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Bell Let’s Talk: Workplace stress levels double since 2009, report says

At this very moment, there are three million Canadians out there suffering from depression.

That’s one of the many sobering statistics available on Bell Canada’s website as the fourth annual Bell Let’s Talk Day kicked off Tuesday in support of mental health.

By now, we’re all familiar with the campaign and its high-profile spokeswoman (with mega-wattage smile), Olympian Clara Hughes.

The goal of the campaign is to reduce stigma of mental illness and raise awareness of its crippling effects on individuals, families, communities and the workplace.

Aside from the human costs, mental illness costs our national economy more than $52 billion a year, with the impact in lost labour-market participation estimated at $20.7 billion in 2012.

Morneau Shepell, a human-resources consulting firm, recently joined with Queen’s University to dig more deeply into the issue and found strong links between employee productivity and mental health.

The study analyzed data collected through Morneau Shepell’s national employee and family assistance programs. The company logs about 500,000 calls annually from clients’ employees and their family members. Of those, 400,000 cases are opened with 80,000 of those cases related directly to mental health.

Among employees who called the line, 40 per cent reported being in poor mental health.

The study found workplace stress levels have doubled since 2009, with the rising number of mental-health claims driven largely by reports of financial insecurity, job insecurity, global competition and corporate turbulence.

Our digital technology and access to communication tools such as mobile phones, video chat and texting may make it easy to get the help we need, but the study also found they push workers to feeling overloaded with information.

The study concludes with both good news and bad news.

First, the bad news: “Given financial stress incidents doubled in the last four years, current consumer debt levels and the likely increase in interest rates, it’s reasonable to assume that stress and anxiety levels will also increase,” study authors conclude.

On the other hand, there is evidence that remediation, such as taking time off work, early intervention and access to professional counselling, works.

Stepping up support in the workplace

The Mental Health Commission of Canada helped to design a national standard last year for companies, large and small, to voluntarily adopt with the aim of improving psychologically safe and healthy work environments for employees.

The standards encourages commitment, leadership and participation, and acts as a how-to guide to maintain confidentiality, establish a policy and planning process to implement the system, and understand the diverse needs of an organization’s population so they can be appropriately addressed.

So far, more than 16,000 copies of the standard have been downloaded.

Earlier this month, the commission, along with various partners, including the federal government, announced the launch of a three-year research project to encourage expansion of the workplace standard.

The project will track more than 30 workplaces across Canada as they adopt the standard. The aim is to learn how best systems can be rolled out and see how they can fit with various organizations, whether public, private, unionized or not.

Louise Bradley, commission president and CEO , said the standard aims to prevent mental injury, reduce absenteeism and support “a healthier, more competitive workforce.”

According to the commission, mental health remains the leading cause of workplace disability in Canada with an estimated 500,000 Canadians missing work every day because of some kind of mental-health issue.

Ultimately, we all need to do a better job making those who suffer mental illness feel comfortable enough to come forward to get help.

Hughes believes in a world where people won’t know there was once a time when depression and anxiety was met with fear and shame.

“People will know to call and where to go for help,” she said in a media interview.

Certainly, the conversation has started. Bell had recorded more than 1.2 million tweets on the subject by mid-day (EST) Tuesday. The company is donating $0.05 to every communication – including Twitter, Facebook shares, phone calls and texts -- made over the course of the day referencing the Bell Let’s Talk campaign to mental health initiatives.

“Finally learning to be proud of myself,” @Thisiskdsmith tweeted using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag.

“One day at a time.”