Op-Ed: Municipalities Should Pay Attention to Workplace Mental Health

By Camille Quenneville, Ottawa Citizen August 16, 2013

Next week, municipal politicians and administrative staff from across the province are gathering in Ottawa for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) annual conference.

We know that every level of government is desperate to contain costs and provide better service. With aging infrastructure across the country, and ratepayers showing little tolerance for increased property taxes, municipalities are under considerable pressure.

Not surprisingly, the AMO gathering will examine issues commonly discussed among all politicians: lowering costs, finding savings and providing good service.

These elected officials need to look no further than their workforce to find solutions to all these matters.

How can municipalities save costs without reducing staff and also improve service? Simply put, by addressing the mental health needs of their considerable workforce.

Consider these statistics from the Mental Health Commission of Canada:

Every day, 500,000 people in this country are absent from the workplace because of mental health problems.

Someone suffering a mental illness will be absent from work on average twice as long as someone with any other disability.

Mental health illnesses account for approximately 30 per cent of short- and long-term disability claims and 17 per cent of overall costs.

In 2011, lost productivity in Canada due to mental health illnesses was estimated at more than $6 billion.

The numbers are clear, the case compelling, the solution obvious. So where do municipalities start if they want to improve the mental health of their employees?

The first steps toward a psychologically positive workplace are raising awareness, reducing stigma and seeking the appropriate training.

Many municipalities have taken concrete measures on this front. From Ottawa to Waterloo, Hamilton to Timmins, cities and towns are educating staff about mental illness and how to speak openly and freely about mental health at work.

The Region of Peel, a community of 1.3 million people west of Toronto, is one example of a municipality taking mental health in the workplace seriously.

With a staff of more than 5,000 people, the municipality already has a robust and active wellness program that helps employees with various aspects of personal health. But that program is taking on a new focus and mental health is the identified priority.

More than 500 supervisors have undergone training with an aim to increase awareness of mental health issues and create an atmosphere which can foster a stigma-free work environment.

The goal is to have all staff possess some knowledge of mental health issues and equip them with training that enables them to create applicable workplace solutions.

Training includes identifying what is mental health versus mental illness, its prevalence and impact; encouragement to question assumptions about mental health; and learning what one can say or do to help support mental well-being in the workplace.

These measures help. Corporations that focus on mental health in the workplace report higher productivity, increased morale, decreased absenteeism, lower health care costs and less employee turnover.

Overseas, in-depth study about the financial benefits of combating mental health at work is encouraging.

In the United Kingdom, early identification, management and prevention measures related to mental health have been estimated to produce annual savings of nearly $400,000 for an organization of 1,000 employees with mental health costs of $1.3 million.

It’s also been noted that for every employee who gets access to treatment for depression, for example, the employer will save between $5,000 and $10,000 per year in the cost of prescription drugs, sick leave, and average wage replacement.

In spite of the evidence, the risk is that employers in large sectors will continue along the current trajectory of not sufficiently addressing mental health at work. The cost of that approach could be crippling.

The Canadian Institute for Health Research tells us that within two decades, the leading cause of disability is anticipated to be mental health and that the total cost to society could be greater than the entire cost of the health care system in Canada.

Mental health initiatives, whether to enhance the bottom line or not, must start somewhere. Ontario’s municipalities have an opportunity to be a leader in the cause of psychologically healthy workplaces.

Stepping up, reducing stigma and addressing mental health in the municipal workforce will be for the benefit of taxpayers, the general public and, most particularly, those who are struggling within their organizations.

Camille Quenneville is the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario.

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