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Worker stress costing economy billions, panel warns


An estimated 10% of the work force is suffering from depression, which often goes undiagnosed and untreated, a report by the Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health says.

VIRGINIA GALT, Workplace Reporter, Friday, July 21, 2000

Toronto -- E-mail overload, cutthroat office politics and longer work weeks are pushing some employees over the edge, costing the Canadian economy billions of dollars in lost productivity, a panel of business leaders warned yesterday.

The Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health said in a report that, at any given time, an estimated 10 per cent of the work force is suffering from depression, "a pervasive and treacherous illness" that often goes undiagnosed and untreated.

Employees are generally afraid to report mental health problems for fear of being stigmatized, the panel said, and employee assistance plans are underused because of "widespread employee fears of breakdowns in confidentiality."

Change has to come from the top, said former federal finance minister Michael Wilson, chairman of the mental health roundtable and newly appointed chief executive officer of RT Capital Management Inc. He said he knows of one high-profile CEO who boasts that he does not suffer from stress -- he causes it.

Mr. Wilson's reasons for volunteering to serve on the roundtable, formed two years ago, are deeply personal. His 29-year-old son, Cameron, a successful businessman who suffered from debilitating depression, committed suicide in 1995. But quite apart from the personal heartache, there are practical business reasons for improving the overall mental health of Canadians, he said at a news conference in Toronto.

"We live in an information economy, it's a brain-based economy, and a healthy mind is very important to the successful operation . . . of the economy," Mr. Wilson said.
Another roundtable member, Colum Bastable, CEO of Royal LePage Ltd., said employers who do not treat their workers well risk losing them to illness or to the competition. Problems with increased workload can often be eased by clearer communication about priorities, he said. "It's not rocket science."

In a climate of increased competitive pressures, the onus is on employers to create a culture where staff can seek confidential help with health problems, Mr. Bastable said. Bill Wilkerson, president of the roundtable and senior counsel with communications firm GPC Canada, said stress-related disorders cost the economy more than strikes, plant shutdowns or product defects.

"Depression is by far the leading cause of disability today. . . . We are also seeing people today working harder and longer, but not more productively," said Mr. Wilkerson, former CEO of insurer Liberty Health.

The roundtable is a volunteer organization of senior business executives and health professionals concerned about mental health issues, Mr. Wilkerson said. It does not receive government funding, but is associated with public institutions such as Hamilton's McMaster University. GPC Canada has donated office space and aims to give widespread distribution to the panel's first report, the result of 18 months of preparation and research by Mr. Wilson, Mr. Bastable, Mr. Wilkerson and psychiatrist Russell Joffe, dean of health sciences at McMaster.

With yesterday's report, the roundtable embarked on a public information campaign aimed at educating CEOs about the impact of stress on their workers. The panel outlined some of the steps employers can take to ease the pressure.

Early detection and referrals to treatment are key, Mr. Wilkerson said. If an employee complains that he or she is overworked, the boss should not respond by saying "join the club."

Increased volumes of E-mail, voice mail, and longer office hours are contributing heavily to stress levels, he said. Employers should install filtering devices on e-mail and voice mail systems to cut down on junk mail, said Mr. Wilkerson, who knows of people who delay going to work in the morning because "they don't want to see that blinking light."

The roundtable report said a principal cause of stress among employees is a "prolonged sense . . . of constant catchup, interruption and distraction. "Over time, such stress can trigger mental distress, which may further evolve to a medical condition among some. Individuals experience stress when they are forced to spend hours upon hours digging through electronic messages -- some trivial and some relevant to their work -- which build up overnight, during the day or even through the lunch break," the report said.

"E-mail, in this form, contributes to the 24-hour workday." The roundtable report also singles out "destructive office politics" as a major cause of stress. McMaster's Dr. Joffe said stress and depression -- "a disabling and deadly disease" -- are related. Depressed employees are less able to remember and concentrate, the quality of their work is affected, and they become pessimistic and without hope.

The economic costs of ignoring the disorder are high, the roundtable said in its report. "Depression costs the [Canadian and U.S.] economy $60-billion [U.S.] a year; more than half of that in lost productivity."


1. Too much or too little to do. The feeling of not contributing and lacking control.

2. Lack of two-way communication up and down.

3. Being unappreciated.

4. Inconsistent performance management processes. Employees get raises but no reviews, or get positive evaluation but are laid off afterward.

5. Career and job ambiguity. Things happen without the employee knowing why.

6. Unclear company direction and policies.

7. Mistrust. Vicious office politics disrupts positive behaviour.

8. Doubt. Employees are not sure what is happening, where things are headed.

9. Random interruptions.

10. The treadmill syndrome: Too much to do at once, requiring the 24-hour work day.


Source: Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health
Temps Walker
Sandwichman and Deconsultant
Quelle: /apc/labr/workweek

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