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Exploring employees’ experience with mental health issues

This is part of a series examining the mental health experience in Canada's workplaces. Take part in our short survey (tgam.ca/mentalhealthsurvey) and add your voice to this important conversation. This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award, which honours companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Winners for 2017 will be announced at a conference in late spring. Sign up to receive an e-mail about registration for 2018 at www.employeerecommended.com.

What is the experience of the average working Canadian with a mental health issue?

The Mental Health Commission of Canada reported in Making the Case for Investing in Mental Health in Canada that one out of five working Canadians live with a mental illness each year.

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Let's put that into perspective. Statistics Canada reports that Canada's work force is just over 18 million people, which means that about 3.6 million working Canadians have or will experience some form of a mental health concern this year.

This number suggests that a lot of employees are struggling and that mental illness could have a negative impact on their ability to meet the demands and expectations of their employers. The cost for employers of ignoring mental illness is quickly becoming prohibitive, when you factor in the costs of turnover, preseenteeism (at work but unproductive), absenteeism (including short- and long-term disability and workers' compensation premiums), conflict, addictions, accidents, drug costs, low engagement levels and lost productivity.

In my current role, I wake up every day thinking about what I can do to influence and curb chronic disease in Canada. Mental health is one that I am especially interested in, perhaps because I have been providing mental health services for nearly 30 years. My doctoral training, professional designations, writing and research all focused on mental health. However, most likely the main reason I care deeply about this topic is that I have been living with a mental illness since my youth.

I understand the need to balance daily the fine line between feeling great and in control – and feeling lost and hopeless. I suspect that on most days I create the illusion that I'm doing fine. Due to my mother's commitment and support from many trusted peers, advisers and professionals, I have developed my coping skills to be able – on most days – to manage the demands of life and work.

As well, I have learned to move past stigma and I am totally comfortable talking to my employer, friends and clients about my mental health and what I need to be successful. I can say with conviction that all, including my employer, embrace me and help me play to my strengths.

My first national action to support people with mental health issues in the workplace was in partnership with The Globe and Mail, when we created the Your Life at Work survey and fostered a conversation about the importance of coping skills. To date, more than 14,000 employees have participated in that survey and are exploring how coping skills matter to their personal and working lives.

Who are the one and five Canadians with a mental health issue and what are their stories?

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This article introduces a new national initiative designed to provide coaching and collect information on what the one in five Canadians working with a mental health issue are experiencing, from asking for and getting help to how they perceive employer support.

Starting today, individuals with mental health issues, or those who have experienced mental health issues, are invited to add their voice by completing The Mental Health Experience in Canada's Workplaces: What's Your Experience? survey. The survey will be open until May 10.

Upon completion of the survey you will gain access to free e-books and links to support resources. You also will be invited to enter a draw for one of three enrolments to the Pathway to Coping course through University of New Brunswick, valued at $495.

We will publish results of the survey to assist individuals, government and organizations to gain insight on what is working well today in Canada's workplaces and what they may consider doing differently.

For the next several weeks, we will be promoting this survey with a series of articles aimed at supporting people who are experiencing mental health issues. We encourage you to share this survey and series on social media and with your organizations. We want to let as many of the 3.6 million employees as possible know about this initiative so they can add their voices and views.

Each article will be written as a coaching tool for anyone dealing with a mental health issue. They will follow the same format that I have been using in the micro-skills article series we have been publishing in support of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award:

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Awareness – Provides information and insights on the specific question being answered by the article.

Accountability – Frames and provides context on what is within the individual's control.

Action – Recommends a set of actions that can help a person find their own answers to the question being posed in the article.

I will be co-authoring this series with experts and advocates who are committed to help and support people dealing with a mental health issue, as well as organizations, to help employees find answers so they can live a quality and productive life, in and out of work.

These articles will be published each Wednesday, starting March 15. The first article will be co-authored by Louise Bradley, president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, who will discuss some of the differences between mental health and mental illness.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

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