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We’re facing an anxiety epidemic. If we don’t make big changes, it will get worse

President and CEO, Morneau Shepell.

Anxiety has been around since we've been around – passed on through genetics and affected by our environment and ability to cope. It's a normal part of the human experience, felt by all of us at different times, such as during a job interview or before the birth of a child.

What isn't normal is the dramatic spike in people suffering from chronic anxiety. The numbers are staggering – 41 per cent of Canadians are at high risk for mental-health issues, according to a recent poll. Thirty-six per cent felt so stressed it affected their daily lives.

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Read also: Why every organization should have a mental health strategy

It's clear our environment is a leading driver of this epidemic. In all aspects of our lives, stressors have crept in, making it harder to decompress and find balance.

At work, intense competition and disruptive innovation are forcing organizations to navigate complex terrain. And these pressures are increasingly felt by employees.

A recent Rand survey found that more than a quarter of U.S. workers have too little time to do their jobs. And work frequently spilled into personal lives, with nearly half the respondents indicating they work during free time.

In Canada, 58 per cent of employees said chronic stress negatively affected their productivity, while nearly half considered leaving their jobs, according to a 2015 Morneau Shepell survey. Millennials were twice as likely to take stress leave as other age groups.

Add to the equation the proliferation of contract work and growing concerns about automation, and the result is predictable – a highly stressed, burned-out work force.

What's more worrisome is the next generation. Anxiety is the most common mental-health diagnosis among students today. Dubbed "the most anxious generation," they'll be entering the work force when pressures are higher than ever before. Without appropriate support, I fear an impending powder keg.

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We need to fundamentally rethink our approach.

Employers

The current workplace model is not sustainable. Employees are working longer and harder, but with inadequate support – a major reason behind skyrocketing absenteeism and disability rates.

I've written about why organizations need to launch workplace mental-health strategies. Only 39 per cent of Canadian employers have one. But let's take it a step further. Support for employee health should permeate all aspects of an HR strategy, from onboarding to scheduling to evaluation.

For instance, despite all the talk about telecommuting, few employees are given permission to work from home. In Canada, only 12 per cent of paid employees work from home on a regular basis. In the United States, 78 per cent report they are required to be present during business hours.

With today's technology, why are so many employees expected to commute?

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The best organizations get it. They encourage employees to proactively use mental-health services, such as employee-assistance programs, while injecting flexibility into the workplace. When done right, the results are compelling – higher employee engagement, greater productivity, and lower absence and disability costs.

Governments

Canada should be the global mental health innovation hub – we have the ingredients:

  • World-class mental-health hospitals affiliated with renowned postsecondary institutions.
     
  • Growing research networks, such as the Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research.
     
  • Successful anti-stigma campaigns, from Bell’s national Let’s Talk Day to local initiatives, such as Ottawa’s Do It For Daron.

In the private sector, firms such as IBM Canada are doing leading-edge work in mental-health analytics. At Morneau Shepell, we've built the world's largest counselling network, amplified by sophisticated digital infrastructure.

We're at a point where technology and clinical resources can be seamlessly integrated to provide cost-effective, preventative solutions to millions of people.

Yet, we all work in silos. There is no mental-health system in Canada – and as a result, there are significant service gaps throughout the country.

Governments can change that. And I'm not talking about throwing more money at the problem. Instead, I urge them to use their convening power. I look to Health Canada, the Mental Health Commission and their provincial counterparts to bring stakeholders together to build a more co-ordinated system.

Let's create a forum to collaborate regularly, trade best practices and ensure services are being provided to Canadians in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Individuals

I'm a firm believer in two-way accountability. We all have to take ownership of our own mental health. Programs are only successful if we take advantage of them, seek help and personally commit to making healthy decisions.

We all have a role in ending the anxiety epidemic. I urge my fellow business and government leaders to pave the way. You have the capacity, resources and communication channels to make an immediate difference in the total health of Canadians. If we don't step up, the anxiety epidemic will persist and we will never reach our collective potential.

It's time to move forward, invest and share what works. It's time to lead.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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