Is Mental Illness the “Last Taboo”?

​I had the opportunity to meet with many of our Canadian members during the 47th An​nual Canadian Employee Benefits Conference in Calgary this past August. I wanted to find out how organizations are dealing with mental health issues among the workforce.​

The consensus—There has been some progress, but there’s still misunderstanding and a stigma attached to mental illness. One person called it the “last taboo” during our conversation. This stigma prevents people who are suffering from talking about it, and privacy concerns keep employers, unions and co-workers from asking.


Everyone agrees—Mental health is health care. We all have a responsibility to address the issue, whether it’s in the workplace, in our family or in our social circle. It’s a human issue.

In the workplace, mental illness adversely impacts how co-workers get along and adds to costs for extended health and prescription drug benefits. Other problems include absenteeism, more short- and long-term disability claims, loss of productivity and safety concerns.

What are organizations doing to help workers? Common approaches include:

  • Access to a member/employee assistance plan for both workers and their families
  • Psychological counseling sessions (though many told us not enough sessions are covered under a typical plan)
  • Wellness programs with a mental health component (be it questions asked during a health risk assessment, opportunities to practice meditation or yoga, or stress management tips)
  • Substance abuse benefits
  • Education via lunch-and-learns, newsletter articles, books and videos
  • Awareness campaigns with information posted at job sites, on websites and on pay stubs
  • Referrals to community services.

Some of the members we talked with are having success with newer approaches. Many of these more recent efforts involve more quickly and correctly identifying those who are struggling so they can get the help they need. Efforts include:

  • Partnering with a hospital and its clinicians to better treat mental illness
  • Coordinating peer-to-peer counseling (For more details on this innovative approach, look for the “What’s Working” column in the forthcoming January/February 2015 issue of Plans & Trusts.)
  • Providing training to supervisors to better recognize and help workers with mental health and substance abuse issues
  • Holding Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other substance abuse program meetings at the worksite
  • Offering mental health first-aid training that teaches individuals how to help others who are developing a mental illness or are in crisis.

There’s a general sense among those we spoke with that the door is cracking open to let light shine on the issue. Sad occurrences like the death of Robin Williams—his passing occurred during the conference—lead to the crack widening. There’s a long way to go, but let’s at least have the conversation.


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