Battling an ‘invisible’ foe of mental illness in the office

How do you battle an illness that is almost invisible to most people?

When it’s mental health, there also follows with it a stigma that makes dealing with its effects even more complicated. And when it comes to the impact it has on the workplace, statistics show it’s costing Canadian businesses billions in lost productivity.

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Those are some of the topics the Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s Company of Young Professionals team sought to  call attention to when they combined their talents to enter a recent Greater Vancouver Board of Trade video competition addressing mental illness in the workplace.

What they came up with was a storyline of a seemingly idyllic work setting that on the soundtrack is full of bright and optimistic chatter about the workplace and accomplishments. Meanwhile, the reality, played out in the video images, shows the anxiety-ridden existence one employee endures when work responsibilities and expectations collide with a mental illness and result in chronic absenteeism, decreased job satisfaction and performance.

“The idea was a dichotomy of a promotional video, using the sort of jargon and language that is juxtaposed with the reality of this employee’s situation where she’s actually struggling with mental illness,” said Shaena Furlong, the chamber’s manager of communications and systems who was part of the team producing the video.

The video shows the isolation the worker feels as she struggles to meet her work-based goals in an environment that, on the surface, promotes the ideal of collegiality, but in truth offers little in the way of useful support for her situation.

“Everyone in her office seems to be disaffected and you feel there’s a silo mentality,” Furlong said. “That’s exactly what we wanted to show.”

Other members of the group that met in their spare time on weekends to produce the short clip included: Desy Cheng, founder and CEO of Paper Crane Creative; Dmitry Fradkin, a project coordinator with Stuart Olson; Courtney Haddix, a sales manager with Tourism Richmond; Maggie Lukban, a  community programmer with Richmond Public Library; Jackie Lu-Shao,a  sales development representative at ACL; Jaclyn St.Pierre, a marketing specialist at Trail Appliances; and Daryll Sy, a small business advisor at Scotiabank’s Richmond Financial Centre.

Pleased with the results of the video production was Matt Pitcairn, the chamber’s executive director, who said it helps shine a light on a matter that is likely more commonplace than most people realize.

“They put together a moving and powerful video that highlights a very significant issue, not only in the workplace but across society,” he said. “And it’s an issue that’s often not talked about.

“An effort like this is great at getting people to talk about mental health in the workplace and hopefully encouraging workplaces to do more to look after the mental health of their employees.”

One significant inducement for employers to take action is the amount mental illnesses are affecting their bottom lines.

According to HeretoHelp, a project of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information, the economic price tag of mental illness in the workplace is skyrocketing. Its website states that a recent report puts the price at $51 billion, an annual figure that includes medical costs, costs from lost productivity due to long-term and short-term disability, and costs to quality of life.

HeretoHelp also claims that mental illnesses have surpassed heart disease as the fastest-growing, costliest disabilities in the country.

“Nearly half of the sick days workers take are because of mental illnesses like depression,” the website states. “When mental illness accompanies another disability such as a physical disability, the length of time off from work increases two to three times. For example, a worker who takes one month off work for a back injury may end up being away for two to three months if the back pain is accompanied by depression.”

And when statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association indicate that 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime, the issue has the potential to have widespread impact.

But early intervention can help, states HeretoHelp. And that’s where proactive employers can play a role that not only helps their employees, but the overall financial picture of their business.

“For example, when workers get early access to treatment, companies can save $5,000 to $10,000 per worker each year,” states HeretoHelp. “They save in the cost of prescription drugs, sick leave and average wage replacement. Workers who are diagnosed with depression and who take the prescribed medication save employers an average of 11 absentee days per year.”

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