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Stress, Mental Health and Workforce Productivity

Keynote speech to the INK+BEYOND Conference on May 29th, 2014 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island by Alan Torrie, President and Chief Executive Officer of Morneau Shepell.

Good afternoon, everyone, it’s really a pleasure to be here on the Island again, and I’m very grateful for the invitation to your conference.

Looking at PEI, it’s such a beautiful province and it really makes me wonder why some people in Canada want to annex Turks and Caicos. But then if you turn to page 17 in that lovely book the Guardian gave us, you’ll see a picture of what it’s like in the winter here in Canada – it’s perhaps a reminder. Nonetheless we’re very fortunate to be in such lovely surroundings.

I was invited to speak about something that is consuming plenty of ink these days – real ink...but also digital, video and social media ink. I’m talking really about the relationship between stress, mental health and the workplace – and very specifically, the impact of stress on workforce productivity in Canada today.

The first thing I did after receiving your invitation was to take a look at the conference agenda. I was especially interested in what topics you were covering and who was speaking.

I must admit that I found doing this quite intimidating as I noticed that I was the only non-media related person speaking to a room full of experts… Would I have to divulge my sources? Would everything I say be recorded? And would the topic of Brain Health fit with the rest of your agenda.

The second thing I did was head to the internet to learn a bit more about you and your industry.

Here’s what I learned,

Your industry is under tsunomic change:

  • Technology – the digitization of information and knowledge
  • Internet – accelerating the speed of communication and competition
  • Printed vs. cyber words – threatening tradition

Lots of change and as I read on the news for you in journalism – and I don’t expect this to come as a surprise – is that when it comes to stress, you guys are…well, let’s call a spade a spade…you really do have something to be concerned about.

I dug a little deeper.

I found a recent survey on stress levels in various careers, conducted in Canada by a company based in the UK, journalism finished in the top ten: it seems you work in the fourth-most stressful career out there, based on factors such as levels of physical and emotional stress, salary and job satisfaction.

You finished right behind pilots, and just ahead of firefighters. Now, in both of those careers, lives are always on the line. It’s also true that in some countries – too many countries unfortunately – every day journalists put their lives on the line in the service of truth.

But the problem is a little different in Canada…so I kept digging.

A few weeks ago, my company, Morneau Shepell, held its annual shareholders meeting in Halifax. After the meeting, I talked to a few reporters who wanted to interview me about our company.  I wanted to go directly to the source so I took the opportunity to do my own interview of a journalist to prepare for today, and I asked her one question. What’s it like to have your job?

Here’s what she told me I love it but it’s stressful:

Unrelenting deadline pressure –

  • The hard work of getting to the truth, then standing behind it.
  • And the pressure of having your work scrutinized by thousands of people – or millions – where your reputation and your publication’s reputation are at stake every day.

Major stressors – for sure. Certainly more than I deal with in my job.

And there was also the big stuff in the background: the business context of journalism, which is what this conference is all about.

Technology – or innovation generally – in the wild world of the digital economy and the Internet – it’s changing many things about your business, and some are stressful to deal with.

I think you all know this better than I do; the forces of innovation have taken a hammer to the business model that pays for the editorial that is so essential in our democratic society. So, where is the money going to come from? The money to pay reporters, editors and the people who make your business work every day?

And so, other pressures start to mount, like:

  • Do I – or my people – have the right skills to function in the changing media and news landscape?
  • Is my organization or newsroom going to be downsized – or right-sized – or whatever they call it – yet again?
  • Who might I have to let go next?
  • Will my own job be here tomorrow?

And that’s not the end of it – that’s just the work part.

Like all Canadians, you have pressures away from work as well.

  • Financial – the debt levels of Canadians keep rising.
  • Demographics – The middle class is sandwiched between worries over aging parents and Millennials struggling to get out the door.

The speed of change – it seems that in every aspect of modern life, things are getting faster and faster. Technology is mainly the cause, and there’s an upside to speed. But truthfully, there is only so much we can cope with – or accomplish – in any given day.

And there are other factors also that produce huge amounts of stress – changing family structures, marital discord, and longer life spans, to name just a few.

You worry – we all worry – at times.

  • Will I have enough to retire on?
  • Am I and my family adequately covered to be looked after for my health needs?
  • And, if I encounter issues along the way – say, an illness, physical or psychological, or both – will there be support to help me and my family cope while I get back on my feet?

For those of you in management which I noticed from the registration list is most of you, especially, you really have to look at stress in your organization in order to help your people manage it better – not just to protect their health.

It’s simply good business: to compete today we really need a healthy, engaged and productive workforce.

So I became more comfortable with being on your agenda. The truth is that when it comes to mental health in the workplace, the profile of your industry is very similar to that of the workforce in general where anxiety, stress, depression and addiction have become a leading reason for absence and loss of productivity.

