canada, Kathleen G. Dobson, Simone N. Vigod, Cameron Mustard, and Peter M. Smith, December 16, 2020, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2020012/article/00002-eng.htm
 “COVID-19 Creates Shift in Mental Health Benefits Over Past Two Years,” International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, Anne Patterson, August 24, 2021, https://blog.ifebp.org/index.php/mental-health-benefits-covid