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Mental health new workplace concern

Armen Hareyan's picture

Most of us think the most common reason for losing time at the office is the annual flu or cold. But an increasingly predominant workplace health issue is actually mental illnesses such as depression, stress or substance abuse.

"There is a lot of information on the impact of employee stress and depression on organizations today," said Professor Angela Hildyard, vice-president (human resources and equity). "This isn't a U of T trend; this is a 2007 North American trend."

The Canadian Mental Health Association says that five of the top 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental disorders; the organization estimates that about 2.5 million Canadian adults, or more than 10 per cent of those 18 and older, will have a depressive disorder.

Hildyard said the Family and Employee Assistance Program (FEAP), to which the university subscribes, is seeing increases in the numbers of employees and their families using these specialized counselling services to address issues of depression and stress.

"Many employers are very concerned about the numbers of employees who are off work due to some form of stress and related mental health issues," but she noted that U of T is well situated to deal with this increasingly complex issue.

"We are certainly looking at a variety of ways to help individuals such as utilizing the expertise of the family care office and accessing FEAP. As well, we are one of the very few academic institutions in Canada to have a quality of work life office."

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The mental health challenges facing such a decentralized and massive university are many, Hildyard said, and support isn't just about accommodating the person afflicted with illness; it's also about helping the employee's colleagues who may have to adapt to an absence in the office and then adapt again when that employee returns.

"If someone has been off with a broken arm you can see that person getting better but when a co-worker is off due to stress you often don't know how to talk to them or even ask if they are feeling OK without feeling intrusive and awkward."

In such a situation, the university could bring in a FEAP counsellor for advice on sensitive staff communications as an employee makes the transition back to working.

One key to dealing with mental health issues is raising awareness. The highly successful poster campaign produced by Student Affairs two years ago that showed actual U of T students functioning on campus despite physical and mental disabilities set the stage for this.

"Mental illness is one of those taboo subjects in society, yet all of a sudden this campaign enabled others on campus to reckon that if these students could identify themselves so bravely then maybe they could too," she said. Organizations everywhere are finding that people are willing to talk about their problems like never before, so mental illness is becoming less of a stigma in the workplace.

Hildyard said the university will continue to search for exemplary practices from across North America and look for policies and procedures in a very global sense that will help employees deal with these issues.

"We must continue to ask the question, What would I want a leading-edge employer to do for me if I got ill? What would I expect that employer to do for my child if he or she became ill?"