The Globe and Mail of Toronto is featuring an excellent series of articles on the stigma of mental illness as told through the personal stories of people who suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. The stories also include commentary and insights from family members. It’s a multimedia series, including videos, slides and text.
More than many other public health issues, mental illness is fraught with fear, guilt, and shame – often because there is a great deal of ignorance surrounding the topic. Family members who are caring for a loved one suffering from a mental health condition can feel particularly isolated and have difficulty knowing where to turn.
Employers are often in a position to be an ‘early warning system’ for mental health issues. Behavior changes can be more evident in a routine situation like a job. In one article in The Globe and Mail series, Bill Wilkerson, co-founder and CEO of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, answers reader questions about mental illness in the workplace. He makes an excellent case for why this should concern employers – one that we would like to share here:

Employers must care about the mental health of their employees for three reasons: one, health and productivity go hand-in hand – for employers, this is a matter of legitimate self-interest and huge costs to rein-in;

two, employers – through the climates they create in the workplace – can cause some of the risk factors which affect the well-being of people – chronic job stress, for example, can lead to burn-out and depression. Employers are increasingly being held accountable by courts and tribunals for their role in producing hazardous work climates so they need to protect themselves against these kinds of liabilities;

and three, a good employer is led by good people – by definition this is true – and most employers strive to be good employers. Which, in turn means, they can and must do the right thing by ensuring that human decency is part of their management credo. Without this, they will be hard-pressed to recruit and retain the best people and that goes to their competitive instincts as well.

I like to remind employers that when we hire someone we hire the whole person – vulnerabilities included. And if we didn’t do that, we would have to recruit people from another universe because all of us vulnerable to one kind of illness or health problem.

He continues on to offer suggestions for how employers should deal with employees who are out on leave for mental health issues and how such employees should be integrated back to the workplace in return to work programs – much in the same way that any other disability might be managed. Yet despite the cost implications for employers and the prospects of a positive outcome when treatment is provided, frequently, mental health problems in the workplace are often quietly ignored.
The new wellness frontier?
In recent years, corporate wellness programs have firmly taken root as employers recognize the cost and productivity benefits of helping employees to stay well. Nutrition and exercise programs are now fairly common, as are programs to help people control risky behaviors like smoking and overeating. But physical well being is only one part of the equation – as many as one in five American workers suffer some form of mental illness. Because of this, incorporating good mental health programs into an overall wellness program can be highly beneficial. This might take the form of training supervisors to have a greater awareness and understanding of common mental health problems such as stress, PTSD, and depression, as well as conducting educational and awareness outreach programs for employees. As with many health issues, awareness and identification of a potential problem is the first step in getting help. Many effective, cost-efficient and scientifically valid treatments exist. Contrary to many myths, most mental health issues respond favorably to the right treatment. Your EAP is a good resource for addressing any ongoing behavior or performance issues that may signify an underlying mental health problem.
Resources
Mental health in the workplace – from Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health Association)
Mental Illness and the workplace – from the Center for Reintegration

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