About 44 per cent Canadians say they've coped with a mental health problem such as extreme stress, depression, substance abuse or schizophrenia, according to a survey that suggests employees aren't the only ones paying the price.

The report, Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces, was released by the Conference Board of Canada on Monday based on a national survey of more than 1,000 employees —  including almost 500 front-line managers, with followup interviews for some.

"When it comes to mental health, misinformation, fear and prejudice remain far too prevalent," the report reads. "It is time for a change."

Definition of Mental Health

The report broadly defined mental health issues to include: excessive stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, addictions and substance abuse, and mania, bipolar, and schizophrenia disorders, among others.

In Winnipeg, David Albert Newman was diagnosed with schizophrenia six years ago. In 2003, Newman lost his job as an accountant, which he blames on his mental illness and the company's refusal to see anything but the bottom line.

"The attitude was, 'We'll, just shove you out the door,'" Newman recalled.

But the economic identity and social inclusion that comes from a job "is astronomical to your recovery," said Newman, a full-time internal auditor for the Manitoba government.

Medication and therapy are helping Newman to manage his disease as he works on his master's thesis in his spare time.

In the survey, 12 per cent of respondents said they were currently experiencing a mental health issue and another 32 per cent said they'd faced one in the past.

For stress, it had to interfere with an employee's personal life or work life to count as a mental health issue, rather than simply stress of a deadline, said report Karla Thorpe.

Manager skill gap

The report also pointed to a disconnect between employees and managers on the degree to which managers feel equipped to help workers that experience a mental health issue, and what employees say they see.


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"One of the things we did find is that managers are actually very confident in their skills and abilities to help employees [who] experience a mental health issue, and they also say they're very comfortable with having conversations with their staff about mental health issues," said Thorpe.

"When we spoke to employees themselves they definitely do not agree. Most of them said their managers were not knowledgeable about mental health."

Almost half of all managers, 44 per cent, had no training in managing workers with mental health issues.

Similarly, four-fifths of executives felt their companies promote mentally healthy work environments, yet just 30 per cent of employees felt the same way.

Stigma is also a barrier for managers who may fear legal ramifications and invading privacy, said Mary Deacon, chair of Bell Canada's mental health program.

Bell's workplace mental health program applies to about 4,000 people who manage others at the company.

"It really is a bottom line issue," Deacon said. "Five hundred thousand people are off work every day as a result of mental illness, and mental illness costs the Canadian economy $51 billion a year," said Deacon, who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and has two brothers who committed suicide.  

The report also found that employees feared that disclosing their mental health issue would jeopardize their success.

To make improvements, the Conference Board suggests:

  • Changing corporate culture to encourage senior managers to openly discuss the importance of mental health.
  • Improving how comfortable employees feel disclosing a mental health issue to a union representative by reducing fear, stigma and discrimination in the workplace. 
  • Providing managers the tools and training needed to support employees.

The report was funded by Bell, Manulife Financial, Morneau Shepell, Canada Post and TD Bank Group.

With files from CBC's Melanie Glanz, Leslie McLaren and Canadian Press