FIRMS IN CANADA’S financial services sector need to pay more attention to reporting data on mental health and wellness in the workplace, according to a new study by the Vancouver-based Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE), which works with institutional investors to analyze responsible investment practices in this country.

The business case for strong workplace health and safety practices – good management of these issues can have a positive impact on a company’s performance – rings true for both physical and mental health, says Kevin Thomas, director of shareholder engagement with SHARE in the organization’s Toronto office.

“[Mental health issues] cost the economy and individual companies massive amounts of money in lost time and productivity every day,” he says, adding that mental health problems are at the core of high employee absenteeism rates and both short- and long-term disability claims.

The study notes that developing corporate and mental health policies and practices can help to drive long-term shareholder value.

“Every day, we have half a million people who call in sick due to mental health problems,” says Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) in Ottawa.

In SHARE’s study of the public disclosure of 25 Canadian financial services firms listed in the S&P/TSX capped financial index, the study found that more than half (56%) boasted of having published policies that address some aspect of psychological health and safety.

However, just one firm publishes a policy that demonstrates a comprehensive approach to psychological health and safety matters, according to SHARE’s study. Most policies address only bullying and harassment.

Furthermore, corporate disclosure regarding whether a company offers mental health training for managers – helping them to develop an understanding of the issue and to spot behaviours that threaten psychological health and safety, for example – was missing for, again, all but one of the firms examined.

In addition, none of the companies studied reported absenteeism rates despite the fact that these figures are a strong indicator of employees’ mental health – and are directly relevant to company performance, says Thomas.

In fact, he adds, human resources measurements such as absenteeism rates, workforce turnover and how much training is available and accessed by employees tells investors much about the financial viability of a company.

“A lot of investors are starting to look for these human capital metrics to know how a company is looking at its workforce and developing its workforce,” he says.

Thomas points out that these findings don’t mean the companies analyzed don’t offer the components of a solid workplace mental health wellness plan – they’re just not sharing their efforts publicly. And without this information, the report on the study concludes, investors don’t know if a company’s management is dealing with the issue effectively.

There are two factors holding companies back from reporting on their management of workplace mental health, Thomas says: tradition and stigma.

Companies traditionally haven’t reported on these elements because no one has asked them to do so. But, says Thomas, this tradition should change as institutional investors (and financial services companies, which, he points out, tend to be leaders in effective corporate governance) lead the charge to ensure that firms are accountable for their employees’ mental health.

As for the stigma associated with mental health problems, that, too, is changing – thanks to a cultural shift: Canadians are starting to recognize the prevalence of mental health problems among our population.

“It puzzles me,” says Bradley, referring to the shame associated with mental health problems. “There’s not one person who has not been impacted by a mental health problem – whether it’s a family member, a friend, a neighbour or a work colleague – yet, [mental health issues] still are shrouded in secrecy and fear.”

She asks how we can expect to tackle mental health crises in other areas of our lives, such as with our children, if we don’t address the issue openly at work.

To help companies devise strategies for dealing with mental health in the workplace, MHCC has created a National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Launched in 2013, the standard is a voluntary set of guidelines, tools and resources focused on promoting employee psychological health (and preventing psychological harm) in the workplace.

Companies are encouraged to use the standard, along with its accompanying guide, to develop and implement policies that address mental health issues, according to Bradley.

However, not all firms are flailing when it comes to promoting mental health wellness initiatives. Great-West Life Assurance Co. of Winnipeg (GWL) and its fellow subsidiaries, Toronto-based Canada Life Assurance Co. and London, Ont.-based London Life Insurance Co., of Winnipeg-based Great-West Lifeco Inc. were among the first organizations to commit to working toward the standard. GWL is involved in the three-year pilot project undertaken by the MHCC to study the efficacy of implementing the standard within a workplace.

GWL also provides manager and staff training, and confidential counselling services, to help to support psychological health, says Cathy Weaver, GWL’s vice president, human resources. As well, the firm offers Managing Mental Health Matters – an online program that walks employees (specifically, managers) through various workplace scenarios that highlight mental health issues that may arise at work.

Moreover, GWL employees can sign up for an email service that offers reminders and activity suggestions for work breaks that help to support good mental health, says Weaver. Finally, the company has piloted a free online resource, Guarding Minds @ Work, that helps employers understand which areas of mental health management might need extra attention in their specific workplace situations. This tool is available to anyone online.

It’s critical that companies recognize the need to work toward psychological health and safety, says Mary Ann Baynton, program director, GWL’s Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, which oversees these programs.

Tackling the issue of mental health head-on will reduce regulatory and legal risks and costs, Baynton says, adding that a “perfect legal storm” is looming, as financial rewards for damages caused by mental injury at work have increased in frequency and amount over the past several years.

Furthermore, attention to mental health will improve organizational performance. Baynton notes that the lost productivity costs related directly to mental health issues range from $14 billion to $50 billion a year, depending upon the study cited.

There are so many free resources available to Canadian companies now, Thomas says, that there’s no excuse for companies to ignore or hide their mental health-improvement measures.

Thomas hopes that the momentum will increase and create a more open environment for including mental health initiatives in the analysis of a company’s value for shareholders.

Study shows there’s work to be done

A recent study by the Shareholder Association for Research and Education into the public disclosure by 25 Canadian financial services firms regarding the management of psychological and health issues reached mixed conclusions. Some firms are leaders in addressing mental health matters, and share this with the public. Many other firms, however, report little about their approach to the issue.

The study’s findings included:

– 60% of firms studied offer employee programs that assist with mental health issues;

– 24% have a board or senior management committee in place with responsibility for oversight of health and safety of employees;

– 4% offer manager training, which includes psychological health and safety matters;

– 40% conduct some form of employee-engagement survey, which may be a good means of identifying gaps or needs in the workforce;

– 32% report on their voluntary workforce turnover, a critical measure of the success of the company’s employee retention and advancement programs. – wendy cuthbert

© 2015 Investment Executive. All rights reserved.