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An Invitation to Re-Think Mental Illness in the Workplace

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this article that employers in Canada have a duty to accommodate employees with disabilities. It likely is also not surprising that a mental disability has to be accommodated just as readily as a physical disability.  What might be surprising to employers and HR professionals however, is the prevalence of mental disability in Canada.   According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will be personally affected by mental illness at some point in their life.

If that statistic made you say to yourself “there’s no way one in every five people I know is CRAZY!”, I would make two alternative suggestions to you:

  1. Organizations dedicated to mental health in Canada have spent countless dollars and hours of research to publish misleading or incorrect statistics; OR
  2. It is time to re-think mental illness.

Let’s assume that the statistic is legitimate, at least for the time being.  How can the common conception of mental health benefit from a paradigm shift, especially in employment?

In part, this question is being addressed by George Cope, President of Bell Canada and the driving force behind the telecommunications giant’s recent “Let’s Talk” campaign, which on February 9th, 2011 dedicated five cents per text and long-distance phone call on Bell’s network toward mental health.  The overriding goal of this event was to initiate discussion and debate about how Canada can better deal with mental illness.  You may have seen recent television ads promoting “Let’s Talk” on television, with the familiar smile of Olympic hero Clara Hughes promoting the Campaign.

Hughes was the perfect spokesperson for this event.  In addition to being one of Canada’s two 6-time Olympic medalists, Hughes is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Order of Manitoba, recipient of the International Olympic Committee’s “Sport and Community” award, two-time recipient of the “Spirit of Sport” award from the Canadian Sports Awards, and recipient of a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.  And for two years following the 1996 summer games – where she won her first two Olympic medals in cycling – Hughes was afflicted with clinical depression; a common and yet commonly misunderstood mental illness.

By stepping into the spotlight now Clara Hughes is attempting to normalize the disease, and help us understand that mental illness can affect anyone.  Importantly, her story helps us realize that people with mental health issues can lead normal, productive, or as in the case of Clara Hughes, extraordinary lives.  This is the kind of understanding that is important in the employment context.

In September of 2010 the Globe and Mail reported that a single employee on short-term disability due to mental illness can cost a company upward of $18,000.  Extrapolated to the whole of Canada’s workforce, that cost amounts to roughly $51 billion annually in costs and productivity loss, $34 billion in Ontario alone.  These numbers are huge, especially in light of the fact that mental illnesses are generally quite treatable through medication and counseling.  The problem is: employees are not getting the proper treatment for their mental illnesses.  The person and the business both suffer.

Unfortunately, many people dealing with mental illness are reluctant to reach out for help because of the strong stigma still attached to all forms of mental illness.  They fear being labeled as crazy, or being perceived as incompetent or even dangerous.  So the illness remains internalized, unchecked, and untreated.  The individual suffers in silence, and at work their productivity suffers as well.

Now imagine what benefits might follow from employers demonstrating an understanding that mental illness is both common and treatable, and a willingness to be accommodating and supportive of their employees who may be dealing with mental illness. Individuals might become more likely to seek the help they need to not only lead fuller, happier, and healthier lives, but also become more productive at work…or possibly win four more Olympic medals.

So, are one in every five employees CRAZY?  No, but at some point in their lives they might need a little bit of accommodation to help you make money.

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