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Canada’s transition to a knowledge economy could suffer if business doesn’t take mental health seriously

Conservative estimates place the economic impact of poor employee mental health at $50 billion a year

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One of the first things advertising executive Natacha Brind’Amour does each week is check on the mental wellbeing of the company’s 130 employees.

Brind’Amour, vice-president of people and culture at Montreal-based Sharethrough Inc., opens Officevibe, a computer program she uses to send out an anonymous, five-question survey every Monday morning that tracks the staff’s mood. The survey predates the onslaught of COVID-19, but when everyone was forced to trade their desks for kitchen tables, she began paying more attention to the results.

“If the metric is going down, we need to come up with some (solutions), such as bringing in someone to showcase … how to incorporate meditations in day-to-day life or reduce workloads,” Brind’Amour said.

The return on newly implemented mental health strategies was $1.62 for every dollar invested

The pandemic is compelling more and more companies to take action when it comes to their employees’ mental health, as more than a year of cyclical lockdowns have led to undeniable symptoms of extreme exhaustion and burnout. Brind’Amour’s approach reflects a growing recognition on the part of bosses that an emphasis on wellbeing is more than a side benefit for employees, but that it also stimulates productivity and growth.

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“For us to be competitive, we have to have a workforce that is productive and engaged,” Jacques Goulet, president at Toronto-based Sun Life Financial Inc. said in an interview. “A workforce that is productive and engaged is a workforce that needs to be mentally healthy.”

The business case to mitigate conditions such as anxiety, burnout, and depression is strong. Conservative estimates place the economic impact of poor employee mental health at $50 billion annually, which is more than twice what Canadian companies tend to spend on in-house research and development each year. A report by Deloitte in 2019 said, on average, 30 to 40 per cent of short-term disability claims are for issues related to mental health. The study put the annual price tag for absenteeism and “presenteeism,” a term used to describe working while unwell, at $6.3 billion in lost productivity.

A greater emphasis on mental health isn’t only beneficial for the economy and society. Research suggests that it also will help companies’ bottom lines. The Deloitte report found that of the companies surveyed, the return on newly implemented mental health strategies was $1.62 for every dollar invested. For plans that were at least three years old, the return was $2.18.

“I don’t want my people to burnout so we try to do everything on the front end of this so that they don’t get there,” said Nicolas Marcoux, who leads the Canadian operations of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, the global accounting and consulting firm.

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The pandemic exposed gaps that existed at organizations that hadn’t taken mental health seriously. A critical mass of people reached “the end of their rope,” said Joe Blomeley, vice-president of mental health at Green Shield Canada, an insurance provider.

Facing a gloomy winter, nearly half of Canadians considered leaving their jobs due to Zoom fatigue, increased isolation, and nonstop work emails, according to the Hays Salary Guide, an annual report on hiring trends published by Hays PLC, a British recruiting firm. More than half of the employers covered by the survey said they did nothing for employee wellness and/or mental health.

“Industries aren’t built to be like militaries,” Mark Barrenechea, the chief executive of Open Text Corp., one of Canada’s biggest software companies, said in an interview. “You learn in the military that you (can) have prolonged crises. You aren’t taught in industry how to go one, two, or three years in this kind of work position,” he added. “I don’t think it’s all about turning the email off on Friday. It’s more fundamental than that.”

That’s part of the reason why growing mental health burdens, especially in the tech sector, are front of mind for Barrenechea. As the pandemic dragged on, the Waterloo, Ont.-based company hired a nutritionist, added a “fitness guru,” and expanded its benefits packages to include daycare coverage and mental-health services, he said.

As companies look forward to a post-pandemic future, and the government pushes to harness intangible assets such as individuals’ know-how to drive economic growth, focusing on mental health will be all the more important, said Dr. Taslim Alani-Verjee, a psychologist who helps organizations develop mental-health strategies.

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Alani-Verjee said existing policies to address workers’ mental health pale in comparison to protocols related to physical health and workplace safety that have been around for decades. Wellbeing is, “not just about, are you lifting a box over your head, or are there sharp objects lying around,” she said.

If Canada is to successfully transition to a knowledge-based economy, business needs to think about fostering a workplace culture that’s free of harassment, bullying and disrespecting boundaries, Alani-Verjee said. They should focus on fostering collaboration and teamwork, because the labour market “is no longer (about) that repetitive movement of your body, but it’s about a repetitive movement of the mind.”

At Sharethrough, the company responded to the crisis with new​ measures such as no-Zoom Thursdays to combat video-meeting fatigue, free weekly yoga and workout classes, and even an $840 stipend for wellness-related expenses like retreats. These were designed with everyone in mind.

However, the weekly survey, which Brind’Amour monitors closely, allows her to respond quickly and come up with personalized fixes. If she notices the wellness metric for one team is tracking lower than normal, she’ll initiate a discussion with the manager to come up with solutions. That could involve hiring external consultants to lighten the workload, instructing the manager to remind employees to take advantage of their health benefits, or even involve the team members to find unique remedies.

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The extra attention is paying off. Productivity has surged 13 per cent since employees last gathered in the office back in March 2020. “When you care about someone, they care back,” Brind’Amour said.

It’s not simply an issue for individual employers; government also has a role to play, Alani-Verjee said. The latest federal budget outlines the Liberals’ goals to invest a combined $212 million over several years to various mental health initiatives that she said barely scratch the surface. “When I think about the way our government supports physical health,” she said, “we still don’t do that for mental health. There are still not accessible mental-health services that are paid for by the government.”

If businesses don’t fix up, they’ll likely face a reckoning of constant turnover and stifled productivity, said Blomeley, the VP at Green Shield.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Brind’Amour made sure managers were well versed in identifying signs of declining mental health, especially in a remote work setting, and how to respond appropriately. At PwC, staffers are encouraged to tell their superiors that they won’t work past 5 p.m. The company has also instituted “inclusion networks” for various minorities to gather and have “authentic conversations,” said Marcoux.

To be sure, though, even the most callous bosses could be forced to do something; that, or be left chronically understaffed. The latest entrants into the workforce, millennials and Gen Z’ers, who also happen to be more open about and prioritize mental health themselves, will “vote with their feet,” said Blomeley.

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In-depth reporting on the innovation economy from The Logic, brought to you in partnership with the Financial Post.

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