Ottawa develops workplace mental-health standards, but stops short of legislation

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/politics
Published Thursday, Jun. 16, 2011.   Erin Anderssen, Ottawa

A new Canadian-wide standard for employers to deal with mental health in the workplace will be released next year – though it will stop short of being a legislated requirement for companies.

The new standard – which will be developed by a federally funded committee of health-care professionals, government and labour representatives – will be voluntary for businesses. A 60-day public review process will be held in the fall.

The development of a national standard comes at a time when employers are under increasing legal pressure to provide healthy workplaces, even as the personal and financial cost of mental health rises in Canada. A report released in October found that over the past five years, damages awarded for workplace mental-health injuries have increased by 700 per cent.

“What that says is that the courts are now recognizing that conditions in the workplace can precipitate mental illness,” Senator Michael Kirby, chair of the Canadian Mental Health Commission, said in a statement Thursday. “And they’re finally recognizing that depression, anxiety, and burnout are not a normal part of the job.”

The standards are intended to lay out specific tools and guidelines for employers to assist workers struggling with illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Canadians miss more far more work days for personal reasons than American and British workers – the side effects and symptoms of stress are believed to be a key factor is rising absentee rates. A study by the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health suggested that half a million Canadians miss work each day because of mental-health issues.

Not even counting the severe personal toll on patients and families, that’s an expensive problem, costing the Canadian economy roughly $20-million in medical expenses and lost productivity. And the trend is increasing: By 2020, the World Health Organization has predicted that depression will become the second leading cause of disability globally, behind only heart disease.

And recent Canadian research has also shown that the mental and physical tolls often fall heaviest on the most successful employees in a company. In a national survey of Canadian workers conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental health, nearly one on five said their job was “highly stressful.”

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