Water Cooler Survey: October is Healthy Workplace Month

carousel_2015_panel_home1_927x400cArticle by Melany Hallam

QUESTION: Does your worksite offer employees any health promotion programs, services, classes, or incentives?  Yes/No

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a healthy workplace program? Employee discounts at the local gym? Healthy snacks in the lunchroom vending machine?

Physical health is only one aspect of health in the workplace. There are many programs and means of accommodating employees who suffer an injury (on the job or off) or are diagnosed with heart disease, cancer, or any other equally debilitating physical illness. However, when it comes to mental illness, some workplaces may not even acknowledge that you have an illness at all.

What is mental illness, anyway? According to the Canadian Psychiatric Association, it can be defined as “significant clinical patterns of behaviour or emotions associated with some level of distress, suffering (pain, death), or impairment in one or more areas of functioning (school, work, social, and family interactions).” There is a long list of symptoms, which can be biological, psychological or behavioural, or a combination of these. Basically, it’s when a person can’t function normally due to trauma or their own biology.

Why isn’t mental illness taken as seriously as physical illness? Stigma accounts for a big part of the problem. People still often think that having a mental illness is a sign of weakness, and the best way to deal with it is to hide it. But this strategy comes at a huge cost. Here are some statistics from Partners for Mental Health, a Canadian non-profit group dedicated to promoting mental health in the workplace:

  • 44% of workers say they have or have had mental-health issues
  • 1 in 3 workplace disability claims are related to mental illness
  • mental illness now beats out heart disease as the fastest growing category of disability costs
  • 500,000 Canadians missed work this week due to mental-health issues
  • only 23% of those asked in a 2008 Canadian Medical Association survey would talk to their employer about their mental illness
  • $51 billion—the annual cost of mental illness in Canada

Some mental illnesses are chronic and some are relatively temporary. Diabetes is a chronic disease, as are some forms of depression. Sometimes, the reaction to a person who is depressed is that they should “pull themselves together” and “just get over it.” Ask yourself if this is how you would react to someone with diabetes.

There is much progress being made in terms of incorporating mental-health issues into healthy-workplace discussions, as even a quick online search will show. Like any disease, injury, or impairment, accommodating employees with these challenges can be well worth the effort. If faced with a choice, employers will almost always opt to keep existing employees because it’s cost-effective and less of a hassle in the long run than hiring and training new staff (see a related Water Cooler post here).

Mental health is just one more aspect of a healthy workplace, and I for one look forward to the day when it’s accepted as such.

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