The general principle is that, if employees are the backbone of your company, healthy employees can mean better business success—but how can employers know when the supports they are offering are providing the desired benefits or when they are being abused?
According to O’Ryan Hughes, M.B.A., managing partner, Stoppler Hughes Ltd., that dilemma doesn’t involve looking at the employee as much as the workplace.
“It’s not uncommon for a strong or healthy organization to not see abuse at all,” Hughes explains. “Often, when companies have employees that are abusing the rules, it’s because there are underlying issues. Employers shouldn’t have to be policing policy. The culture of leadership should allow that to look after itself. Abuse of days off is a symptom of a problem that won’t be fixed by increasing rules. It’s resolved by creating a forward-looking culture and an environment where you can have an open dialog with understanding of who your employees are and the external factors that influence their mental health, rather than just viewing them as a number. Taking a more human-centric approach to HR can often prevent those underlying issues.”
He continues, “The most effective approach is to try to foster an environment where employees can be open to talking about issues they are having. If they are scared to talk, it doesn’t matter what team building you do, it’s not really getting at the source of the problem. Being aware and compassionate of what’s going on outside of work and being open about yourself as leader can help.”
However, Hughes is also quick to caution employers not to take on too much. “A lot can fall on employers when they are trying to help out team members, but it’s important to remember that most business and HR people are not mental health professionals. The best thing to do is to encourage employees to access resources (i.e. through benefits programs or health spending accounts) and make it as easy as possible for your employees to access the information they need.”
Considering the number of employees who are in need of support, Dr. Cory Hrushka, CCS, DST, NCPC, NCCE, CEO and senior psychologist; and Dr. Hendriatta Wong, DBA, MBA, CPHR and managing partner at Insight Psychological offer some information: “According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, over 21 per cent of the working population in Canada currently experience mental health problems and illnesses, which can affect their productivity. Mental health problems and illnesses, which account for approximately 30 per cent of short and long-term disability claims, have been rated by 80 per cent of Canadian employers as one of their top three drivers of disability claims.”
“In spite of such data for mental health absences and claims,” continue Hrushka and Wong, “there is, in fact, no sufficient evidence thus far to indicate that there is any system abuse. On the contrary, there is an indication that presenteeism, which has been defined as time spent at the workplace while not productively engaged due to mental health and other medical conditions, equates to 7.5 times the number of days absent, thus possibly costing Canadian businesses over $25 billion per year.”
Hrushka and Wong add, “A 2017 Sun Life Financial national survey on mental health found that while nearly half of all Canadians (49 per cent) have experienced a mental health issue that has impacted their lives, only 28 per cent of working Canadians living with a mental health issue have spoken to their employer about it. A 2014 study by Morneau Shepell involving over 1,000 employees across different industries found that over 80 per cent of respondents have gone into work when they were not able to perform as well as they would have liked.
“Hence, the bigger concern is not with system abuse but rather with the higher likelihood that many employees with mental health issues are not getting the help they may need and are coming to work even when their performance is impaired, the quality of their work is rapidly declining, or they are making more mistakes and missing more deadlines.”
A picture of the return on investment that supporting employee mental health creates is becoming clearer.
“A study led by World Health Organization,” Hrushka and Wong inform, “estimated that, for every USD $1 put into scaled up intervention and support for common mental issues, there is a return of USD $4 in improved health and productivity. A critical meta-analysis of the literature completed by Health Affairs on costs and savings associated with employee wellness programs also concluded that ‘medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on [appropriate] wellness programs, and absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent.’ At present, the urgency is less on system abuse mitigation and more on destigmatizing mental health conditions and ensuring that mental health support is readily available for those that are in need or may be at risk.”
It’s also important to point out that what looks like abuse of the system can also stem from an employer failing to recognize the signs of an employee’s distress.
According to Kim Silverthorn, BA, RPC, MPCC, and a therapist with Tacit Knowledge, there are some general rules you can follow when it comes to identifying an employee who might need help.
“A regular life issue becomes a mental health problem when it starts to have a negative impact on a person’s ability to function—cognitively, behaviourally, emotionally and socially—on a daily basis,” Silverthorn explains. “The best way to know if an employee is starting to develop a mental health problem is if the rest of the team has a positive connection with that employee in a previous context. This allows a supervisor or a manager to see negative changes developing before they become a full-blown concern.”
Indicative changes, says Silverthorn, can be seen in “eating or sleeping patterns, unkempt hygiene or appearance, or shifts in personality (more angry or negative than usual, short tempered, low patience, lack of energy or motivation) and behaviour (being less ethical, becoming more rigid, unable to complete expected tasks).” Further, “if an employee is taking frequent days off, leaving early or arriving late, taking extra long breaks or disappearing at times, etc., it is often a sign of a bigger issue.”
Silverthorn continues, “When employees are happy, well adjusted, and feeling appreciated at work, they tend to give back equally – they go beyond the basic expectations, they work harder, they have a better attitude. When a worker is struggling emotionally or mentally in some way, they often feel embarrassed or unsupported, and they tend to isolate themselves. They pull away from the team, they avoid situations in which their issues might be noticed and work itself becomes a drain on their already overwhelmed and overtaxed self.”
That’s where mental health days come into play, says Silverthorn, who explains that they are a lot more than a preventative treatment strategy. “Mental health days are essential for an employee’s wellness. They allow the worker to take a short break from or to focus on issues outside of the workplace that might be causing distress before those issues become problems.” However, “Mental health days also show staff that they are trusted and cared for, that their autonomy is respected and honoured, and that they are considered capable and valued.”
Time off doesn’t have to be the only answer (nor should it be, since, as both Hughes and Hrushka note, the benefits of taking time off before returning into the same condition are limited). There are things employers can do within the workplace that can help create a more supportive environment, too. Silverthorn lists things like promoting healthy breaks, keeping healthy and favourite food and drinks in the lunchroom, having relaxation stations, allowing flexible work hours, providing free lunchtime health activities like yoga, organizing office events like laser tag and cooking classes, and even normalizing recognition moments like employee high fives.
“When we talk about workplace wellness,” Silverthorn notes, “we can no longer just evaluate physical health. Human beings are wholistic creatures – our physical, emotional, mental and social health are all interconnected.”
Within that interconnectedness lies the answer. Something as simple as asking an employee what is happening and expressing a desire to understand and help can make all the difference.
“It is through connection that we can truly be a support to someone who is dealing with any kind of mental health issue,” Silverthorn concludes.