Mental health: Is this the missing link in your Disability Management strategy?
An interview with Paula Allen, Vice President, Morneau Shepell
We recently sat down with Paula Allen, Vice-President of Research and Integrative Solutions, to discuss her upcoming study exploring connections between mental health and workplace disability in Canada.
Q: What was the context – or scope – of your research?
We know mental health is a major issue for employers that affects workforce productivity and cost. From a disability point of view, it is the top driver for a primary diagnosis – one of the main reasons people are off work. Even people who are off work for a physical disability, the state of their mental health is quite often the determining factor in how quickly they can return to work.
If there is one guiding rationale for our work, it’s that mental health is an area of huge opportunity where there is so much we still need to learn if we’re serious about helping people cope with the pressures of the workplace today while making our organizations and businesses as productive as possible.
Q: What was the approach or methodology?
This was the second year we have undertaken a nation-wide blind survey featuring interviews with employers and employees across a range of industries, and physicians, too, who are important players in the process.
We’re reasonably comfortable with the idea that it is representative of what’s happening in the Canadian workplace. Above all, we really wanted perspectives from the people who are the most affected: employees. It’s an underrepresented area, we feel, in the existing research. And that is particularly so given how demographics is changing the workforce.
Q: What do you mean specifically by demographics?
Let's start with the fact of a heterogeneous workforce today – its increasing diversity! We can’t assume that one size fit all in any area of employee health strategy.
What can also be said is that younger people in particular – for example, Millennials – the future of the workforce, are actually the largest portion of the working population and that too will increase. They represent a unique challenge given that they are far more likely than older employee to go on disability leave for mental health reasons. So while it is always important to deal with the here-and-now issues, it is equally important to plan for what we know is coming. When people have certain health risks at the start of their career, history shows that without intervention, those risks amplify over time.
Q: Broadly speaking, what are the findings in your research?
First, we found there are more mental health issues in the workplace than ever. Most employers understand that. Some people talk about the 1-in 5 ratio – i.e., one in five workers will be diagnosed with a mental illness. What some may not fully understand is that this refers to 12 months prevalence, what happens in the period of a year. When you look at the prevalence for working Canadians it is 1-in-3 Canadians who currently have or had a mental health diagnosis.
Second, many who have no formal diagnoses are now also exhibiting significant stress symptoms that interfere with their ability to work, almost as much as those diagnosed with a mental health disorder do. It’s important to understand that if you have a workplace environment that exacerbates stress, then these conditions will impact or hurt productivity negatively and unnecessarily. Related to that, we found that mental health and stress were highly correlated with employee engagement levels and chronic health issues. Stress hurts everything!
As I alluded to earlier, our younger demographic is the most hurt by stress. And this adds to another body of research that suggests there is an increase in likelihood that younger employees will go on disability leave for mental health issues than others have in the past. Here, the health risk factors are not necessarily diagnosed conditions, but general factors around lifestyle, attitude and the coping skills of this generation that put them more at risk.
Finally, we found that employees who are on mental health disability leave were more likely to say that their employer could have done something to prevent the leave. So that’s a pretty big deal. It seems for some people there is a pretty delicate balance – a tipping point -- between going off work or staying there. A moment where there is an opportunity for the employer to play a role. If you buy that, it means there’s a huge opportunity for change in helping people and your organization at the same time.
Q: What surprised you – if anything – about the data?
The notion that I mentioned – which, of course, needs much more investigation -- that employees believe that employers can play a role in reducing the incidence of employees who go on mental health disability leave. Employee respondents indicated that things like bad communication, harassment, conflict were factors in them going on disability leave
Another thing that was not a surprise as much as a validation, is that people were quite clear is the fact that many are really struggling with getting the right diagnoses, adjusting to medication, all of those things. This is not something employers can deal with directly but work with their disability management provider on how to help people navigate the health care system with less frustration and toward better outcomes.
Q: How best can the insights from your research be applied to helping organizations with their workplace mental health strategies?
I think it begins with asking hard questions with respect to the findings and what they means for your organization. More than anything else, the opportunity is to listen to your people within and across all the platforms for communication you have. Because the more you know about your people, the better prepared you will be to ensure that mental health is positively factored into your disability management strategy.
Lastly, I would say that the campaign to de-stigmatize mental illness needs to escalate. One of the barriers of people returning to work is that they’re afraid of how they’ll be perceived. If you stigmatize those with a mental health issue, you will lose people pretty quickly because they don’t want to be labeled. It’s a problem that costs the employer money and causes suffering for the employee. Anti-stigma campaigns aren’t just a nice-to-have, they have a clear economic impact. And if you relate that back to the growing proportion of people with mental health issues, you can understand how much an impact this has today – and will have – tomorrow.
More by Paula Allen: A True Picture of Workplace Absenteeism (2015). Report argues that Canadian employers can reduce absenteeism, lost productivity, and significant costs by understanding the causes of absenteeism and adopting strategies to address them.