And that story has several dimensions I would like to explore with you in more detail. Before I do that, let me tell you a little about my company, and how and why we’re talking about this topic.

Morneau Shepell is a Canadian company and largest provider of Human Resources consulting and outsourcing services in Canada, and a market leader in North America. We’re a fair-sized company, with annual revenues of approximately $500 million and some 3,500 employees.

We provide solutions in three areas that are essential to the functioning of every organization and the people within them.

Very quickly,

Health and Benefits – with solutions like:

  • Absence and Disability Management
  • Health and Benefits planning and design
  • Employee and Family Assistance Programs
  • Organizational Health Solutions

Administrative Outsourcing – in areas like:

  • Pension Plans
  • Health Benefits Plans
  • Employee Savings Plans

Retirement and Pensions – which includes:

  • Pensions and Actuarial Consulting and
  • Asset and Risk Management

We therefore employ actuaries and social workers and psychologists. A unique combination under one roof.

Really, there’s a simple logic that drives our company.

Business. Needs. People.

We listen to our clients to understand and then respond to their needs with solutions that make their business more successful.      

At the same time, we understand the complex needs of people – the blend of the personal and professional, the emotional and the logical – that affect workplace culture and productivity.

Our solutions are designed to meet the needs of the business – our clients – and their people – for the benefit of both.

So, in the past six years, we’ve tripled the size of our revenues and doubled the number of employees we have. And our services are in demand.

So – every day – we see many things – the good, bad and the ugly – under the surface of many organizations, large and small, across the total Canadian economy, in the private and public sectors.

What we have seen leads us to believe that when it comes to people and their productivity at work, because of stress-related problems the situation is getting worse, not better.

Look at the big picture for a minute.

In this area of the public debate – national productivity – Canada just isn’t keeping pace with the world. In fact, we’re stagnating.

It’s a very old story on the editorial pages and in our think tanks. But, even so, it’s still remarkable. High productivity, really, should be a natural outcome of Canada being the leader among OECD member countries in adults completing post-secondary education. But it isn’t.

Where is the disconnect here?

For a generation or more now, we’ve heard that productivity is mainly about investment – in technology.

But there is a new angle to the story that may tell us something important about the problem and the solution, too. And that is the connection between productivity and stress that I mentioned.

The fact is, the levels of stress and anxiety experienced by all Canadians in the workplace are increasing. The question we need to ask is, and the challenge we need to tackle is, what does this mean in terms of social and economic costs? More importantly: what does it mean in human terms – for Canadian workers suffering the effects of poor mental health?

The answers should make us all sit up and take notice.

The data tells us, there is a strong correlation between high stress levels and poor productivity.

80 per cent of Canadian employers say mental health is one of the top drivers of disability claims. In fact it’s 30 per cent of those claims. As a result, today mental health problems and illnesses account for more than $6 billion a year in lost productivity in Canada, with absenteeism a key factor.

Now, if you have a workplace culture that is, in effect, making people sick, or contributing to mental illness, you really need to appreciate the full human and business implications of that.

  1. Lost productivity hurts your ability to compete. It makes your business weaker.
  2. A toxic workplace culture will ultimately hurt your ability to hire – and retain – top talent. People won’t want to work for or join your team. And that too will affect how you compete.
  3. Think of the costs as I mentioned. When someone goes on long-term disability until they’re 65, the costs can run up to $1 million or more. So there is the priority – the moral imperative – of helping vulnerable people to get back on their feet at work. And how can they do that if it means working in an environment that makes them sick? Surely, if we can take Asbestos out of the workplace we can put good brain health in.
  4. In every business or sector, another challenge that leaders face today is this: how can I unlock the creativity and collaborative potential of all my people? In effect, can I create and sustain a culture of high performers?

It raises another important question: how can you make stress work for your organization – not against it?

The reality is, stress isn’t going away – certainly not in journalism or in any other business. In fact, it can be a positive force in organizational life and productivity. I’m talking here about good stress, the kind that pushes you to excel, to take your game to the next level, to maintain a level of excitement and focus – like when you push towards a deadline for an important story.

That’s different than bad stress – the kind where people are upset or distracted by office politics, by an abusive boss, or by abusive colleagues or corporate burn-out, where people are running at 110 per cent of their capacity with no recovery time.

The analogy I use is to an Olympic athlete. Knowing how to use stress to improve your performance is critical. But so is knowing how to recover, to get the right rest and when. So you need to understand and know precisely what type of stress you are encouraging – or managing – in your organization.

All of these factors create a complex mix of dynamics, challenges and possibilities. Some help, but some hurt the goal of productivity. But how we deal with these factors, these forces – as a country, as leaders in business, as individuals – will affect our prosperity in the future.

Why this topic is timely is that Morneau Shepell recently worked with Queen’s University to validate our findings on employee stress.

