Tackling mental health issues in the workplace

By Rebecca Smith—

Have you ever had an injury or gotten physically sick at work? Hopefully not…but if you have, chances are your boss knew what to do – send you home – get first aid treatment – fill out reports – arrange for time off work – and make sure any health and safety hazards are fixed.

Companies must follow a big list of federal and provincial standards when it comes to protecting their employees’ health and safety. But when it comes to mental health issues – standards about what employers can or should do have been pretty vague – until now.

New national standards to address mental health issues in the workplace

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) recently released its Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. These guidelines are meant to help employers develop and improve psychologically safe and healthy work environments for employees.

Mental health supports need to be part of management and culture

A company can have programs and supports in place to address mental health issues– but unless they are integrated with overall culture and day-to-day operations – they may not have much of an impact.

An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is useless if your  manager doesn’t encourage you to use it. A workload that’s giving you panic attacks is not going to change if your boss thinks it’s time management. And dealing with a mental health issue is impossible when the guy sitting in the next cubicle is calling you “lazy”.

Incorporating mental health issues in company policy and practices could guard against all of this. The demanding manager could be held accountable for not doing something when their employee is having panic attacks. Employees are put in touch with a support program not because it’s a “nice suggestion” – it’s part of management protocol. The guy in the next cubicle could be more aware of what’s going on thanks to employee awareness training.

Mental health is just as important as physical health

By adopting a respect for mental health issues– it puts mental and psychological health at the same level of priority many companies put on physical health and safety. That diminishes negative stigmas and guards against employees feeling they have to hide their illness and keep performing while suffering in silence.

Why should employers use the new guidelines?

Fact is – these new guidelines are a giant leap forward for addressing mental health in the work place in Canada – but they’re not legislated – they’re voluntary. So why should employers use them?

As a health benefits provider, we’ve worked with a lot of businesses over the years and there’s been a growing demand for supports to help address mental health issues – and for good reason. Mental health issues account for approximately 30 percent of short and long term disability absences. But a lot of these can be diminished with prevention and intervention supports.

It’s why last year we launched a new Collaborative Mental Health Care (CMHC) pilot project.

Partnering with mental health professionals, the pilot utilizes a targeted mental health assessment based on an employee’s disability claim. The case management process evaluates an employee’s condition, confirms diagnosis, recommends a treatment plan and assesses early prospects for a return to work. This focus on mental health is a step beyond regular disability management processes and works to reduce absences, disability claims and lost productivity due to untreated or undiagnosed mental illness.

Bottom line – addressing mental health issues in the workplace doesn’t just provide employees with much needed supports – it makes good business sense.

What do you think?

Will these standards and guidelines make a difference in how we deal with mental health issues in the workplace? Do you think employers will adopt the voluntary standards? Is this the right solution?

Rebecca Smith is director of case management services with Medavie Blue Cross.

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