The Final Frontier in Workplace Health

Margaret Tebbutt, BA (Hons.), MèsLettres

Reprinted from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (3), p.4

Workplace mental health affects each of us. You might experience a mental illness while trying to make a living and support your family. You might be a union representative trying to help a union member struggling to stay at work or return to work. You may be the owner of a business or an executive who has to keep the workplace profitable, productive and healthy while respecting your employees’ legal rights. You might be the front-line supervisor who’s unsure about how to approach an employee whose behaviour has changed, who isn’t doing the job as well as usual and who seems upset. You may be a co-worker, concerned about a fellow worker, but also reluctant to “pick up the slack.” You might be the insurance provider who is finding that 40% to 45% of claims are due to clinical depression and/or anxiety. At some point in our working lives, we are likely to be in at least one, and probably more than one, of these situations. So we need to learn how we, together, can deal with mental health issues in the workplace.

The Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division (CMHA BC) has been a leader in this province, bringing workplace mental health to the forefront. With generous support from many sponsors, CMHA BC’s Bottom Line Conference on Mental Illness in the Workplace first generated awareness of this issue back in 2002. Every year since then, the conference has been a forum for discussing solutions to supporting mental health in the workplace. These discussions happen with leaders and influencers from businesses, unions and health care, together with people who have experienced mental illness while working.

Our mental health relates closely with work. In addition to financial security, we gain a sense of purpose, self-esteem and social support from being productive and making contributions through work.

Problems arise for us, however, if we are no longer seen as a valued person, but as the “problem” employee. The worker the human resources department has to find a spot for or find a way to get rid of. The invisible “claimant” for disability. The “jerk” nobody wants to work with. The “patient” whose doctor has to write yet another report for the insurance company. The “other” who is someone “we” would not want to be—and yet we very easily could be.

Society loses when discrimination towards workers experiencing mental illness is tolerated. Our society values respect for human rights, and these rights—and obligations—include full participation in society. If there are citizens we do not support or allow to participate fully, we lose the benefit of these citizens’ contributions, including in workplaces. And, workplace mental health issues not only affect the people directly involved, but the economy as well. The economy suffers because of lost productivity, absenteeism and long-term disability.

Society gains when we understand that sick leave for mental illness is not “just stress leave,” but is the same sick leave as for any other illness. Mental health disorders are real. And we gain economically when experienced people with valuable skills and knowledge are able to stay at work. Money is saved when we don’t have to hire and train someone to replace them.

There have been major strides in understanding the importance of employees’ physical health and safety. Laws and regulations have been created to protect the physical health of workers. There is good knowledge of how to prevent injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, for instance. And there are processes and equipment to accommodate workers who experience such medical conditions and to prevent further injury. This understanding now needs to be extended to workers’ mental health.

Articles in this issue of Visions focus on what workplaces can do to help their employees and members. We also look at how workplace mental health can be improved from a systemic perspective. Some articles describe the workplace factors that can affect mental health and share ways these factors can be monitored and improved. And personal experiences are shared by people who have faced mental illness in the workplace, who have been on long-term disability, and who have stayed at work, or returned to work, with accommodations.

As a society, we’ve changed how we respond to someone with disabilities in our workplaces. We accept people who cannot see or who have trouble getting around. We understand when someone needs time off for cancer treatment. When these people return to work, they are, rightfully, celebrated as survivors. So, let’s change how we behave when our co-workers need time off to get treatment for their mental illness. When they come back to work, let’s celebrate them as survivors.

In closing, let me take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped me recover from depression and anxiety and return to work. I’m very grateful to all those who helped me get back to being a productive member of society.
 

 
About the author
Margaret is a graduate of UBC Sauder Executive Development Program and is the Manager of the Mental Health Works program for the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division. She participates on the steering committee for CMHA BC Division’s Bottom Line Conference, the board of the Canadian Institute for the Relief of Pain and Disability, and the BC Collaborative to Prevent Needless Work Disability. In workshops and talks she gives about mental health in the workplace, Margaret incorporates both her executive management experience and her personal experience with major depression and anxiety disorders

 

Close