At the heart of the review by a Queen’s research team, was an analysis of our own database. This database holds all the information we have as the largest provider of Employee Assistance Programs in Canada.

What Queen’s said was, it’s the most robust source of this type of data available in Canada today. Our database for these programs is built on the inputs of employees (and their dependents) from over 8,000 client organizations. Our programs reach into the lives of some five million Canadians. One seventh of the population. Big numbers.

And that translates every year into:

  • some 500,000+ calls that come into our counsellors in one year
  • Almost 400,000 new cases that are opened as a result
  • And a large number of those cases – about 140,000 - relate to mental health.

This is what we’ve learned,

If you consider financial, personal and workplace stress, the percentage of cases has almost doubled.

And that is evident in rising mental-health claims and the cost of absenteeism among Canadian workers.

More worrisome, given the competitive pressures in the Canadian workplace, employee stress is likely to get worse before it gets better.

At the same time, the review provides insights into how organizations can be more effective in managing – and mitigating – the effects of stress and anxiety.

So let’s dig deeper –

1. Against a 2009 baseline, stress levels have almost doubled in the past five years.
Looking back five years, you see:

  • a significant increase in workplace stress
  • a doubling of cases from financial stress
  • and a tripling of incidents from personal stress

2. Stress levels are consistent across industry sectors, but within each sector there is high variability among companies – variability among different locations within companies.

You would think certain industries are more prone to workplace stress. The data suggests otherwise.

A good example relates to workplace violence and harassment.

Without naming names – or calling out one sector over another – the study reveals that in terms of workplace violence and harassment, there is a median of 2.4 incidents per 100 employees. This is pretty consistent across all sectors.

However, some companies showed a rate that’s five or six times higher than the median. A significant deviation. What to make of this?

What if you knew that one of your offices or locations had incidents of workplace violence and harassment that were six times higher than the average? You would definitely look closer at that location and try to figure out what’s causing that.

3. Geography isn’t a factor.

It stands to reason that, in a region that is hurting economically, the stress levels should be higher. Or, in a place where people are stretched too thin, like the oil patch, stress might be higher.

But the closer we looked at the data, the more it became apparent that the real difference was between company locations that just happened to be in different geographies.

Put another way, if you blame geography, you blame something you can’t change unless you move. But if the real problem is then at a particular location in a particular company, then you might be able to look closely at that situation and change what’s happening.

4. Among the 500,000 calls we get every year – I can’t believe this sometimes – 40 per cent of people report being in fair to poor mental health.

I am talking about 500,000 calls into our contact centre – which is truly our front line – from which we derive the figure of almost 400,000 new cases being opened every year.

And in those calls, 200,000 Canadian employees and their family members report having poor to fair mental health.

Some might say, it’s an Employee Assistance Program, of course everyone’s mental health is suffering – that’s why they’re calling in. Not true. People call into these programs for many reasons – getting help for an elderly parent, a physical injury, financial advice, a problem with child care.

This 40 per cent number covers ALL the calls we get for every presenting issue, not just those that are opened as mental health cases.

The point in tracking a number like 40 per cent is this: wouldn’t you want to know what the number is, and whether, over time, if it is increasing or decreasing in your own organization?

5. Employee stress is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Think about the rise in Canadian consumer debt levels in the past decade. Let’s correlate that with the fact that, over the past four years, our study shows a doubling of financial stress.
Now, think about the current outlook for interest rates, which are likely to rise at some point – right?

Three years from today – with interest rates higher, likely – and knowing what we know about financial stress in the past four years, where do you think stress and anxiety levels are headed?

Higher, it is very reasonable to assume.

6. Technology is a double-edged factor in workforce stress.

How so? Let’s start with the positive.

The 20-29 age group – as you would expect – is twice as likely to access an employee assistance program through digital means than any other group. And the number of people accessing in that age group in our database more than doubled last year. That’s a good thing.

The usage of these programs from mobile devices has increased.

We’ve also seen an increase in e-based counselling – with more than 1,000 people every month making use of these types of services.

At the same time, digital technology – and devices – introduce new variables of clinical interest for researchers in mental health.

Information overload is only the most well-known problem. But, let’s face it: technology is not going away.

Try to imagine a journalist without Internet access – without a network, search engines, websites.


But all that screen time – no question – does come with a cost that we believe relates to stress.

And managing that will become increasingly important.

7. Remediation – or early intervention – works.

This may seem obvious.

Let’s look at several indicators related to the metric of “time off work” that someone takes.

The following is based on the review by Queen’s on a selection of our cases for a variety of areas, and on the questionnaire given to these individuals before and after they had counselling.

Addiction –  The people with this presenting issue said, before counselling, they would take 26 days off work. But with counselling, the told us they would take off 2.7 days.

For those with couple relationship issues – 29.7 days off work before counselling. After counselling: 16.1 days.

