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Mental health in the workplace: How to avoid the next Titanic

By Alain Thériault | February 20 2014 07:21PM

With the wind in its sails and the market booming, a company thinks that it is unsinkable. But it is not ready to deal with its staff’s health problems. Costs explode and the firm does not have the wherewithal to cope. A group benefits advisor can save this company from foundering and educate others before they end up in a similar situation.At the Insurance and Investment Convention in Montreal late last year, Marie-Thérèse Dugré, the CEO of Solareh, discussed the role advisors play in group insurance. In her opinion, they should be the client’s partner in the quest to become a truly healthy business. “Mental health issues account for 30 to 50 per cent of absences from work,” she notes.

The group advisor can be a part of the solution if he can adjust his message to suit his client’s profile. Clearly identifying this profile will allow him to focus his energies on the clients who are most likely to put a plan in place and focus on workplace health.

Dugré draws up a list of three company profiles, each corresponding to a type of captain, good and bad alike. The purpose of this exercise is to show that there are three levels on the ladder that leads to a full awareness of health issues in the workplace.

Captain Edward Smith commanded the Titanic, a ship everyone believed to be unsinkable. Its builders had therefore decided it was unnecessary to equip it with a sufficient number of lifeboats. Neither the captain nor the staff were prepared for a shipwreck that was considered unlikely. The result was that when the Titanic hit an iceberg, more than 1500 died.

Then there is the commander of the Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, who had a beautiful, fully-equipped cruise liner. He and his staff were well-prepared in case of disaster. “But when the cruise ship hit a reef near the Italian coast, the captain abandoned ship,” points out Dugré. The result was that 32 people died. The renegade captain is currently on trial for several charges, including manslaughter and environmental damage.

More heroic is the airplane pilot Sully Sullenburger who miraculously landed an aircraft on the Hudson River without a hitch, saving all passengers. “He knew the problem, took control of the situation, and he managed it properly,” she says.

The moral of this story? “Some employers have the desire, but not the tools to manage the company’s health costs. Others wash their hands of the problem. Finally, there are companies that are aware of their problems, want to do something, and are taking steps to get there. Do not waste your time with the second type of customer. The third is the ideal client, while the first, the captain of the Titanic, is a good prospect because he wants to do something to get out of the situation,” explains Ms. Dugré.

The advisor should promote awareness among the “Captain Smith” types of businesses, presenting ways to reduce costs that are not limited to reducing the company’s benefits. “Being the client’s partner is reading the experience data, over and above what the figures tell us. If it has deteriorated, it is not just a matter of quantifying the deterioration, but knowing how it came about,” she says.

The company must be aware that there is a direct link between health and efficiency, explains Dugré. “Psychological health is a powerful performance lever for businesses, since healthy employees have an increased ability to adapt.” By promoting mental health in the workplace, the company can improve its ability to meet the challenges of its market environment on its own. “The more healthful the management practices, the more employees will give the company,” she adds.

“Do not forget that 93% of employers admit that there is a link between employee health and business performance. So this is the area you must work on, and propose solutions aimed at maintaining or increasing workers’ health.”

Two case studies

Two cases illustrate how a group benefits advisor was able to see beyond the numbers. The first involved an analysis of the number of drug claims (antidepressants, anti-anxiety, hypnotics, and psychotropic drugs) usually prescribed for mental issues. The figures show an increased use of medication, which suggests there are more people who are in psychological distress.

In this business which employs 67 people, 85% of the claims came from employees and the rest from management. For the most part, the claimants were women, and they tended to be young.

Dugré points out that youth aged 19 to 28 years are having more and more problems with psychological distress and difficulties adapting to workplace demands. “In this workplace, approximately 15 per cent of employees in this age group take drugs to treat psychological problems,” she reports. In addition, the company does not offer short-term disability insurance. Employees must rely on Employment Insurance coverage for 17 weeks.

The company singles out three cases in which people have been absent for 17 weeks for psychological reasons: two women aged 38 and 42 years, and a man aged 27. One woman has been away for a long period due to psychological issues. “We see that the state of the company’s mental health is starting to become a concern,” she said.

The advisor digs deeper and asks the employer if the causes of this deterioration could be found inside the company. The three absentees, do they work in the same department? This could mean there is a problem in this section. Have they experienced changes in supervisors, colleagues, services, or computer systems? Have there been inter-personal conflicts or harassment complaints?

“Basically, is there a malaise that is pushing people into absence or the need for medication? Is there any information circulating about the absent employees or people who have connections to them? With these questions, we obtain information that is not necessarily recorded in the medical report,” explains Dugré.

At the same time, the advisor should reassure the client. “Often, the employer will be on the defensive to these questions.” In her practice, she has observed that employers are quick to dismiss the employees’ issues as personal ones. “He will have a hard time applying self-analysis, but he will also be afraid of being blamed in terms of his legal responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace for his employees. In short, he will feel guilty. Tell him that you are there to help him understand and not to blame him.”

Then move on to solutions. “Is there a health and well-being policy, or a policy against psychological harassment in workplace? There should be one. If not, help your client to establish one,” recommends Dugré.

On a more positive note, the second case involves a company where the costs for psychological counselling have gone up, but the costs related to drug use have gone down. Again, the advisor should make the connections. “Can we say that the decrease in drug costs is due to the rising cost of psychologists? If that is the case, this is good news,” she says.

The analysis of this case study reveals that the company is already aware of the importance of having a healthy workplace. In fact, the client has established a training program for managers on time and stress management. In addition, the employer has promoted work-life balance for its employees by offering, among other things, flexible hours.

Managers at this firm were also trained on how to detect employees’ mental health issues at an early stage. They learned how to start a conversation with employees and supply them with good resources. “This is why the cost of psychological counselling had increased,” believes Dugré.

Overall, the managers learned that mental health problems do not disappear with time. They also learned how to identify and act on them. Employees in this company felt they were recognized as persons, not just as producers.

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