Supporting staff with mental illness good for business

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Official statistics show one in five Canadians experience mental illness, but those working in the field say it looks like that number is rising. Meanwhile, almost half of all workers report having experienced a mental health concern. Clearly this is an important issue for HR, but is it one that is addressed frequently and thoroughly enough?

Mental Health Works program manager Kathy Jurgens says the culture of the office can make a big difference to whether workers feel comfortable telling their supervisor about their illness, and it can be up to managers to reach out.

“For each individual it really depends on their circumstances. Employers can’t prevent mental health issues from occurring, but they need to be able to react and proactively support,” Jurgens says. “If people are being supported early on it makes it easier for the next person. If you can create that trust and support within the workplace you’ll have greater success collectively.”

Despite its prevalence, there is still a sense of stigma attached to mental illness and those who struggle with it face a lot of obstacles.

“I think there are many challenges but one is simply understanding and acceptance. I think there are still a lot of myths and stereotypes. That impacts how a person might seek support in the work place,” Jurgens says.

A study last year showed 44 per cent of the employees surveyed reported they were either currently (12 per cent) or had previously (32 per cent) personally experienced a mental health issue.

“There are statistics that state one in five, but we believe that is increasing and if you include all emotional distress in the workplace – stress and things that may not have been diagnosed but that are self-reported – certainly it’s on the increase,” she says. “When it comes to mental health it’s often low cost in terms of accommodations but it’s not as simple as widening a doorway. It requires ongoing monitoring and dialogue.”

For a manager witnessing behavioural changes or other problems it’s important to approach a worker who might be struggling. Open communication and a supportive environment is key.

“It’s really up to the employer, when they are seeing somebody struggling to ask the questions about what they can do to support the person,” says Jurgens.

It requires having managers and supervisors who pay attention – they are “the eyes and the ears” for HR to ensure that employees get support before their problems escalate, Jurgen says.  

“If you have employees who are feeling supported and trusting of their employer they’re going to see greater productivity year round. There may be a period when they’re struggling, but you’re going to have an engaged employee the remainder of the time.”

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