Minimizing the impact on mental health from an economic downturn

David Grauwiler of the Canadian Mental Health Association says there’s no excuse for ignoring mental health in the workplace

David Grauwiler is executive director of the Alberta division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

David Grauwiler

Why has mental health become such an important issue in society? Are there more cases of it now or simply better awareness of the issue?

Grauwiler: The conversation around mental health is growing in Alberta. Campaigns such as Bell Let’s Talk and the matrix of training and applications related to mental health in the workplace has enhanced our collective awareness related to the topic.

Language is important. Let’s be clear that we all have mental health and that some of us will experience mental illness. Mental illness is pervasive, one in five Albertans at any time are living with a mental illness. The impacts of mental illness land squarely but not exclusively on the individual living with mental illness. Family, friends and co-workers, as well as communities, are impacted by mental illness. Those numbers, one in five, are not changing and are likely closer to one in four.

Growing awareness about what mental health is and what illness looks like has definitely brought mental health challenges into our collective thinking. As such, I believe many individuals are more actively seeking help, particularly from their physicians and when available their employee benefits. In 2017, almost one-million Albertans consulted with their doctor concerning their mental health. More than 500,000 filled prescriptions for antidepressants, the most common form of mental illness. Since 4.3 million people live in Alberta, those numbers speak for themselves.

How has the economic climate in Alberta affected mental health in the province?

Grauwiler: It’s hard to draw a statistical direct line between economic downturn and mental illness. That being said, we can point to the numbers in my previous response to say that Albertans are actively seeking help with mental health concerns, perhaps like never before. That being said, clearly economic downturns impact major determinants of health and well-being such as employment, housing, self-determination, financial challenges, etc.

During the massive layoffs in Calgary a few years ago, one of our most commonly requested articles was “How to maintain your mental health when you lose your job.” Perhaps one of the best things we’re seeing is the growth in help-seeking behaviour for those who are faced with challenging times.

More and more we’re looking at mental health as an all-of-life matter. It’s not simply adults who feel the mental impacts of an economic downturn. Infants, children, adults and seniors are all impacted by environmental factors over the lifespan, which can create mental jeopardy. Economic downturn would be one example of those factors. More recently, mental health researchers are looking at aspects such as early life and trauma experience as well as environmental trauma as impacting populations broadly.

One indicator that we’re often tempted to look at in terms of impacts related to economic downturn is the prevalence of suicide. During those same dark days mentioned earlier, there was statistically no major increase in suicides in Alberta. Annually, 500 to 600 Albertans die by suicide. That’s a again a huge number, one that should elicit a strong response. Statistically, it’s men in their 40s to 60s who represent the largest proportion of that number.

Job loss in its early phase may not have the same dire impacts that prolonged joblessness may have. In the early days of unemployment, there’s often severance and perhaps relief from uncertainty. As unemployment continues, factors such as financial hardship, self-worth and relational difficulty can bring greater pressure on individuals and families.

While resilience is a reality for many, the length of time and the pressures we’re enduring while unemployed can lead to mental stress and perhaps illness.

What’s the impact of mental health issues on businesses and their bottom line?

Grauwiler: The hard facts have been calculated by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The total cost from mental health problems and illnesses to the Canadian economy is significant. The study commissioned by the MHCC makes it clear that the economic cost to Canada is at least $50 billion per year. This represents 2.8 per cent of Canada’s 2011 gross domestic product.

Health care, social services and income support costs make up the biggest proportion of these costs.

But it also cost business more than $6 billion in lost productivity (from absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover) in 2011. Over the next 30 years, the total cost to the economy will have added up to more than $2.5 trillion.

That being said, the feedback we receive from employers is that while the cost argument is compelling, employers want to learn more about creating mentally healthy workplaces to prevent the loss of productivity but more important they want to do the right thing for their employees.

There has never been a better time for businesses to access tools and training that can support those objectives. It also means there’s no excuse for ignoring the topics of mental illness and mental health in the workplace.

We spend a significant amount of our lives at work, in fact we hear more and more about work being a second home. It’s naive to imagine employees and employers can somehow compartmentalize their lives to not have mental health concerns impact our work life from time to time.

What should businesses be doing to address this issue?

Grauwiler: There are three areas we think about immediately when we talk about workplace mental health.

  • Knowledge is power. We’re often approached by organizations/companies asking where to start. They’re aware of the toll mental illness is taking on their workforce and the related impacts to the bottom line. The great news is they don’t have to start from scratch. The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace – the first of its kind – in the world is a set of voluntary guidelines, tools and resources intended to guide organizations in promoting mental health and preventing psychological harm at work. Launched in January 2013, it has garnered uptake from coast to coast to coast, internationally and across organizations of all sectors and sizes. It offers a simple framework of 13 standards to help organizations guide their current and future efforts.
  •  Assess your company/organization. Once you have a basic understanding of what needs to be in place, it’s important to move the focus from external sources and look internally. This would require a review of benefits usage, absenteeism and other factors. Many online assessment resources are also available through the Great West Life Centre for Mental Health in Workplace and the Guarding Minds at Work online guide to Psychological Health and Safety in the workplace. Get a snapshot of the good, the bad and the ugly.
  • Focus on organizational culture. An honest evaluation of the state of psychological health and safety in a company/organization will almost always bring the conversation to the culture of the workplace. Workplaces are very human places where much more happens than work, production and bottom lines. We bring our lives to work. We anchor (probably too much) our self-worth and meaning to our jobs and roles within our workplaces. We’re most often interdependent and require emotional and mental strength to get through the toughest days, or help someone through theirs. Senior leadership needs to be aware of these things and act to make sure workplaces are not making the journey of life any more difficult than it already is.

Are cases of harassment and bullying increasing in the workplace? If so why? And what can companies do?

Grauwiler: Once again, awareness of harassing and bullying behaviours in the workplace is bringing long-standing behaviours and beliefs front and centre in the workplace.

Bullying and harassment are indicators of organizational culture at its worst.

The best defence against workplace bullying is a clearly written (and adhered to) policy telling everyone associated with your organization that bullying is unacceptable. Education and application of learning on all levels of the organization is key.

– Mario Toneguzzi

Calgary’s Business is a Troy Media Digital Solutions Associate website.

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