Mental Health and the Workplace

Mental health claims are the fastest growing category of disability costs in Canada. They account for an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the disability claims recorded by Canada’s major insurers and employers. Three-quarters of employers say mental health issues are the leading cause of short and long-term disability claims in their organization.


The modern usage of the term “stress” originated in Canada just over 50 years ago. Dr. Hans Selye (1907-1982), the first director of the Université de Montréal’s Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery, first coined the term. Dr. Selye, the internationally acknowledged founder of the stress field, was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada for his groundbreaking research. He identified two kinds of stress: good stress, which contributes to wellness; and bad stress, which contributes to disease and sickness.

The right kind of stress energizes and motivates employees. The wrong kind leads to absenteeism, disability, staff turnover and low productivity. This destructive type of stress is of growing concern to employers.

Pressure is unavoidable in workplaces. Stress can be negative when the demands and pressures of the job do not match an employee’s abilities, where the employee has little control or support from others.

Employees under stress can show a wide range of symptoms; for example: irritability, poor concentration and decision-making, fatigue, heart disease, digestive problems, high blood pressure or back pain.  They may develop addictions. Stress can compromise the immune system, making a person more prone to infections and communicable illnesses, and can trigger depression.

Workplaces that value job satisfaction, support work-life balance, and encourage a friendly, supportive culture have fewer problems related to stress.


Depression is expected to rank second only to heart disease as the leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020. It is also a major cause of death and serious injury — most people who commit or attempt suicide are suffering from depression. Only one in every three people suffering from depression seeks proper treatment. For those who do, the success rate is very high. Today’s medications and therapies can help between 80 and 90 percent of those with clinical depression.

Depression affects one-tenth of the population, including one-tenth of all employees. Depressive disorders account for 30 to 40 percent of all medical plan dollars paid for mental illness. While its root causes may not necessarily be work-related, its effects certainly are — lower productivity, replacement costs and disability payments. It is clearly in the employer’s interest to identify and address depression at the earliest possible stage.

Depression is not usually resolved at home. More often, the workplace plays a key role in detection and referral for treatment. Most depressed employees try to hide their problem due to shame, stigmatization, and fears of being fired or reprimanded.

The symptoms of depression vary widely from person to person. An employee may become withdrawn or seem “down.” Irritability, lack of enthusiasm, fatigue or substance abuse may also point to depression. Effects on work can include: problems with decision-making and concentration, lower productivity, more errors and accidents, and an increase in absenteeism.

If you think a co-worker may be suffering from depression, show respect and support. On a confidential basis, urge them to talk to their physician, an on-site occupational health nurse or an employee assistance professional, who can refer them to the right kind of treatment.

Taking Action

Members of the Université Laval Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Management have studied the organizational dimensions that can help prevent work-related mental health problems. They have developed a prevention kit entitled Mental Health at Work: From Defining to Solving the Problem. This excellent tool helps employers and employees understand mental health issues, and offers guidance on policies and programs to address mental health issues.