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December 1 2021

Mental health: a business priority for 2022

Someone you know is suffering. Someone you love is hurting. Someone you work with or lead is struggling to make it through the day. Maybe you are too. And maybe you aren’t aware of any of this. You chalk it up to – it's COVID. Everyone is having challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a worldwide mental health crisis. It is affecting each one of us, whether we know it or not.

Statistics Canada’s Survey on COVID-19 and Mental Health indicates one in four Canadians aged 18 and older screened positive for symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Among those, 94 per cent said the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.

Whether you’re a people leader, a CEO, a business owner or co-worker, this is alarming because the effects are wide-ranging. Along with the negative impact on an employee’s well-being, poor mental health can contribute to reduced productivity, higher turnover and lower work quality.

For Pauline Chan, Lawyer and Co-Founder of Barre West, the impacts of a stressful workplace weren’t immediately obvious. “I was talking to a colleague who had been injured and on short-term disability. I thought, ‘she’s so lucky to get some time off!’,” Pauline recalled. “It wasn’t until I expressed these thoughts to her, that they were reflected back at me and I realized, my reaction was not right. I needed to make a change.”

With a record number of people seeking mental health care, high rates of burnout and more stress leaves – the costs are astronomical. Fortunately, employers have options when it comes to addressing the potential costs of mental health.

The cost of ignoring the mental health crisis

According to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), “long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29 per cent increase since 2000”. Aside from the significant health impacts, a 2019 Deloitte report found that:

By the numbers

The annual economic impact in Canada is estimated at $50 billion per year in direct (like health care, social services, income support). That’s $1,400 for every Canadian.

The same report cites an additional $6.3 billion in indirect costs stemming from lost productivity.

Every week, 500,000 Canadians are unable to work because of mental health challenges.

Mental health issues account for 30 to 40 per cent of short-term disability and 30 per cent of long-term disability claims in Canada. Such claims are climbing by 0.5 – one per cent every year.

And those are the pre-pandemic statistics.

The numbers could be much higher, due to unreported mental health challenges. “No one is exempt from the challenges of this pandemic,” said Sara Jordan, Executive Director, Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region (CMHA Calgary),

“Recent research tells us eight out of 10 Canadians are struggling with their mental health. It’s possible the remaining two of 10 may be struggling as well, but with the stigma that still exists, are reluctant to admit their challenges.”

How businesses can foster positive mental health

Businesses around the world are taking steps to address the mental health crisis. A recent Forbes article outlined how some companies are offering employees benefits specifically designed to improve moral and address mental health and burnout concerns. Large organizations such as ATB Financial and Enbridge and Amazon have implemented multi-pronged wellness programs for employees.

Small and medium-sized businesses may not have the capacity to offer big programs, but solutions need not be expensive or time consuming. When properly implemented, a small-scale approach can have just as much impact on the mental health of your employees and your bottom line: less turnover, improved productivity and a healthier and more connected workforce.

Here are a few ways you can foster a pro-mental health workplace, without breaking the bank:

1. Create a daily practice

If you have regular team meetings, consider including a daily or weekly practice to talk about mental health topics. Whether discussing the challenges of the pandemic or exploring what each team member will do to care for their mental health that day, visibly carving out meaningful time signals the importance of self-care and wellness.

2. Lead by example

Tone at the top matters because a positive mental health culture really does start with an organization’s leaders. Consider your own habits, your daily practice for mental health and even the way you talk about mental health among your employees. The positive examples you lead with create a safe and open space, without stigma, to talk about and address mental health.

For Ernie Tsu, Owner of Trolley 5, encouraging open dialogue is key. “My door is open. My phone is on. Text me, call me, come and talk to me,” he said.

Tsu describes the struggle as a busy business owner and community leader to understand what his employees are facing. “What’s painfully obvious to them, might not be to me. So, I keep my door open and let them know I’m here to talk.”

3. Do something for others

There is clear evidence showing employees who support charitable organizations through workplace programs perform more effectively and connect more meaningfully with their company’s purpose. Helping others can also have a positive impact on mental health. In the workplace, this could mean allocating time for employees to volunteer with a charity of their choice. Another option is to consider combining a company’s charitable initiatives with team building, such as volunteering as a group at a local non-profit.

Despite having its own challenges through pandemic restrictions, Trolley 5 has led the way on several key initiatives to contribute to the community. Its latest coat drive for the Calgary Drop-In Centre offers customers a free appetizer when they donate a coat.

“There’s a lift you get when you do something for someone else,” says Tsu. “I see it in my staff too.”

4. Look for warning signs

According to the CMHA Calgary, there are risk factors to pay attention to.

“Poor nutrition, limited social connections and physical activity, tobacco use and high alcohol consumption are all things to watch for – in yourself and in others,” says the CMHA’s Jordan.

Pauline Chan agrees. “You know the people in your life best,” she said. “If you notice a change, or haven’t heard from them in a while, it’s important to reach out and make authentic space to learn how they are really doing. I find sharing something personal is sometimes a good way to help others open up.”

5. Offer resources

If you notice a change or have a conversation that reveals an employee’s mental health struggles, it’s important to understand your role. You are not the mental health professional. But with many programs that offer a range of self-directed learning opportunities and team training, you can facilitate and encourage access to a range of supports, including:

“It’s important to remember mental health and supports exist on a continuum. Just as we’ve learned working from home works well for some and not for others, it’s important to understand various approaches to mental health support will work well for some, but not for all,” Jordan said. “If you can build a positive mental health culture and facilitate access to the range of tools and resources freely available, you can support your people to seek out what they need, have healthy conversations and pave their own path to positive mental health.”