Even before the pandemic, employee mental health was a concern. The pandemic made a serious problem even worse, and mental health is now top of mind for the business leaders I speak to across the Edmonton region.
The costs are staggering. In 2016, the Mental Health Commission of Canada estimated that psychological health problems or illnesses cost the Canadian economy $51 billion annually. One in five Canadians experienced these issues.
Solutions and investments are needed right now — because the stakes are high. But so are the opportunities.
Investing in the mental wellbeing of employees has always made business sense, says Andrew Greenshaw. He’s a University of Alberta professor of psychiatry and scientific director of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Digital Hub for Best Practices in Mental Health. In fact, every $1 spent on employee mental health nets $4 in regained health and productivity, according to the World Health Organization.
But, Greenshaw says: “There’s a bigger opportunity now, because we’ve been pushed over the digital divide.” Your employees are probably more willing to accept mental health support, like counselling, over phone and video than they were before the pandemic. Digital tools are more cost-effective, which means that investing in mental health support for your employees makes more business sense than ever before.
Digital tools can also help you assess, and even anticipate, mental health concerns in your workplace — whether employees are in the office or not.
At the U of A, researchers are making remarkable strides in leveraging digital tools to assess and address mental health issues. By analyzing social media data and the kind of language people use, researchers are better able to identify opportunities for intervention and support. But, even without AI, we can still check in on our employees.
“Closely monitoring upticks in the use of benefits like our employee assistance program and long-term disability allows us to ensure resources are in place,” says Melissa Murphy. As the U of A’s director of talent management, Murphy spearheaded the university’s work-from-home program. Early intervention is key, and helps reduce absenteeism, she says. “Which is why we’ve developed tools for managers to increase conversations around mental health with their employees.”
I witnessed the power of such conversations firsthand when a colleague of mine once shared with his staff the mental health challenges he’d faced in his career. To be so vulnerable took bravery — the kind of bravery that saves lives, because it creates safe space for employees to share their own struggles, and potentially get help.
Overcoming systemic biases and stigma around mental health in the workplace is hard work. The Mental Health Commission of Canada says only one-quarter of Canadian workers feel comfortable talking to their boss about their psychological health.
“But it’s worth investing in,” says Greenshaw. “A harmonious workplace means greater ideas and business is going to prosper.”
Investments in workplace mental health have a positive effect on the wider community. Ultimately, there is no daylight between workplace health and community health.
Exciting developments in mental health interventions and diagnoses are on the horizon at the U of A, especially in the area of artificial intelligence. The goal is to make mental health investments more economical, which should allow you, as a business owner, to more easily reap the rewards of a happy, productive workforce.