The need for a Corporate Wellness Program
The Phantom in the Room
An Ipsos Reid poll in 2013 found that nearly half of working Canadians considered their jobs to be the most stressful part of their lives. For those in managerial or administrative and professional occupations, the likelihood of being highly stressed increases significantly. When employees are stressed, all kinds of issues arise that effect not only their health and performance, but can erode team cohesion and negatively impact productivity. Mental health issues cost the Canadian economy $6 billion a year in lost productivity, mostly due to absenteeism and presenteeism. Presenteeism is when a worker is physically present, but is suffering with a malady that negatively affects his/her productivity.
Corporations develop strategies to increase profits, expand distribution, invest in technology, and to recruit the best people, but when it comes to maintaining the workplace, mental illness is the phantom in the room: ever present, invisible, and rarely talked about. Part of this is the stigma associated with mental illness and understanding what falls under the category of mental health. It is becoming clear, however, that people are more stressed out than ever, jobs are more demanding on our brains than ever, and as a result, we have an epidemic of mental illness that affects not only individuals, but the company’s bottom line.
It is clear that in today’s stressful corporate environment, investing in mental health is necessary to hedge against mental illness in the future and its associated costs and lost productivity. Workplace wellness programs are designed to prevent mental illness by relieving the pressure of work on our brains and to provide coping strategies for individuals who are taxed and needing to re-focus. Wellness programs are useful in not only preventing mental illness, but in empowering individuals to achieve greater results while fostering more trust, loyalty and team cohesion. Investing in mental health is investing in people with the long game in mind.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community.”
In Canada, corporations lose an average of 16 days productivity a year per employee due to stress, anxiety and depression related issues. The largest area of increase in long-term disability claims has been in mental health. In 2010, mental health issues were one of the top three causes for short and long-term disability claims made by more than 80% of Canadian employers. Probably the most profound stat is that 40% of worker turnover is due to stress on the job. Think of the associated costs to any company that fails to take mental health seriously. If these same stats were indicative of diabetes or heart disease, it would be an epidemic, and yet mental health in the workplace remains an afterthought, a mere ghost, until bodies go missing.
A Canadian Community Health Survey found that nearly one in three Canadians described their average day at work as stressful, and that the amount of stress correlated with the amount of income he/she earned. The same study determined that women were generally more stressed than men, while another study found that women (6%) were twice as likely as men (3%) to have experienced a depressive episode in the past year. In addition, employees with children are less likely to get a full night’s sleep thus affecting their ability to cope with stress. An American study found that Millennials and Gen Xers were the most stressed out generation of all.
When stress goes unchecked, it can lead to numerous issues: general unhappiness, anxiety, moodiness, poor listening skills, poor communication, difficulty managing life in general, unfinished tasks, failing to meet deadlines, anger issues, irritability, absenteeism, loss of motivation, loss of interest, decreased productivity, higher insurance costs, accidents, short & long term leaves of absences, an increase in workers compensation cases, and so on… All of these behaviours are toxic to the workplace and negatively impact productivity.
The signs are not always obvious and often require the expertise of a trained psychologist or mental health professional to recognize them early on. But when 62% of employees complain of neck pain at the end of their work day, 44% report eye-fatigue, and 34% struggle to get a good night’s sleep, it doesn’t take a psychologist to recognize that people are stretched to the point of exhaustion. Untreated fatigue will lead to increased anxiety and when this occurs, depression and mental illness are not too far behind. For corporations the aggregate of these numbers amounts to huge losses in productivity.
A 2014 study found that in Canada, half a million workers are absent each day due to mental health issues. Absenteeism is a common coping mechanism for people stressed out in the workplace. They take all their sick days, and then some, in an attempt to avoid what is hurting them. It could be work overload, a demanding boss, bullying from colleagues, a toxic relationship, or budget cutbacks that threaten an employee’s position and his/her sense of financial security and self-worth. Absence is a form of avoidance but avoidance never fixes anything. Anyone who has ever received counselling or any medical attention knows that being proactive is best. This is why women screen for breast cancer and men get their prostates checked, to find the potential for a problem before it occurs.
Another consequence of poor mental health is presenteeism, when employees show up but their state of mind affects the quality and quantity of their work, so that either they are not producing or they may even bring down those whom they are working with. A 2012 review by McIntyre, Liauw & Taylor in the Journal of Affective Disorders indicated that half of working individuals suffering with depression will not request a short-term leave at any point in their careers yet this same study asserts that a supportive work environment can go a long way in preventing episodes of depression from becoming a disability.
Stress in the workplace can also lead to substance abuse, eating issues, conflicts between colleagues, resentment towards management, and even stealing from the company. Alternately, employees may be dealing with issues in their private lives that spill into the workplace, like a family dispute, money concerns, spousal problems, or there could be an illness in the family, or poor health generally that affect one’s performance at work.
One in five Canadians in their lifetime will experience a mental health issue and this will invariably affect their work life. Investing in mental health now is preparing your team for the long-term future. Supervisors and managers and those in contradictory class locations experience more anxiety and depression due to a heavy workload, functioning within a large bureaucracy, and feeling unrecognized for their efforts. Highly educated employees are more prone to anxiety and depression because of the complexity of their jobs. The more driven, ambitious employees are susceptible due to a perfectionist attitude. When it comes to their mental health, a Canadian study shows clearly that those who access treatments demonstrate higher productivity than those who do not. When comparing two organizations where workers received treatment in one but not the other, the productivity losses to the organization that did not provide treatment were five-fold to the one who did.
The benefits of providing workplace wellness programs are clear. When mental illness is treated early and effectively, costly disability leaves can be avoided. Most programs are comparatively inexpensive, as low as $500 per individual per year, and they effectively reduce costs for healthcare while reducing losses due to absenteeism and poor productivity. Employees who are mentally fit can handle the stress of their jobs and are more resilient when it comes to assignments, criticism, or dealing with challenges, adversity, etc. Reduced stress also means less colds and flus, less substance abuse, better focus, attentiveness and concentration, an increase in productivity, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, reduced staff turnover and costs relating to recruitment, hiring and training, fewer employees on disability, better workplace morale, and higher job satisfaction. The adage that a happy employee is a productive employee holds true. Workplace wellness programs are an effective preventative against losses from mental illness.
Having said this, there remains the phantom, or stigma of mental health. Many are reluctant to talk about it and those with more severe issues have been stigmatized before. The first step to prevention is awareness through education and open discussion and dialogue. The second step is to find or design a program that fits your corporate culture. Programs range from group info sessions and conflict resolution to career coaching and individual counselling. When occupations make demands on our minds, it is always good to unload and unwind, because when one is in pain, they will spill onto others.
Wellness programs teach individuals how to deal with mood and anxiety with a wide range of strategies including diet and exercise and how to best organize one’s time. People in the corporate world spend a lot of their waking hours in that world. It is a second home, a place where they wish to do well and grow. Wellness programs encourage and cultivate ambition and concentration through various means, including meditation, yoga, exercise, and counselling. When one is focused, one can achieve.
Subjects that fall under mental wellness include how to deal with bullies, how to prevent burnout or stress from building up, how to build a solid team, how to resolve conflicts, and how to balance career and family. Wellness programs open the channels of communication between management and staff that lead to greater collegiality and team cohesion.
The stats are evident, the cost is measurable, and the solution is clear. Investing in the mental health of your employees is investing in the long-term stability and value of your company. Mental illness is no longer a phantom, but a signpost up ahead that is avoidable. You just have to recognize it. But the benefits are immeasurable.