The Importance of Workplace Mental Health

In the last few years, we have become more aware of the issue of psychological health and safety in the workplace. But up until about 10 years ago, our knowledge of the issue was limited. People simply weren’t talking about it.

Thankfully, that has changed, and now people are opening up and telling their stories. And we, as a province, are listening.

A few years ago, I had the honour of chairing the Select Committee on Mental Health and Addictions. One of the most significant initiatives I’ve had the privilege to be a part of was that committee’s action plan for Ontarians. At the time, I could see that the way we were viewing mental health wasn’t working, and that a transformation was needed.

Those battling a mental illness — such as depression or anxiety — often suffer in silence. I wanted to help end that. Experience shows us that mental health problems and illnesses affect not only those suffering from them, but also families, co-workers and employers.

It also has a significant impact on our economy. A 2010 study commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that the economic cost to Canada is at least $50 billion per year. The study concluded that over the next 30 years, the total cost to the economy will have added up to a staggering $2.5 trillion.

These are huge figures. But this is a huge issue.

Which is partly why concerns over mental health have increased over the past few years. And, rightfully so. In any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health condition or illness.

And they are striking earlier in people’s lives. More than 28 per cent of people between the ages of 20 and 29 will experience a mental illness in a given year. By the time people turn 40, one in two people in Canada will have had, or are currently battling, a mental illness.

This is tragic. This is when people should be in their prime. This is when they should feel like they’re thriving, not just surviving.

Nearly a quarter of the country’s working population is currently affected by mental health problems or illnesses, often resulting in more absenteeism. It can also lead to a lack of productivity, as well as employee turnover.

Approximately 30 per cent of short- and long-term claims for disability in Canada can be directly attributed to mental health concerns. It is actually the number one cause of disability in Canada.

Of course, this is difficult for businesses, and it is bad for the economy. But on a human level, it’s bad for our society.

This needs to change, and Ontario is helping to lead that change.

The National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is supported by our government, and received all-party support in the Ontario Legislature. This voluntary standard lays the foundation for companies to integrate a health and safety system into the way they do business.

It puts forth guidelines for people in leadership positions, outlines how resources can best be put in place, and emphasizes the importance of education and awareness. A true mental health policy must be engrained in your company’s culture, not treated as something separate. This standard helps businesses realize this.

Mental health in the workplace is also being raised among federal, provincial and territorial Ministers of Labour. At last year’s meeting of ministers, we once again re-affirmed our commitment to continue efforts to address mental health in the workplace as part of our respective governmental responsibilities.

Preventing injuries and illnesses in the workplace and encouraging workplace parties to promote psychological health and safety is an essential component of the health, well-being and economic success of all Canadians. Governments are finally realizing this.

Now it’s time for more employers to recognize that mental health is a key component of a healthy workplace.

I define a healthy workplace as one that actively works to prevent psychological harm to workers, while also promoting all around psychological well-being. A psychologically-healthy workplace enjoys better recruitment and retention of talent, improved employee engagement, enhanced productivity, higher levels of creativity and innovation, and higher profit levels.

At the Ministry of Labour, we are taking steps to bring mental health in the workplace to the forefront. It needs to be a part of everyone’s health and safety management system. I am engaging with companies that have introduced strong workplace mental health programs for their employees, drawing upon their experience and best practices. My goal is to work with these partners to expand employer-provided services available to all Ontario workers.

Last spring, the Ontario Legislature unanimously passed Bill 163 — the Supporting Ontario’s First Responders Act. This legislation creates the presumption that when PTSD is diagnosed in a first responder, it is work-related.

All parties in the legislature agreed that supporting first responders who suffer from PTSD must be a priority. After all, when we need help, first responders are there for us. It’s only fitting that we be there for them when they need help.

Bill 163 as an example of how sectors can come together to promote better awareness and shared practices on work-related traumatic mental stress. It is an example of how we can work together to address prevention and promote resiliency, and an example of the good work that can be done when we focus on the benefits of a psychologically-healthy workplace.

Of course, this cannot be created in isolation; it must be nurtured within a safe working environment.

Everyone must understand that working toward a psychologically-safe workplace is not just another “feel good” initiative. It is a critical matter that will have an impact not only on OUR lives, but on those of our family members and co-workers, as well.

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