From: Issue 40

Mind Matters Q&A

17 September, 2012

North America’s fourth-largest telecommunication services company is determined to shine a light on the long-ignored issue of workplace mental health

Written by Tyler Hamilton, Editor-In-Chief

Illustration by Jon Krause

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?

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