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Supporting those who walk among us

Posted by on Oct 1, 2008 in Employee Benefit News, Health | 0 comments

By: Sheryl Smolkin

Read this article at ebn.benefitnews.com 

For too many years, depression has been a grim and unwelcome visitor to people I care about, coming uninvited and lingering much too long.

Therefore when it came again this summer, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much we still have to learn about managing mental illness both at home and at work.

It is estimated that mental illness results in 35 million workdays lost every year in Canada, and low productivity related to mental illness adds significant cost to employers.

In a recently released survey of over 450 Canadian organizations conducted by Mercer in conjunction with The Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, almost 80% of participants reported that mental health issues have increased in importance compared to three-to-five years ago.

But mental illness often isn’t easy to diagnose or to treat.

Many of us have encountered the situation where a formerly high-performing employee starts coming in late, is frequently absent and misses important deadlines. When questioned about the change in behaviour, the individual may deny anything is wrong or attribute it to a change in family circumstances, such as a marriage breakdown.

The manager tries to cut the employee some slack, but when the situation continues for a protracted period, compassion can turn to irritation as other members of the team who have to fill in the gaps also become more stressed. After several warnings, the employee may be fired for poor performance, or quit out of frustration, thinking he is no longer capable of doing the job.

Yet the uncharacteristic behaviour exhibited by the employee may be classic symptoms of his illness. According to a brochure prepared by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, some typical symptoms of depression are:

  • Loss of interest in work, hobbies, people; loss of feeling for family members and friends.
  • Sleep problems, either sleeping too much or too little.
  • Feelings of uselessness, hopelessness, excessive guilt.
  • Preoccupation with failure or inadequacies and a loss of self-esteem; certain thoughts that are obsessional and difficult to “turn off.”
  • Slowed thinking, forgetfulness, trouble concentrating and making decisions.

Given the nature of these and other personality changes that may be exhibited by a person suffering from depression or other mental illness, it is not surprising that the top workplace challenges for participants in improving how mental health issues are addressed in the workplace revealed by the Mercer Survey are employee perceptions and stigma related to mental health (60%), and lack of front-line manager awareness (54%).

Indeed, the federal government has recognized the importance of stigma and funded the newly created Mental Health Commission of Canada to implement a 10-year national antistigma campaign aimed at education, promoting awareness and changing public attitudes toward mental illness.

But what can you do now?

Watson Wyatt’s 2007 Staying@Work Report cites a number of tools for addressing stigma, including educational/training programs for employees and managers, early detection tools and use of EAP staff as facilitators for return-to-work plans specific to mental health conditions.

All of these are valuable suggestions.

But based on personal experience, I can’t help thinking that a corporate culture that encourages managers and fellow workers to extend a helping hand to mentally ill co-workers and their families – subject of course to legitimate privacy concerns – can go a long way.

Good friends should not suddenly stop calling. If the social committee normally takes up a collection to send flowers when an employee has surgery or a heart attack, don’t forget to do the same thing for an employee who is hospitalized for a major depressive episode. Include a card that says, “Get well soon. We miss you.”

And don’t automatically write the person off.

You sponsor benefit plans so your staff can receive proper treatment and financial support when they are ill. The last thing employees who are struggling with mental illness should need to worry about is that they are somehow at fault and not entitled or worthy of these protections.

It takes senior champions to drive change – particularly in an environment where 57% of Mercer survey participants report that mental health issues are not treated equally to physical health issues by front-line managers.

The Canadian Medical Association’s 2007-08 President, Dr. Brian Day, recently said, “In some ways, mental illness is the final frontier of socially acceptable discrimination. Can you imagine the public uproar if mental health was replaced with race, gender or religion?”

As HR and benefits professionals, you can play an important part in educating the C-suite about both the impact of mental illness in the workplace and a humane, nondiscriminatory corporate response to this complex, multifaceted problem.

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