Healthy employees good for business
Helen Henderson
BALANCE: Bill Wilkerson is promoting the Mental Health Works project.
Mike Harris is resigning to spend more time with his family. Michael Wilson is also promoting the Mental Health Works Project.
Looks like Mike Harris may have picked up on one of life's biggest non-secrets: Neither money nor power can buy happiness.

By publicly admitting his life lacks balance and handing over the helm to others eager to set the course for Ontario, Harris may be sending one of the most positive messages ever to emanate from the provincial Premier's office.

A little far-fetched, you think? Not if you're talking mental health, the bedrock of a sound society, says Bill Wilkerson.

`Canadians with disabilities are not damaged goods'



Wilkerson, head of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, has been eloquently and succinctly making the case for balance between the personal and the professional for three years. Last week, he helped launch a new initiative to get employers to give mental health issues the recognition they deserve.

The latest project, Mental Health Works, is looking for companies willing to help build and pilot-test a package of management tools designed to create healthier, more productive workplaces. That means cutting costs associated with lost productivity, burnout, absenteeism and disability insurance claims.

"In the post-Sept. 11 economy, mental health is the ultimate productivity weapon," Wilkerson argues.

Unless managers recognize that people and mental health are their biggest assets, he says, they will be left with an army of walking wounded employees still going through the motions, but so burdened with emotional stress and depression that their ability to function is impaired.

Mental Health Works is a group effort supported by the Ontario division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, the provincial government and the Roundtable team, whose principals include Wilkerson, former head of insurance giant Liberty Health, and former federal finance minister Michael Wilson, now president of Brinson Canada, which manages some $31 billion in pension assets. Wilson, who lost a son to severe depression, has been an active public champion of mental health issues.

The facts put forward by the Roundtable make a persuasive case for business to pay attention. Among other things, they note:

  • Mental illness claims, primarily related to depression, are rising at the fastest rate among major categories of disability insurance.

  • If only half of employees got the help they need to conquer depression, Canadian businesses could save up to $7 billion in prescription drugs and wage replacement costs over 5 years.

  • Every single year, mental health problems cost Canada's economy $16 billion in lost productivity.

  • Unless action is taken, by 2020, depression will become the biggest source of lost work days in developed countries.

That's the big picture. Mental Health Works aims to help companies recognize and address these issues, thus reducing the stigma attached to mental health problems in the workplace and reducing workplace barriers for people coping with mental health problems.

Giant steelmaker Dofasco has already signed on, Wilkerson says. As the project progresses, he hopes a whole range of business and labour groups will join the effort.

Among early converts to the Roundtable cause was Hershell Ezrin, head of the federal unity office under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, chief of staff to former Ontario premier David Peterson and now head of Government Policy Consultants (GPC International).

"The cost recovery arguments are indisputable," Wilkerson says.

In addition to productivity issues, there's growing evidence linking mental and physical health.

"There's a definite link between depression and cardiovascular disease, also respiratory problems," says Wilkerson.

Mental health is a very individual matter, involving different issues for different people, he says. But you can bet the ranch that promoting a healthy work environment goes way beyond instituting "casual Fridays."

Last year, the Roundtable group released a 12-step business plan to defeat depression, including a list of stress-busters. Among suggestions:

  • Give employees a clear idea of what's expected of them.

  • Trust people to do their job, giving them control over their own work.

  • Practise inclusion. (When workers feel isolated, when they don't get information, stress levels skyrocket.)

  • Share the credit as well as the workload.

Breaking down the stigma for employees coping with clinical depression or other serious disorders is also smart business, Wilkerson argues.

When someone returns to work after a heart attack, most companies recognize that a full workload should be approached in stages, he says. The same principles should apply for someone recovering from depression.

"Canadians with disabilities are not damaged goods,'' he says. "They are achievers of a rare sort.

"The achievement of recovery from, and living with, the disabling effects of illness, injury or accident of birth doesn't disqualify a person, it qualifies them to do good, productive and exceptional work, obstacles or not."

For more information on Mental Health Works and the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, log on to, e-mail , write 200 King St. W., Suite 1702, Toronto, Ont. M5H 3T4, or phone 416-598-0055.