The number one reason employees miss time off work is due to mental health issues.  Mental illnesses cost Canadian workplaces over $50 billion a year in lost productivity, benefits costs, disability leaves, presenteeism and absenteeism, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC).  While it is estimated that one in five Canadians experience a mental illness in any given year; this number is probably closer to one in three if full disclosure were made.  Many employees fear to disclose that they have a mental illness.

Anxiety and depression are on the rise; and employers have a responsibility to create psychologically safe workplaces.  Canada’s National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace was released in January 2013 by the MHCC.  I encourage all human resources managers and business owners to review these important standards and compare their workplace policies and practices against these standards.

Even today, there exist negative mental health stereotypes which makes it difficult for employees suffering to access the resources they need. It is critical that anyone suffering from mental illness get access to help they need.

What is the role of the employer to help combat and reduce the stigma of mental illness?

1) People management – supervisors who spot changes in employee’s behaviour can help direct their staff to resources such as their employer provided Employee Assistance Program which offers different programs/valuable support.  Additionally, by training managers in how to recognize and deal with mental health issues; this helps them recognize and be aware of the signs and symptoms to look for; and know how to help create a supportive work environment.

2) Supportive policies and programs – have employer policies that facilitate work-life-balance such as personal leave, flexible work arrangements, and competitive vacation programs.  Encourage that staff support and adopt offered programs and policies; and combat the common problem of mismanaged workload preventing staff from taking advantage of programs / policies.

3) Early intervention – Normalize discussions on mental health in the workplace through team meetings; and emphasize the importance of mental health, just as critical as physical health in creating a safe work environment.

The most important thing is to keep  in mind is that life happens.  Employees may occasionally need to take a mental health leave to deal with a personal issue or need a professional break from the workplace.  Clear expectations of how managers should deal with these situations needs to be in place so people know how to communication with the employee while on leave; and what to communicate (and not communicate) to the rest of staff when an employee in on a mental health leave.