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Making Headway on Mental Health

With levels of on the job stress building, it’s important to adopt an awareness strategy and provide support for employees in the workplace

By: Stéphanie Myner-Nham, Chief Human Resources Officer,  Express Scripts Canada

By age 40, about 50 per cent of the population will have had a mental illness. What’s more, approximately eight per cent of Canadians are likely to experience one major episode of depression in their lifetime. Tragically, almost half of those who have revealed they’ve suffered from depression and anxiety also admitted they did not seek help.

Construction is one of the most stressful industries. According to Statistics Canada, 33 per cent of labourers involved in skilled trades report poor mental health. Stress leads to anxiety, mood disorders and depression. Seasonal unemployment, long hours and exhaustion (all common in construction work) can trigger mental health issues, which, if left untreated, can have life-altering consequences.

Unfortunately, many workers go undiagnosed and untreated, placing the construction industry at the top of a list of male-dominated occupations at risk for suicide, along with mining and extraction workers. The construction industry is the second leading cause of death for men, with the highest rates occurring between the ages of 40 and 59.

A study in The Lancet medical journal similarly found that suicide rates in the construction industry were three to seven times higher than the national average.


The construction industry has been doing a great deal to address the lack of mental health support but there’s still a long way to go. According to a report by the Conference Board of Canada, only 39 per cent of the country’s surveyed employers have implemented a mental health strategy, and the construction industry is one of the laggards.

Employers in the health, education, finance, insurance and real estate, public administration and utilities sectors are more likely to have implemented a mental health strategy. Those in traditionally male-dominated industries like transportation and warehousing, manufacturing, construction and natural resources are less likely to have done so.

Businesses that have not implemented a strategy reported this was due to: limited financial resources, human resources or time (56 per cent); a lack of knowledge about how to address mental health (32 per cent); mental health strategies are not a legal or legislative requirement (23 per cent); and mental health is not an issue in their workplace (31 per cent).

Of course, the culture that exists in most construction companies doesn’t lend itself to talking about feelings, and many construction workers pride themselves on being tough, which prevents them from admitting there’s a problem and seeking help. A key obstacle to removing stigma from mental health is finding ways to communicate about such topics to normalize the discussion.

Human resources departments have a key role in demonstrating that employers are sensitive to workers’ mental health needs. They can encourage this conversation by driving it and providing information to employees that can shift assumptions about how their employer regards mental health.

A big deterrent to seeking assistance for mental health issues at work is the perception the employee is weak and unable to cope with on the job demands. The employee may be fearful of managers knowing about their condition and deeming them unworthy of a promotion. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, only 23 per cent of Canadian workers feel comfortable talking to their employers about their mental illness for fear of facing discrimination or dismissal.

If managers feel comfortable sharing their own experience of mental illness, or that of someone in their family or among their peers, this openness can help move the conversation forward. At the very least, it communicates an understanding of the issues and the employer’s willingness to accommodate any mental health conditions that may occur.


Successful implementation of a mental health strategy in the workplace starts with open discussion. Ensuring people feel comfortable talking about their stress helps them develop strategies to cope with it. Discuss issues like stress management in meetings. Employees’ emotional state has a big impact on their productivity and overall life satisfaction, so managers should stress the importance of self-care and living a healthy lifestyle, and direct employees to resources and support that is available to them. Providing assistance and encouragement to employees will not only save on costs but, more importantly, help them to better adhere to their medications and live healthier.

Next, help employees detect mental health issues early. Many problems go undetected, which causes people to suffer in silence. Expressing thoughts like, ‘I don’t feel like myself today,’ should be met with understanding and further action on the part of managers. Encourage employees to access free online screening tools and provide in-service training with mental health professionals. Statistics show most people will seek treatment once they recognize they may have a problem. Many group insurers now also offer health and wellness apps and tools to further support employers’ efforts in helping employees live healthier lives.

If an employee admits to a mental health issue, support their efforts to get help. Ensure the employee can get to therapy once a week during work hours and provide the workforce with an employee assistance program. With treatment, 65 to 80 per cent of individuals with mental illness see improvements, so it’s important to make sure employees are encouraged seek the help they need.


For people with mental health issues, pharmacists can be an invaluable first line of support, education and information. In the case of workers who may be reticent or uncomfortable speaking directly to doctors, pharmacists can offer knowledgeable advice about commonly prescribed drugs, including the importance of maintaining adherence. If an employee has made the decision with their doctor and pharmacist to start an antidepressant medication, it is important to be patient as almost all take four to six weeks to start working. It is also imperative to take antidepressants for the fully prescribed duration, typically up to six months after the symptoms of depression have been resolved, to make sure the problem has been eradicated.

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Express Scripts Canada