The stigma around mental illness remains a huge barrier to improving mental health in the workplace, a problem the Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates costs employers $20 billion a year.

Mental health problems account for one in three workplace disability claims, the commission says, contributing to absenteeism and lack of productivity as well as health costs. In any given week, 500,000 Canadians may miss work because of mental illness.

Different workplaces have different problems — high absenteeism among health-care workers, post-traumatic stress among first responders, substance-abuse problems among oil and gas workers — but almost 70 per cent of disability costs were related to psychological problems.

Canada broke new ground in creating a national standard for workplaces wanting to deal with mental health issues in 2013, but the hard work of turning it into a useful tool has only just begun

Mark Henick, a program manager with the Canadian Mental Health Association, works to overcome the stigma of mental illness.

The program he runs, Mental Health Works, attempts to train managers and co-workers to recognize mental health issues among their workers and colleagues and recommend treatment options in a respectful manner.

'It's their personal life'

There's plenty of resistance to the idea. Henick said it's important for everyone to realize there is no real divide between personal life and work life.

'Stress has been so ubiquitous in the marketplace for so long that it's often not brought up as a mental health issue, but of course it is.'  –Mark Henick, program manager, Mental Health Works

"Managers and supervisors will say, 'I'm not their personal therapist. I'm not going to interfere with their personal life,'" Henick said.

"When someone is dealing with depression, if they're dealing with divorce or a death in the family.… it will start trickling over into the workplace," he added.

A suicide can be devastating not just to family, but to colleagues who worked alongside the victim.

Canada Sportswear CEO Ralph Goldfinger knows the stigma well and attempts to address it among his own employees.

"The best preventive approach to mental health is to be observant. You have to create fairness in the workplace, you have to create an open door policy," he said. 

Goldfinger said he watches among his employees for signs of anyone who is troubled or under stress.

Small employer, big awareness

Goldfinger has a heightened awareness of mental illness because of his older brother Marvin, who had schizophrenia and died 15 years ago at the age of 53.

"Because of my unfortunate direct knowledge of mental illness, we engaged in family therapy as a whole family, and as a young boy I was introduced to all types of people with mental illness. It made me very aware of people who weren't well," he said.

Goldfinger is now CEO, working with his brother Howard, of the small family business his father founded in 1954, a maker of sports and outerwear that specializes in small custom lots.

The company health plan has benefits that recognize mental health needs, and employees are encouraged to become involved with charities supporting mental health causes.

National standard for mental health

Benefits that cover mental illness are among the steps recommended for employers in the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, developed two years ago by the Canadian Standards Association and the Mental Health Commission.

The 76-page document sets out goals for employers who want to help their employees stay psychologically healthy, such as:

  • Training managers to look for signs of stress or mental illness.
  • Growing a culture that promotes psychological health and safety.
  • Creating a safe environment to talk about problems.
  • Offering appropriate support and treatment.
  • Identifying stressors in the workplace itself.

The problem now is how to make it work in any given company, said Henick

"Especially employers who have never talked about mental health before, they don't know where to start," he said.

That's why the creation of the standard was followed by development of an implementation guide and then a case study highlighting some experiences of 49 employers who had worked with the standard in their own organizations.

There are indications from the case studies that the standard brings down the costs employers may face from mental health problems.

One employer noted a seven per cent decline in overall health-care costs and a decrease in days absent (from 10.66 to 6.55 days) in a four-year period.

What about stress?

The goal is to build a safe workplace, where people are willing to admit to conditions such as depression and get appropriate help.

And it's not just extreme health problems — one of the most common mental health problems is stress as people try to keep pace in workplaces facing constant change.

"Stress has been so ubiquitous in the marketplace for so long that it's often not brought up as a mental health issue, but of course it is," Henick said.

Henick said he tries to educate the employer that people who go to rehab and are out of service for a while are worth waiting for.

"We've noticed that when they come out the other side, they are a more productive person because they have learned so many skills that most of us never have — they've learned how to cope," he said.