Canada’s mental health agenda should address mental health in the workplace

Woman comforing a co-worker, a hand on his shoulder

This article was originally published by The Hill Times on October 7, 2019, and is written by Bryan Benjamin and Charles Boyer of The Conference Board of Canada.

On any given day, 500,000 Canadians are unable to work due to mental health related challenges. In our Healthy Brains at Work research, the numbers provide an even more precise look of mental health in the workplace. If all employed Canadians living with depression received the appropriate care, 1.2 million people could work full time and be fully functional. For those living with anxiety, optimal treatment would mean 545,000 Canadians would be able to fully contribute in the workplace.

Simply put, mental health challenges are prevalent in Canadian workplaces. Coupled with rising costs, the fiscal alarm bells are now sounding.

Yearly costs for depression and anxiety alone have reached $32 billion and $17 billion respectively, and disability claims due to mental health are a top employer concern. Higher workforce productivity would contribute an additional $32.3 billion annually to Canada’s economy—$2.6 billion from those aged 15–24, $13.2 billion from those aged 25–44, and $12.6 billion from those aged 45–64. At a higher productivity level, Canada’s economy would gain approximately $17.3 billion a year—$837 million from those aged 15–24, $7 billion from those aged 25–44, and $8.3 billion from those aged 45–64.

Mental health has emerged as a priority across several party platforms in the 2019 Federal Election campaign. Respective leaders are including mental health in the healthcare conversation. Mental health related platform commitments include:

  • Access to family doctors and health care teams, including mental health
  • Expansion of the health care model to include more mental health services and drug coverages
  • Youth mental health and well-being

While fiscal impacts of mental health are significant, so too is the human impact.

As more conversations take place, stigmas decrease and awareness, understanding and support increase. This is progress. Yet it is still far too common to hear about an employee who does not want to discuss their mental health with their employer. Fears of labelling are real. Language is inconsistent. And challenges understanding available resources or accessing mental health support are real. There is still a long road ahead.

Mental health challenges are prevalent in Canadian workplaces. Coupled with rising costs, the fiscal alarm bells are now sounding.

Healthcare priorities should include mental health support as much as physical health support. Without this, we can expect the workforce productivity gap to persist.

Employers also play a central role in the employee health equation. They have a direct impact on the well-being of their workforce whether they support mental health or not. And this in turn has a direct impact on the productivity of their employees.

While mental health is gaining recognition in policy discussions, employers have many options available for supporting employee mental health in the workplace beginning now, including:

  • a comprehensive mental health strategy;
  • a mental health policy;
  • benefits, including coverage for evidence-based medications and paramedical services;
  • employee and family assistance programs (EFAPs) for short-term help;
  • leave options;
  • supportive programs, such as modified work schedules or flexible work arrangements to attend medical appointments, peer support programs, mental health training, and education.

Employers can also create a culture that prioritizes employee mental health. Consider:

  • Are employees comfortable discussing mental health with their manager?
  • Are managers equipped to support employees who raise mental health challenges?

Just as with overall physical health, mental health is different for each person. Mental health and quality of life influence how people live and work. It is time for mental health commitments to turn to mental health actions as part of a larger healthcare commitment. Otherwise, the workforce productively gap will likely continue to increase and so too will Canadians living with mental health issues.

Bryan Benjamin

Bryan Benjamin


Charles Boyer

Charles Boyer

Senior Research Associate and Network Manager

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