08/01/2012 07:33 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT

How to Handle Mental Illness in the Workplace

I'm not an economist for a reason; I hate numbers and all things relating to math hence why I took journalism in college but everywhere you go; it seems like everybody is talking about just how fragile the economy is. Like it or not, the economy is something we should all be concerned about. I'm most concerned about the toll the economy is taking on those with mental health difficulties.

It appears as if The Conference Board of Canada shares my concerns. In a recent analysis it says mental illness will cost the Canadian economy $20.7 billion this year and that number is expected to rise 1.9 per cent and reach a staggering $29.1 billion decrease in Canada's gross domestic product by 2030. According to the analysis this alarming figure does not include the cost of health care, and insurance/benefit costs.

What concerns me in this report is that the Board of Canada says over 452,000 Canadians would be actively involved in the workforce had they not been affected by mental illness. What can employers do to ensure they can get as much productivity out of their staff as possible even when they're experiencing personal challenges?

I talked a bit about this subject in my previous posting "When Mental Illness and Work Don't Mix" but I'd like to expand on this and what I think employers can do within the workplace to ensure employees with mental health difficulties take as little time off as possible.

Talk To Your Employees

With the amount of stigma surrounding mental illness people are scared to reveal they have mental illness; and they're also really good at covering it up. Now I understand there may be legal issues surrounding blatantly asking employees about their health (that includes mental health). However, with statistics showing approximately one in five Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime. That almost guarantees a batch of your employees has, currently, or will experience some sort of mental health difficulty. Make it known that you are against stigma and have an open door policy should an employee want to make it known to you that they live with mental illness and what the company can do to help accommodate them.

Identify General Triggers

Even people who don't live with mental illness can experience the symptoms of mental illness such as anxiety or depression. Identify certain things in your workplace that could trigger such feelings and consult with your staff about things that worry them or spark emotion in the workplace. For example, it could be a drop in labour hours, new management, or even a high volume of customers at any given time. These things happen whether we like it or not but what can the employer do to lessen the impact of the emotions employees feel when these things happen? The answer is probably a lot more simple then you think.

Benefits Are Cheaper Then Lost Labour

I know first hand how expensive it is to train new employees. It is certainly not guaranteed those new employees will give the same commitment you're likely receiving from the employee living with mental illness. It seems like the majority of employers only offer benefits to full-time employees while others offer them to both full and part-time employees. Sure it may cost the company to extend these benefits to all employees; but just think of how much additional money it will cost the company if an employee has to take a leave of absence due to mental illness. Offering ongoing confidential counseling services may allow the employee to continue working while dealing with their mental illness without taking time off.

Force Your Employees To Take Entitled Vacation

I've spoken with several human resources executives and they've told me one solution that works for their company is forcing employees to take off vacation time they've incurred over the years. What a lot of people don't think of is that you're mental health can impact your workplace performance negatively. I usually advocate for employees to stay in the workplace while trying to improve their mental health. But if you have paid time off; why not take it? The executives I've talked to say they'll offer employees a financial incentive if it means they take time off. One executive told me his company will actually cut an employee's bonus should they not take their allotted vacation. What I'm trying to say is employer's rather see their employees take an earned week or two away from the office then seeing them take months or even years off to deal with their mental health.

I recently heard somebody say "There's no health without mental health" and that is true. What's also true is our economy cannot afford to lose billions of dollars when its possible we could spend considerably less to achieve a result that's healthy for both our minds and our wallets.