A three-year study beginning this month will help determine best practices for dealing with mental health issues in workplace.

A group of 25 Canadian companies and public sector organizations, including Bell Canada and Great West Life, have agreed to implement the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in their workplaces.

The standard was developed last year by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) in an attempt to address the estimated $51 billion annual impact of mental illness on workplaces.

“This is the single biggest growing cost to businesses — absenteeism, disability claims and never mind the toll on the individual and their families,” says Louise Bradley, president of the MHCC.

The study, to be performed over three years, will help determine how big an effect businesses will see from adopting the standard, either through lowering absenteeism or averting personal tragedy.

Healthy workplaces the goal

The standard is a document that outlines a systematic approach to develop and sustain a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. The document itself is relatively short, but it has multiple appendices describing ways it might be put into practice, Bradley said in an interview with CBC's The Lang & O'Leary Exchange

For many companies, adopting the standard will not involve significant differences from personnel policies they already have in place, Bradley said. For others, it will involve training people to recognize the signs of mental health issues and ways to accommodate them.

“It’s not a list of checkboxes. It’s more of a process that will have to be followed in order to address the impact of people with mental health problems in the workplace,” she said.

She estimates half a million Canadians call in sick every day with mental health issues, including depression and substance abuse.

“Our belief is that mentally healthy workplaces will help the individual person, but there’s also a strong economic argument for taking this on,” Bradley said.

'Presenteeism' a problem

One of the main impacts of mental illness on employers as “presenteeism,” which Bradley describes as people coming to work and producing far less than they could otherwise.

“Because of our economic climate right now people are afraid if they don’t show up, they will be stigmatized and they may lose their jobs, so they show up and they aren’t able to work as productively as they would like. I don’t think we know the whole toll of that,” Bradley said.