For more than a decade, it has been well-established that Canada is in the midst of a workplace mental health crisis. The has led to an annual cost to employers estimated at $21billion by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The economic impact includes everything from the cost of disability and medication to that of reduced productivity, absenteeism, and declining output of those struggling and still at work. In response, Canadian employers have invested heavily in some of the best awareness and anti-stigma programs in the world, with wide ranging dialogue across the political and economic spectrum. Ironically, this success may well result in higher disability volumes and costs over the next five to10 years.
A few years ago, estimates were that about 70 per cent of employees would be unlikely to identify themselves as suffering from a mental illness for fear of stigmatization and marginalization by their employers. While still too early to quantify, it appears that number could beheaded downward as employees see less stigma as a result of identifying themselves as requiring help. Even a 10 percent decrease will mean a major increase in absence and disability.
Demographics also point in this direction. Millennials, our future leaders, are the best educated and aware demographic cohort we have ever seen on mental health. They also report they are the most stressed of any other age group. They will have no issue reporting their struggles in the workplace. Post-millennials were the first to grow up in the world of the iPhone and social media. This generation is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades.
Employers continue to struggle to find efficient solutions to help their employees. That doesn’t mean current programs aren’t working. Wellness, employee assistance, management training, employee resilience, and culture improvement initiatives continue to have an important prevention role.
Lagged Far Behind
However, until recently, medical and therapeutic treatment has been under represented in mental health tool kits. While our awareness has greatly improved on mental health as a ‘problem,’literacy on the illness itself has lagged far behind that of other major illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. This has affected the perceived immediacy of combating the clinical side of the problem. But this is changing
quickly. Employers realize they need access to treatment. Like most mental health issues, the path forward on treatment is complicated.
Psychiatrists, the only medical doctor strained to treat mental illnesses and mood disorders, are in short supply. In a survey of psychiatry in 2015, the Canadian Medical Association showed that 52 per cent of psychiatrists in Canada were over the age of 55. In 2025,the majority will be at or approaching retirement age. This will mean declining access and more pressure on family physicians, who already treat the vast majority of patients with mental illness in Canada. This lack of resources has collided with more progressive employer attitudes. More and more view a mentally healthy workplace as a strategic asset with a direct impact on organizational performance.
Employers today are operating in the midst of a technology revolution that is resulting in a dramatic disruption of workplace skill sets. This is increasing the stakes for recognizing the role of mental health in improving performance, not just as a cost irritant.
In addition to the crucial role of government and public institutions, the private sector will have to provide much of the leadership in bringing the benefit of medical technology to our employees. There has been considerable progress in this regard. Leading edge solutions in digital cognitive behavioural therapy are starting to make an impact.
We need to organize medical and therapeutic resources, so we get the most out of what we have.
Finally, the good news is that employers are acting and investing. More and more, they are seeing the direct line between organization-wide mental health, performance,
and profitability. It is only a matter of time before they demand solutions that support a strategic model for mental health, and it becomes a normal course of business.