In the workplace, it’s a forbidden topic, and some believe best kept in the closet.
But this month, a few brave businesses are encouraging their employees talk about a most pressing issue – mental illness.
Code-named the Copernicus Project, employees hope to focus a bright light on stress and its correlation to mental health issues such as depression.
“I think it’s a serious issue that we as a society and we as the business community are ignoring at our peril,” says Bill Gaudette, director of community affairs for the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Calgary region.
The significance of mental health issues has burgeoned in the past decade.
|Business Edge photo illustration|
|Almost one-third of all workplace disability claims are related to depression and stress, a significant jump over last 10 years.|
A Health Canada study four years ago concluded that stress and depression costs the Canadian economy a minimum of $14.4 billion every year – just slightly less than cancer-related costs.
“We know historically that one in five Canadians will suffer a mental illness in their lifetime,” says Gaudette.
“Yet, there is no comparison of the resources that society spends on cancer treatment compared to mental illness.”
But times may be changing, if only slowly. CMHA’s Jill Armstrong will co-ordinate the Copernicus Project and has spent the past 18 months talking to more than 100 Calgary business people and researching literature around the world.
The project will bring together small groups of employees to work through seven different modules over an extended period of time. One pilot project began late last year, three others begin this month, and two others are waiting in the wings.
In some cases, companies already desperate for help are swinging their doors open to the CMHA – a scenario Armstrong wouldn’t have expected in the mid-1990s.
“In one of our pilot cases, virtually everyone in the company will take part,” she says. “It’s a small group of about 20 people but they are suffering from so much stress they are looking for anything that will help.”
In today’s workplace, approximately one-third of all disability claims are related to depression and stress. A Health Canada study last year of more than 31,000 workers showed that about 30 per cent of workers had symptoms of depression, a significant jump in the past decade.
Yet the topic receives lip service at best from much of corporate Canada, and even companies that have programs in place find they are often under-used.
The stigma around mental illness is hard to shake, says Gaudette. For men, especially at senior management levels, admitting that you have a mental health problem is the kiss of death.
Even if a person receives treatment, he or she is forever considered fragile and unreliable. Research shows that these people have a difficult time returning to work, where past achievements are often dismissed and whispers abound as to when and if they will break down again.
Gaudette explains that there is a distinction to be made between stress and depression. Stress is a catch-all phrase that we all use, whether we’re teenagers in high school or busy working parents.
Stress, when it gets serious enough, can trigger depression/anxiety disorders, as can genetic and biochemical factors.
Depression manifests itself in sleeping disorders, a lack of interest in daily life, overwhelming sadness, fatigue, and in severe cases, thoughts of suicide and death.
“Another word for depression is burn-out,” adds Armstrong. “The symptoms of burn-out and depression are much the same. Burn-out is a slightly more acceptable term.”
She says that a common denominator found in her research shows that people truly want to do a good job. Stress builds when they can’t do the job, when it’s virtually impossible to complete a task.
While companies are slashing budgets, and pretending that they’ll be just as efficient, Armstrong says it’s just not the case.
“There’s an illusion out there that we can do more with less, but companies are only kidding themselves. They get less, with less.”
Armstrong also points out that while many organizations are implementing health and wellness programs, they aren’t attacking the root cause of stress and depression.
Companies are providing tools that teach people to become fitter, to relax, and eat more nutritious food. But she adds all the “relaxation techniques and broccoli” in the world won’t help if the stressor isn’t eliminated.
People who are given workloads that exceed the time they can physically work begin to suffer. But in many environments it’s just not safe to complain, or to reveal that the workload is causing stress.
Complainers are red-flagged as whiners or slackers, yet prudent organizations would be smart to understand that this is the time to intervene.
Armstrong explains that in today’s environment, most problems are dealt with when the employee crashes and burns. At this point, instead of having intervened on a timely basis, the employee requires a costly leave of absence and medical treatment.
Later, if the employee returns to work, he is often subjected to resentment from fellow employees who hold the attitude: “Hey, I deal with stress too, but I didn’t take four months off.”
Little do they realize they could be the next casualty, whether they are a front-line worker or the CEO. In fact, the CMHA says that in many cases the CEO or a senior manager is at risk, or is a big problem in an organization.
“We get calls to come in and fix the employees, and then find it’s the executive who is the real problem,” says Armstrong.
A senior-level executive stressed to the point of burnout, or suffering from bipolar disorder, can create a highly toxic atmosphere. But in the business world there’s a feeling this doesn’t happen to senior executives.
“In reality, in a lot of situations, it’s a senior-level executive with big mental-health problems who is causing a lot of grief for 20 or 30 employees.”
Often the employer doesn’t want to accept that they have a problem, or even recognize that one exists. That’s why dialogue is important, and the reason that the Copernicus Project is under way.
Armstrong says that until organizations – both management and employees – take a collaborative approach to understanding the problem, little will be solved.
“We (the CMHA) are not saying we have the answers, but with dialogue, people can begin to think about the issue from another perspective.”
Armstrong named the project after Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus who, in 1543, presented the notion that the Earth spun on its axis, orbiting the sun on an annual basis. It debunked the belief that the sun and other planets orbited the Earth and became a cornerstone in the development of modern science.
“It was a fundamental shift in how we think,” says Armstrong.
It’s the same reversal we need in talking about mental illness.
Web watch: www.cmha.ca