Personal emotional issues – 54.2 days off work before, compared to 41 days after.

In terms of Stress in the workplace – people in the selection of these cases said before counselling they would take 50.2 days off work. And post counselling: 33.7.

On this subject, we have more recent data based on a survey of all our EFAP cases from 2013. It, too, points to the benefits of early intervention and interaction with counsellors. Our survey shows that more than half of the individuals who reached out to the EFAP for help last year would have lost time from work without counselling.

And of those who would have lost time from work, more than half told us they would have been off the job for more than 20 days.

Everything we’re seeing and hearing points in the direction that remediation helps.

What can you take away from all of this?

Here are five things to think about:

1. We all need to pause and consider – then deal with the fact that there is still a significant stigma in the workplace around mental health issues of any kind.

When your job is to be effective, if you were to come forward and say you’re not effective because of an issue you can’t see or touch… that’s not likely helping your career. In fact it’s probably doing the opposite in today’s world. So there’s an aversion to doing this and that’s normal.

But you can’t address or remediate something if you don’t know about it. And so, if you’re a leader or manager in your business, you need to help people feel comfortable coming forward.

The irony is that the only way some people can increase productivity is by acknowledging they might have to decrease it in the short term.

2. You owe it to your organization to dive deeper into the issues in your workforce by getting better company-specific data.

You have to recognize that every workforce is different and our data supports that. So relying on company-specific data is really important.

We maintain the absolute confidentiality of all individual EFAP cases. We know the importance, however, of the overall patterns of issues facing the employees of our client organizations. And we share that information with them.

3. If you haven’t already, you need to start the dialogue with your leaders in your organization on these issues.

If you’re working at a larger or mid-size company, I am talking about the leadership group. Start seeking out better data and understand it. And this is not something that can happen in an hour-long meeting. This is a dynamic process that – over time – involves moving new metrics onto your dashboard.

If you have a smaller organization – even a very small one – you can take a closer look at the type of employee benefits you offer – all with an eye to providing services that support wellness to improve mental health and reduce employee stress.

As leaders in your organizations, it’s up to you to act on the reality that people today have many different sources of stress to deal with. It’s not our job to interfere in their personal lives.

But we can see how stress manifests in the work habits of our people, identifying who is suffering, and help them get the help they need.

4. You have to believe that remediation really does work.

Remediation is the fancy word in my business for early intervention. Let’s take a richer view of what that means.

For the people who are suffering from stress and anxiety – who are troubled – and not talking about it – we need to encourage them to come forward and get help as early as possible.

For the managers in your businesses, you need to intervene earlier here too. You need to be proactive in providing them with training so they can identify and help people who are suffering get help.

The researchers of the review at Queen’s believe most supervisors in Canadian organizations have not received sufficient training to be competent in how they address the challenge of managing or assisting workers who may be showing signs of mental illness. At Morneau Shepell, in fact, we have developed a leadership training program to address this gap in professional development.

Finally, at the enterprise or corporate level, you can apply data and analytics better. And this comes back to the challenge of getting company-specific data that tells you – in a timely way – what is really happening in your world.

5. Last but not least. You can learn more about Canada’s new voluntary standards on workplace mental health.

Okay, for those of you who don’t know, Canada’s new voluntary standard on workplace mental health and safety came out last year. It’s built on the logic of environmental, health and safety systems, except expanded and applied to the area of mental health.

Think of it – in part – as an early warning system to prevent stress-related issues in the workplace and to help identify people who need help. But it’s more than that. It’s a strategy for helping organizations mitigate workplace stress issues in an enlightened, systemic and effective way – especially in helping vulnerable people get the help they need in the safest way possible.

In my company, we were proud to have our experts participate in this multi-stakeholder initiative to develop the new standard alongside the federal government. We have high hopes for its widespread adoption.

For those of you new to the standard, I encourage you to learn more and understand it’s applicability in your business or organization.

So, in closing;

Clearly, the conversation needs to intensify in Canada around stress, mental health and our productivity as a country.

Creating awareness is an important and critical catalyst.

For that to happen – the media – like the people in this room – have a big role: to work with experts to learn more and then report on what is actually happening in the Canadian workplace. And that’s one reason I’m here today. Our experts are regularly in touch with journalists, helping with stories, with research.

Also, given the nature of our business, we are often on the scene with counsellors in situations where there’s trauma and suffering, some of it overwhelming. The Lac Megantic train explosion, the Calgary floods, or the numerous bank robberies that happen across Canada every month are examples that come to mind.

So finally, as important as the larger conversation is about Canada’s future as a productive competitor in the global economy, I really would like to end on the human outcome that should count the most: healthier people contributing to a productive workplace.

The young reporter I interviewed in Halifax a couple of weeks ago was very young. She was healthy, enthusiastic and productively committed to her profession. Let’s keep her that way.

Thank you very much.