There’s a dictum among business journalists that media and communications companies are the worst at what they’re supposed to do best: communicate. On the issue of mental health in the workplace, that can’t be said of Canada’s largest telecommunications company. Two years ago, Bell Canada – with the strong backing of chief executive George Cope – launched its ground-breaking “Let’s Talk” campaign, part of a five-year, $50-million initiative designed to “enhance awareness, understanding and treatment” of mental illness through the funding of research and support projects. Cope made clear at the time that the issue had been starved of funding, and not just from government. The corporate sector had also ignored it, despite the fact that anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses have a massive and direct impact on workplace productivity and the economy at large. Heading up Bell’s initiative is Mary Deacon, former chief executive of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation in Toronto. Deacon has struggled with depression herself, and had two brothers who committed suicide at the hands of mental illness. Corporate Knights had a chance to chat with Deacon about an issue that, for many people and employers, hits very close to home:

CK: Why did Bell take on this issue?

DEACON: Because of the stigma around mental health and illness, it’s an area that hasn’t been championed in a significant way. The objective for us is to really raise the awareness, get people talking and hopefully, in doing so, make a difference in the lives of people because of the investments we are making in an area that is grossly underfunded. Given the business we’re in and the strength of the Bell brand, we can use that heft to get the conversation going, change attitudes, reduce stigma and, of course, lead by example in terms of our own workplace. It’s imperative to do that. It was the right thing to do.

CK: How significant is the impact of mental illness on workplace productivity?

DEACON: The stats are that mental health issues account for 30 per cent of short-term disability claims and 70 per cent of the costs.

CK: Why the disproportionately high costs?

DEACON: Typically the absence rates are longer, and there is a greater proportion of people who go off on short-term leave for mental health problems and end up on long-term disability. There’s a lot of evidence that shows that the isolation that comes when you’re on disability, and the things that lead to good mental health – like connections with other people, meaning in life, etc. – can be lost when you’re on disability. There’s a greater sense of isolation, and that can exacerbate the condition and lead to even longer absence. The research shows that the longer you’re off, the less likely you are to come back.

CK: And what of those people who don’t leave and try to struggle through it?

DEACON: There’s this other thing called presenteeism. It’s this notion of people being at work, but not being well. Canadians with depression report that they function at work at 62 per cent of capacity. So people with depression who are at work are claiming they are definitely not working up to snuff. But generally I describe people from four points of view: they’re well at work, they’re not well at work, they’re sick and off work, and they’re returning to work. You want to have programs around all four, because certainly it’s better for the company and the individual that if they’re well they stay well, or if they’re not well they get better before they need to go off.

CK: What kind of stresses at work can lead to mental health problems?

DEACON: There’s workload, deadlines, feeling undervalued, and lack of job satisfaction. The issue of control – the ability to have control over your work day – is an important one. So, too, is the idea of having to take on other people’s work, or shoulder more. Organizational culture is an important factor. People can be stressed when it’s not clear what’s expected of them. And then there’s the whole area of civility and respect, bullying, all that. But being stressed doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill.

CK: Does a company’s reputation – good or bad – have an impact on mental health? If an employer is viewed as an environmental laggard or is always being negatively portrayed in the media for being a bad apple, can this trigger stresses that can contribute to anxiety, depression or other conditions?

DEACON: I haven’t seen any literature that specifically talks about that, but if you work for a company either perceived to be one of the bad guys, or in fact is one of the bad guys – I would view tobacco companies that way – it would have an impact on how you would feel about the company and your sense of pride in your company, work, and what you’re contributing. We take home a paycheque, but what other psychic values do you get from your work? If you work for a company that does good or is perceived to be good, you’re going to take home some “feel good” points for doing something important and worthwhile. So it seems logical to me that the opposite would be true.

CK: An emerging area of study around mental health relates to the general anxiety felt about the state of the world. Issues such as climate change, environmental degradation, economic turmoil and social injustice – all of these at a macro-level can affect the mental health of the general population, and the Occupy movement may be one expression of this. Would you say that can be exacerbated in the workplace if an employer is perceived as being part of the problem?

DEACON: Definitely against the backdrop of the difficult economy, the fact that Mother Nature keeps reminding us who’s really in charge, and the role we have as humans in our environment and the health of our planet – fresh water, air to breathe, and all that stuff – that creates a level of underlying anxiety. It’s kind of like a layer cake. That is a layer, and you have other life problems – financial problems, death, divorce. Then you talk about working for a company you’re not proud of in terms of its contribution. These all layer on to create an even greater climate for stress. Is it worse now than when I was younger? I don’t know. What I love generally about people is that, in spite of everything, they still have children, they get married and they buy houses, and they love life, in the face of all this stuff.

CK: Of course, some people are better at coping with these stresses than others.

DEACON: There’s a homeless man that lives at the end of my street. He seems to sleep in the bank at the corner. He’s lived on my street as long as I have, which is about 10 years. Such resilience he shows. He’s part of the community – everybody gives him clothes and water. He is who he is. He seems content with his life. But, boy, it speaks to the resilience of humanity.

CK: Presumably, employers that help their employees be more resilient on an individual level benefit at the corporate level. Is this an uncharted path for employers?

DEACON: When we started the initiative and agreed right from the get-go that leading by example in the workplace had to be one of (our objectives), I thought I’d just go to the shelf and get ‘that book’ on how to implement mental health practices in the workplace. And it didn’t exist. So for those companies that want to do not only the right thing but a good thing and a beneficial thing for the corporation, the roadmap is not clear. There’s been a lot of work done in the last couple of years to help create a voluntary national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace, which I’m encouraged about. Will it be perfect? No. But it will have brought together all of the interested stakeholders with all of the diverse perspectives they have – whether it’s labour, big business, small business, public and private, academic – to create a framework that will provide for the first time a bit of a consensus.

CK: Curious, since mental health can affect workplace productivity and company performance so much, and on a broad scale has an impact on the economy, should we be factoring the mental health of nations into GDP?

DEACON: That’s an interesting question. The argument that’s been made for years is that if you have a healthy and psychologically safe workplace, then your disability numbers will come down so it will have an impact on GDP. The relapse rate will come down. The argument that’s been made over the years is that if you get it right it actually will impact your bottom line. From my perspective, I’m okay and happy with that positioning as being part of being good for business, because I believe it’s true, and I believe it will make it more likely that companies will do the things they need to do in order to create that environment. That’s because the payoff will be there in the end.