In my last post, I focused mainly on the physical side of well-being. It is true that we all need to move more for our health, but well-being is a balance of many things, not just physical activity. To truly thrive, humans need to be fit both physically and mentally. Studies have shown that physical activity supports mental well-being, but for some, it is not the only answer. Employees with mental illness need more. They need employers who will walk-the-walk in providing programs and work arrangements that support them to good health.
In 2013, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) launched the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (Standard). This was designed as a voluntary code for employers to address statistics such as:
- 500,000 Canadians per week miss work due to mental illness;
- 1 in 3 workplace disabilities is due to mental illness; and
- 70% of disability costs are due to mental illness
The idea behind the Standard is to provide employers with “a set of guidelines, tools and resources focused on promoting employees’ psychological health and preventing psychological harm due to workplace factors”. Implementing the Standard is an admirable, long-term goal, but some employees need help now. Should supporting workers with mental health issues be difficult? Should it be any different than supporting workers with physical illness? Of course the answer is “no”; however, mental illness still carries a stigma that most physical illnesses do not. As a society, we have come a long way in removing the stigma. Thanks to more discussion about mental illness, some of the mystery has been removed. Some celebrities have made their illnesses part of the public consciousness and the Bell Canada annual Let’s Talk campaign has focused on removing the stigma of mental health.
In support of mental health, many employers offer employees and their families Employee Assistance Programs. These are relatively affordable programs, typically costing $3.00-$5.00 per month. They provide a wide range of services, including, but not limited to, counselling for mental health issues. The utilization of these plans remains surprisingly low. According to the Canadian Institute of Health Research, 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer some form of mental illness in their life. That is 20% of the population, but, at the same time, utilization of EAPs hovers around the 6% mark. Why is the utilization so low?
Over the course of my career, I have noted that the utilization of EAPs largely reflects the demographics of a group. While this is a sweeping generalization, male dominated populations access the support of EAP less than female populations and groups who work at desks access more often than groups who work on assembly lines. While these patterns fit stereotypes, they also support a couple of hard facts. Men ignore health problems more often than women and communication of benefit plans is easier when people sit at a computer all day. While this offers some explanation, it does not support continuation of these patterns. EAP providers are standing by right now waiting for you to call and ask for manager training. They will train managers to better identify employees who are vulnerable or already struggling with mental illness. They will train managers to better guide these individuals to seek help and they will train managers to assist these employees in returning to work. This training will help reduce stigma in workplace and make your workplace a better place to be for all employees; those suffering in silence and those who are may be vulnerable in the future.
Another excellent way to remove the stigma attached to seeking help from the EAP is to remind employees of all the other services the EAP offers. Financial stress may go along with mental illness, but it can also stand on its own. As employees face different challenges in their lives, the financial planning provided through most EAPs can support decisions such as determining how much to spend on a house or how to save for retirement or a child’s education. The legal services could help employees make wills. Some EAPs provide career guidance. Some provide nutrition advice. These are all services that employees can access without concerns about the lingering stigma of mental health and one satisfied employee will lead to others, removing concerns about accessing the EAP.
But how do employees learn about the robust offering of the EAP? As I mentioned above, communication is easier when employees work at a computer all day. Homepages and emails can easily direct employees to websites. Communication is a bigger challenge for employees who don’t work at desks. Employees who work on assembly lines or who drive for a living can be very difficult to reach. In our new reality of remote workers it can also be more challenging to get the word out about benefits like your EAP. A communication strategy is key to getting any message out. Ask your employees how they want to get information and design a communication strategy to support their response. The way of the future communication is undoubtedly electronic. And the majority of adult Canadians now own smart phones that they use every day. Perhaps a tweet will replace a poster and a website will replace an employee meeting. The important thing is to let employees know what is available to them in a way they can easily access, especially when they are already struggling with mental illness.
Next week, I will be speaking at The Conference Board of Canada’s Workplace Mental Health 2016. There will be a lot of better-informed speakers than myself. I hope that together we can make the workplace better for our colleagues who suffer from mental illness.
We have a discount code for registration if you would like to join us at the conference and learn more about walking-the-walk for employees with mental illness. Contact Carly Telpner for details.
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