Mental health in the workplace: what businesses can do

Mental health

The longevity of a business depends on a healthy workforce above all else. When 35% of workplace absences are due to issues related to mental health (defined as “a state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”[1]), it is essential for companies to be aware of this issue. On January 31, during Bell’s Let’s Talk Day fundraising event, a panel of leaders gathered to discuss this topic. Here is what you should take away from Hydro-Québec, National Bank and iA Financial Group’s experience and the expertise of the Centre de recherche de l'Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal (CR-IUSMM).

Six striking figures

  1. Between now and 2020, depression will be classified as the second-biggest cause of disability in the world behind cardiac disease.
  2. Half a million Canadian workers take sick leave each week.
  3. 35% of work absences are due to mental health issues.
  4. Only 30% of people with depression seek help, partly because of the stigmatization surrounding mental illness.
  5. Among those with mental health issues, 50% will relapse when they return to work.
  6. Mental health issues cost $51 billion per year, not only in medical bills, but also in loss of productivity for Canadian organizations.

Mental illness in the workplace has both monetary and human repercussions. Lack of self-esteem, loss of productivity, the domino effect on a team, etc. With regard to this situation, what power do businesses have to help counter this issue?

Three leads to act on

Businesses, whether startups, SMEs or large institutions, have three courses of action: education, prevention and reintegration for those who stopped working.


Though mental health at work is a less and less taboo topic, there is still more room to learn about it. “50% of people are afraid to talk about it,” said Éric Martel, President and CEO of Hydro-Québec. However, speaking freely about the subject will empower us to detect problems earlier and act accordingly. We need to inform everyone from employees to managers.

Know and prevent risk factors

Marc Corbière, researcher at the CR-IUSMM, pointed out the main risk factors, like a lack of boundaries between professional and family life because of a hyper-connected environment, a lack of control in how tasks are achieved, the need for recognition, and harassment or violence at work. Another factor could be any conflict with a superior or a colleague.

How can businesses prevent these risks?

  • Managers have an important role to play. They must be made aware of their responsibilities. How? By closely managing their teams to promote communication and sharing. For Hydro-Québec, the most important thing is to be on the floor. Louis Vachon, President and CEO of National Bank, also reminded us of two important basic principals: one, an employer should help prevent stress, not cause it; two, a good business environment always promotes collaboration instead of confrontation.
  • Beyond managerial responsibilities, surveys are an efficient tool for knowing your troops’ morale. The secret is to include precise questions (e.g.: is it difficult for you to complete your tasks?) and send them out regularly.
  • Finally, employees must be encouraged to use the support programs offered by their companies. Vachon added that, in his organization, they are particularly vigilant about any absences of more than four days.

Prepare for the return to work

How do you avoid a relapse? By combining several winning conditions. The employee must have the support of the company, which will then make the necessary arrangements for him or her to return to work as smoothly as possible. Make sure to smooth over any apprehensions the person may have about returning to his or her job, particularly when it comes to what is expected of them. Finally, the situation could require a follow-up by the organization or by the managers themselves.

Mental health issues at work affect many companies. Yet, as mentioned by Éric Martel, the economic foundation is built on our workforce. An organization’s prosperity depends on healthy workers. That is why it is so important for the business community to put in place preventative measures. This is even more necessary now, since Generation Y seems to be prone to anxiety issues, as noted by Yvon Charest.

[1] Mental Health, Portail santé mieux-être, Québec.

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