Mental health issues affect more than 1.5 million workers in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas, according to a new study from CivicAction.

"The numbers are staggering," CivicAction CEO Sevaun Palvetzian told Metro Morning host Matt Galloway on Monday. 

Palvetzian said CivicAction's estimate represents one in two workers in the area, "meaning everyone is one degree [of] separation from someone who has suffered or is suffering."

Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, substance use, and bipolar disorder could cost the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas nearly $17 billion in lost productivity over the coming decade, according to CivicAction.

Certain aspects of life in the Toronto and Hamilton areas could be contributing to the problem, said Palvetzian. Stresses like high transportation times, costly child care, expensive housing, and precarious work may all play a role.

"None of these issues in and of themselves necessarily lead to mental health issues, but they certainly do trigger problems that may," said Palvetzian.

Employees can make a difference

CivicAction is calling for more support for workers' mental health needs, but Palvetzian believes individual employees can make a difference on their own by paying attention to their colleagues.

​Evan Luke, a student at Centennial College and a member of CivicAction's Mental Health in the Workplace Champions Council, described how he helped a friend whose personality had changed as he fought depression.

"You don't have to have the answer to their problems, but you do have to be there for them and be willing to help them through it and find coping mechanisms," said Luke on Metro Morning.

Evan Luke

Evan Luke, a student at Centennial College, described how he helped a friend who was struggling with depression. (CBC News)

That kind of help from friends and colleagues can be "an untapped frontier" of support, said Palvetzian.

"When you think about how many hours you spend with your colleagues, you notice when a change happens," she said.

The business case for addressing mental health

CivicAction argues in favour of a business case for addressing mental health concerns, although Palvetzian said not all employers understand that. According to Palvetzian, employers should promote "champions'" who can speak out about their personal experiences with mental health, and ensure that managers are properly trained.

"We know … that when managers are trained in mental health-related matters, the short-term disability claims drop by 20 per cent," said Palvetzian.

CivicAction's survey was conducted last October by Morneau Shepell, and polled 1,023 workers, 100 employers, and 100 working physicians across Canada.

Of the 3.2 million workers in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, the survey estimated that 680,000 have a current mental health issue, and 995,000 had one previously. Among the workers surveyed, 82 per cent of those who reported mental health issues said it impacts their work.

The survey highlights that the stigma of discussing mental health in the workplace can act as a barrier to finding solutions. One in five employees surveyed believed, incorrectly, that people can control whether or not they become mentally ill.

Within the workplace, 60 per cent of employees surveyed said emotional and interpersonal issues, such as workplace culture, were the top contributor to stress. Employees aged 18 to 34 reported the highest rates of workplace stress overall.