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Mental Health Stigma Still Pervades Canadian Workplaces

Toronto, June 20, 2011 – When it comes to mental health issues in Canadian workplaces, misinformation, fear and prejudice remain far too prevalent. Canadian organizations have taken some steps to remove stigmas associated with mental health issues. Yet employees remain concerned about disclosing a mental health issue to their employer, according to a Conference Board study released today at the Workplace Mental Health 2011 conference in Toronto.

“Mental health is a significant business issue that requires the attention of organizations. People who experience mental health issues face incredible challenges in the workplace. Many are misunderstood, shunned and underutilized,” said Karla Thorpe, Director, Compensation and Industrial Relations. “In a world where shortages of critical skills are top of mind for many organizations, employers cannot afford to allow this situation to continue.”

The report, Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces: Perspectives of Canadian Workers and Front-Line Managers, provides a national perspective on Canadians’ work environment and the degree to which it supports their mental well-being. The study identifies four areas for organizational action: education and communication, workplace culture, leadership, and managerial skills and capacity.

A survey of more than 1,000 Canadians revealed that mental health issues are prevalent in their workplaces. Forty-four (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. For this study the definition of a mental health issue was very broad and included: excessive stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, addictions and substance abuse, mania, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, among others.

In addition to the effects of mental health on individuals, organizations are also feeling the financial costs. In 2009-2010, 78 per cent of short-term disability claims and 67 per cent of long-term disability claims in Canada were related to mental health issues.

However, most survey respondents said they would feel uncomfortable speaking to their manager, union representative or a colleague if they experienced a mental health issue. Respondents fear that making such a disclosure would jeopardize their chances for promotion (54 per cent) and future success (38 per cent) in their organizations.

Managers play a critical role in supporting employees, and a majority of the managers surveyed said they are informed about mental health issues. Yet, many are ill equipped to help employees—only 26 per cent of surveyed employees felt that their supervisor “effectively manages mental health issues”. A full 44 per cent of managers have had no training on how to manage employees with mental health issues. Managers want, and need, more workplace training in order to bridge this gap.

There is also a major disconnect between the perceptions of executives and non-management employees about the degree to which their workplaces promote mental health. While 82 per cent of senior executives surveyed stated that their company promotes a mentally healthy work environment, only 30 per cent of employees who work in such occupations as service, labour, and production agree. Just 36 per cent of employees report that senior management openly discusses the importance of mental health.

The four areas where organizations can take action are:

  • Focusing on education and communication to reduce fear, stigma and discrimination in the workplace;
  • Ensuring the organizational culture is conducive to supporting employees’ mental health;
  • Encouraging senior executives to show demonstrable leadership around mental health; and
  • Building managers’ capacity to support employees by providing the tools and training required in their role.

The findings are based on a January 2011 survey of 1,010 individuals currently employed on either a part-time or full-time basis, including 479 front line managers. The research is supplemented with a total of 30 follow-up in-depth interviews. The study was sponsored by Bell Canada, Manulife Financial, Morneau Shepell, Canada Post Corporation, and TD Bank Group.

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