Mental Illness in the Workplace

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health estimates that mental health conditions are responsible for approximately 30% of all disability claims and 70% of the associated plan costs.

Employers dealing with these costs—and the related lost productivity—are understandably focused on getting employees who are dealing with mental health issues back to work as quickly as possible, in a suitable state to fulfill their duties. Achieving this requires three crucial elements: early identification and diagnosis of mental health concerns; an effective treatment plan; and a return-to-work strategy that enables the employee to gradually ease back into work life.

Identification and diagnosis
According to research published in the Journal of American Medicine, an estimated 40% of mental health-related cases are misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed, resulting in incorrect or insufficient treatment. Further, more than 50% of cases do not receive treatment at all. This is disturbing when you consider the impact that psychological illness can have on an individual’s ability to function, both in and out of the workplace. Clearly, the ability to identify a psychological illness early is paramount.

Those in supervisory roles who are in close contact with employees on a daily basis can come to understand their employees’ unique personality traits. With appropriate training, supervisors are ideally positioned to identify changes in employee behaviour that may signal the onset of mental health concerns. A properly trained supervisor can also effectively separate workplace issues such as harassment from those with psychological roots (e.g., a clinical mental illness, such as depression).

For example, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, between 2% and 3% of Canadians may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), though many may not realize it. A trained supervisor may recognize that an employee with a high number of absences in January and February—and who lacks concentration and misses deadlines during the winter months—may be affected by SAD. That employee could then be prompted to seek appropriate care, begin treatment and return to a fully functioning state.

Treatment plan
Treatment is another key component in effective psychological claims management. It is often left to the family physician to identify problems and initiate treatment while waiting for a formal appointment with a specialist. Too often, this means losing precious time through suboptimal prescriptions or inappropriate treatment. Employers should include wording in their benefits plan booklets to ensure that a specialist diagnosis is required for mental illness claims.

Back-to-work strategy
Effective diagnosis and treatment are essential to understanding an employee’s psychological and cognitive capabilities and how they align with the demands of a particular job. This understanding can help an employer to develop an effective transitional back-to-work plan. An individual who is recovering from an episode of depression, for example, may have a decreased ability to concentrate. A progressive, time-limited back-to-work plan—which could include short, specific tasks with written step-by-step instructions for each—and an environment with minimal disruptions can help the employee work his or her way back into a regular routine.

Mental health issues will likely remain a key concern for workplace productivity and claims management. However, the implementation of a pragmatic approach to identification, treatment and recovery can help to minimize the long-term effects and improve outcomes for employees and employers alike.